The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter One

The Gods Are Always At The Gates / Chapter One

- CHAPTER ONE -

 

Greedy flames the color of ash licked and chewed on everything. Phil’s legs were already cramping but he forced them higher on the pole, further from the fire. He tried clamping his hands over his ears and shutting his eyes tight, but it only made the spinning worse. At once, his hands found their grip on the splintered edges of the timber and his eyelids snapped open. His teeth and lips clenched then pealed in matched sympathy as if to double the effort.

Below, swimming languidly through the flames, unaffected, were the three hideous creatures that had chased him up the pole. They were bipedal horrors, a rough mockery of humanity with leathery sagging flesh. Their mouths gaped, crammed overly full of chipped, cracked, and needle-sharp teeth. Mewling and moaning, they gawked up at him with saucer-large lidless eyes that shimmered like fire opals.

“Philip… Come back down here.”

“No one’s gonna hurt you Phil. Honest. Evert was just trying to help.”

“Phil, please. Come on down.”

God, how did they know his name?

“You son of a bitch!” one of them shrieked, “Get down here right now. You just wait ‘til I get my hands on you, you bastard!”

“Paul! Stop it, you’re gonna scare him worse.”

He was going to die tonight; he knew it in his heart even if his brain was still trying to find a way out.

Slowly circling his perch, they returned to their soft cajoling, one of them even lapsed into gentle mournful sobs that chilled him to the bone.

“We’re here for you, Phil, and we’re not leaving until you come down.”

“You can’t stay up there forever.”

“I’m sorry I yelled, Phil. Come on back down and we’ll have a nice chat. We just want to talk.”

“Please…” another burbled softly, then suddenly shrieked “Goddammit, Phil!” It began thrashing and smacking at the pole in what Phil could only imagine as impossible bottomless hunger, its emaciated body, flailing about, sagging tits bobbing madcap, independent of each other.

He couldn’t help but imagine their teeth neatly stripping the flesh from his fingers, crunching their tiny bones—

Phil clamped one hand over his mouth, forcing the bile back down and directed his imagination away from what might happen to him if the beasts managed to get their claws into him. Filthy claws caked with dirt and no doubt offal from previous victims—

A warbling trill cut the reverie short and silenced the ghouls below. It came softly at first but grew louder with every passing second, a manic banshee wail split the evening air, screaming out of the starlit sky.

His stomach turned to a stone in his guts. From where he was, Phil could see the source of the sound. The creature moved through the forest with incredible speed and liquid smoothness, roaring and screaming and shrieking all at once. It was invisible but for its blazing eyes slashing blue and white arcs through the trees. Phil paled further at the thought of how many different mouths it might have to make all that noise— and of the teeth that filled them.

The ghouls collected together and huddled near Phil's old Victorian, which stubbornly remained despite being enwreathed in the gray flames that coated the ground. They jabbered conspiratorially in hushed voices, occasionally sneaking a glance back up at him over hunched shoulders.

The beast slowed and ceased its wailing as it passed into the clearing around his property. Phil could see it in detail now, a hideous insect, bristling with antennae and metallic smooth chitin. The gape of its maw was guarded by a pair of blunt folded mandibles. Dozens of electric blue eyes flashed and arced around maniacally, looking for prey, while two blinding white ones remained locked ahead, intensely waiting for something to snap up and grind to paste in its black hole of a mouth. It slowed, then stopped a short distance from his front walkway.

To Phil's horror two more white eyes amid the cluster of blue ones burned to life and began sweeping the ground and trees in opposite directions. One of its eyes swept across the roof of his house, while the other penetrated the nearby trees. In its wake, the monster's gaze left wide swaths of the gray flames renewed and vigorous. A single eye swung up from his house and struck him like a physical force. The flames were on him immediately chewing and burning and digging into his flesh.

Phil screamed and slapped at his exposed arms and face. He felt his skin crisp and tighten. His balance failed and he began to tumble from the pole. Scratching and scrambling he managed to catch himself by a thigh and a hand on two of the line man's foot holds driven into the pole's sides near the top.

Mercifully the creature averted its gaze.

His arms ached and his legs hissed with pain. Philip could feel his heart pounding in his ears as he climbed unsteadily back to the top of his perch.

Below him the insect made a sickly noise like a melon splitting. Its head cracked open on either side disgorging two more ghouls with sagging flesh. These two were younger when compared to the trio that had chased him up the pole— or better fed. Their skin clung more closely to the muscle and bone beneath, not as limp and shriveled. Different too was that their color patterns matched, almost identical, save for height and that one had a black face and the other, white.

The tall black-faced one stalked closer to the pole and gazed up at him smiling. Its teeth were perfect, neat rows of pearl white, stark in comparison to its face. "Phil," the voice came out smooth and thick like malt, "you okay up there? I'm sorry Mazzy startled you with the spots."

Mazzy, the name struck a chord in him, a tickle of familiarity fluttered beneath the panic and terror.

There was a long moment of silence before the black one spoke again, "Phil, do you want to talk about maybe coming down here? We've got some blankets and we can wrap you up nice and warm, maybe get you inside and get some coffee into you."

“Or, you know, some pants,” said White,

Black gave no indication that he’d heard. “You got Carol awfully worried down here, Phil. Why don’t you come on down?”

Phil tried to speak but his words choked in his throat, coming out in a gag. He swallowed and tried again, “I’m not coming down! You’ll just eat me!”

“Eat you?!” said White, lips peeling back to show straight, yellow stained teeth.

Black just looked down at White, opal eyes deforming in a glare. It slowly looked back up at him and answered, “No one’s going to eat you, Phil. We just want you to be safe. And naked up a pole isn’t terribly safe.”

Phil looked down at himself and for the first time took notice of his nakedness. As if the ignorance had been a talisman against the chill night air he began to shiver.

“Come on now, Phil,” said Black, “if you think you can use those pegs to come most of the way down Mazzy and I will catch you.” Black looked down at White… no… Mazzy. Black looked down at Mazzy and jerked his head back toward the inert beetle they’d arrived in.

Phil watched Mazzy stalk to the back, tear open a panel of carapace, then pull out a heavy thick bundle that clanked and clattered. He lugged it over, ghoulish arm thrown out wide to counterbalance the weight and set it down at Black’s feet.

“Sheriff, you want me to set up the net behind the pole?”

“Sure. You set it up while I keep talking him down.” Black rumbled to Mazzy. “Hear that, Phil? Mazzy’s gonna set up the net to catch you, just behind you there, so hang tight.”

Phil glanced warily at the ghouls huddled on the porch. They had kept their distance since the screaming night beetle scuttled up to his property and disgorged its occupants, but the tallest of them, face covered in mangy stubble, was just slipping out from inside the house. The screen door closed silently behind him and he rejoined the pair that still stood motionless. Though the hag did not turn to her companion she tilted her head and spoke sidelong and too quietly for Phil to hear a word of it. Mange glared up at him, eyes shimmering with foxfire and spoke into her cocked ear. The look made Phil’s stomach twist another knot.

On the ground below, Mazzy worked quickly pulling long pipes from the bag that gleamed in the gray flames around them. He fitted them together and slipped long sections through heavy cloth made of the same course fabric as the bag.

Sheriff was talking again. His voice was so deep it could almost be felt vibrating in Phil’s own chest, “How’d you get up that pole anyway Phil? Those lineman’s posts have gotta be a good fifteen or twenty feet off the ground.”

Phil watched, mesmerized, as Mazzy assemble a taut net with spider-like surety and quickness.

“Phil?”

His voice was thick, words slushing through his lips, as fatigue set in now that the adrenaline had all been expended. He was too worn to be terrified anymore, “Don’know. Jus’ remember running from—” he swallowed the nausea as he remembered regaining consciousness next to the hag, teeth inches from his throat. “Jus’ had to get away. Everything else was down there with them,” he jerked his chin toward the porch, “or on fire.”

“Yeah? I gotta tell you Phil, I think I’d like to have seen that. Not to be insensitive to your current position, but I’ll wager we’re gonna need to call up Doc Houser after your trip up that pole naked as you are.”

Phil shivered more violently listening to Sheriff go on while watching Mazzy drag a now fully assembled mesh of black webbing with cords as thick as a pair of fingers across.

“Phil? You still with me?” his voice calm but with a hint of caution as if talking to a spooked animal

“Huh? Oh, yeah… I’m listening.”

“Oh good. I thought you might have been changed your mind about coming down off that pole.”

The second step up to the porch groaned in protest as the hag set her crooked foot on it and Phil’s heart jacked in his mouth, threatening to explode. “NO! Stay back you BITCH,” he spat.

“Phil…” she croaked and stepped down another stair.

The ghouls called Sheriff and Mazzy moved with predatory swiftness. Mazzy throwing his hands up in warning at the hag descending the stairs and Sheriff sliding into place behind Mazzy, his eyes never leaving Phil on his perch.

“Stop!” Mazzy shouted, steel in his voice.

“Phil…” Sheriff warned with practiced authority, “You watch me. I told you we just want to make sure you’re safe. Now I don’t know why Carol and your friends scare the hell out of you but we’re not gonna let anything bad happen to you.”

“No! I’m not coming down. You’re like one o’ them. You just wanna eat me!”

“Phil, you gotta come down buddy, you’re not thinking clearly. No one’s gonna eat you. Now if you don’t come down from there I’m gonna have to tranq you and I don’t wanna do that.”

The pod on the stairs shrieked in unison, “You’re gonna what?!”

Mazzy offered, “We do it all the time with bears when they climb up someone’s tree. We’ll catch him with the net, he’ll be fine.”

Sheriff continued, “But I don’t want to Phil, it’s more dangerous if you take a fall like that than if you just climbed down.”

The hammering in Phil’s chest slowed and he forced himself to think through the haze. If he climbed down on his own and landed on the net he might still be able to run, but if they shot him full of bear tranquilizer there’d be no way from him to get away. As it was, he was a sitting duck.

“Fine. I’ll come down, but you promise no one’s gonna hurt me?” he said through clenched teeth as he hugged the pole and started to navigate the posts.

“There you go, Phil. That’s right. No one’s going to hurt you.” Sheriff had stepped back to stand in front of the black bag.

The pod of ghouls had retreated in the face of Mazzy’s authority and now stood on the porch, looking on eagerly. Mazzy himself had not turned his back on the group, but had shuffled closer to the net.

Phil’s foot stepped down onto the last lineman’s post only to be greeted with the cold air of a miscounted step. Balance wavering, he gripped the pole fiercely in a bear hug, his face pressed against sun battered wood, eyes squeezed shut.

He heard someone on the porch gasp and whimper. With an effort of will, he forced his eyes open. The hag was hugging herself with both arms, her face twisted in a gruesome mask, huge watery eyes glistening.

“Alright now, Phil, you’re at the last one, Mazzy’s got the fall-net just behind you. All you gotta do is just lean back and let go of the pole,” Sheriff instructed. “Don’t jump… Just lean back.”

Phil leaned back, let go and hung for an eternity in the air before course netting slapped his whole body at once. He was up like a shot, scrambling and tumbling off the web. Cold wet grass under his feet, Phil tore into the night. Behind him he heard Sheriff curse, “Goddamnit, Phil!”

There was the distinct metallic scrape-clack of a bolt action then a sharp pinch in his shoulder that radiated cold. His legs faltered, then Phil tasted dirt and grass.

***

Abernathy squeezed his eyes shut, massaging the bridge of his nose. It did little to ease the developing fatigue headache, but as with most stress tics, it didn’t stop him from doing it. “Mazzy… Can you go call into the station and get the blankets from the car?” He opened his eyes and tossed the pneumatic dart gun back into the open bear-kit bag.

“Yessir,” Mazzy drawled, voice every bit as full of fatigue as Abernathy’s head.

Sheriff Abernathy Jackson called to Carol as she hustled after her fleeing husband followed closely by Paul and Evert, “Leave him. Hit that near to his neck and it won’t be long before the sedative lays him down.” They all three were wearing loose fitting rumpled night clothes or underwear.

All at once they began shouting, though their pace slowed to a halt. Abernathy talked over them with practiced command, “Carol, what the hell happened here? You guys getting high, dropping acid, doing PCP? Maybe find some ‘shrooms out in the woods and decide to have a nibble?”

Paul, Carol’s older brother, bristled and shouted back, “Wasn’t nothing like that, he just went crazy and started screaming and fighting. Ran outside and up that pole before we could get him,” his tough guy front was somewhat diminished by the threadbare plaid boxers and stain yellowed undershirt.

Evert offered up a forearm wrapped in a kitchen towel, a small red stain leaking through, “even pulled a butcher’s knife on me when I tried to get him to calm down.”

“Carol,” Abernathy tempered his tone and raise his eyebrows, “we all know Phil isn’t a stranger to a little vice. We’re gonna take care of him, but it’s important we know what’s got him so wacked out so Doc can help.”

Mazzy was back with a thick institutional wool blanket. “Come on fellas, help me out with Phil. I saw him go down out in the field just before the tree line.”

Evert took a deep breath, hitched up his too large jeans and tramped off after Mazzy with a resigned huff, but Paul didn’t move an inch from his sister’s side.

“Paul,” Carol said with a gentle nod, “it's fine. Go help Mazzy and Evert with Philip.”

Paul waited a pointed moment more, glaring with tight jaw at Abernathy before giving his little sister’s arm a reassuring squeeze and stalking into the dark to retrieve his brother-in-law.

Carol turned to go in the house, “Can I get you some coffee, Sheriff?”

“Sure,” he exhaled. “Listen Carol, why don’t you get some clothes on while I make the coffee.”

Her back stiffened a fraction. She looked down, picking at the stretched-out men’s tank, it was all she had on and barely kept her decent, “It’s not like it’s anything you haven’t seen before, Sheriff.”

Abernathy kept his tone carefully level, “Carol, Please. I’ll get the coffee.”

The spring creaked as she opened the door and gestured him through. He gripped the door near its top corner and pressed his lips together, inclining his head.

She gave a small bitter chuckle, flicked something from her cheek, “Alright, Abe. You win.” And almost managed not to stomp inside.

Abernathy followed behind her and let the door close with a bang. Carol was quickly up the stairs, pale legs flashing in the dark. He continued through into the kitchen where a single fluorescent cast a pale blue from above the sink. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of dirty dishes that had sat too long in a sink and went to the Mr. Coffee. Abernathy frowned at the third of stale coffee in the carafe and went to the empty left side of the sink. He was nearly overpowered by the smell of turpentine. Cautiously he wafted his hand over the sink and sniffed again. The tang of moonshine made his eyes water even over the smell of moldering dishes.

With a scowl, Abernathy swirled the coffee in the pot and emptied it down the drain then set it to fill while he emptied the spent grounds into the trash. Before dropping the soggy cold filter into the trash, he poked around in the contents and found what he was looking for. With a few more minutes of fumbling with the coffee and the cabinets he sat down at the kitchen table and waited.

Carol entered the kitchen, rolled her eyes and flicked the overhead light on, “We have lights you know.” She’d put on a fresh pair of jeans, t-shirt and put her hair up.

“You changed the cabinets around. The cups used to be next to the coffee maker.”

“Yeah well, a lot of things have changed… Abe.” She pulled a pair of cigarettes from a pack of Pall Malls on the counter, set them to her lips, lit them and handed one over to him.

Abernathy hesitated for a second, but took the proffered coffin nail with a grateful nod.

“Sorry…” Carol winced, “force of habit.”

“It’s fine. Look, Carol. I found this,” he placed a large mason jar missing its lid on the table.

She looked away, “So?”

“So? Is this anything you want to tell me about?”

The coffee maker spit and sputtered the last of its reservoir into the pot and she turned to address it. She poured a pair of mugs of coffee, slipped a finger through both handles and brought them over to the table where she sat heavily down into a chair across from the Sheriff. Abernathy noticed how old and tired she looked then. Her pale smooth skin having started to crease at the edges of her eyes and mouth, a few stark threads of silver in her otherwise chestnut hair.

“Phil doesn’t know his limits. Evert brought over some shine and we were having a good time, but then Phil kept drinking like he does and before you know it he was passed out on the table.” She took a long shaky drag from her cigarette and continued with a harsh exhalation, “The boys brought him upstairs then we played some cards and went to bed. When I got—” she faltered and gave him a guilty look. “Dammit Abe, what are you even doing here? It’s the middle of the night, don’t tell me the cops are so short staffed the Sheriff’s gotta work night’s?”

Abernathy jiggled his head in dismissal, “Couple of the guys are sick I’m just covering.”

Her eyebrows furrowed and she started to say something, but let it go and continued, “Anyway, when I got into bed,” she said with a reluctant delay, “he just freaked out.” She shook her head and looked into the distance. “I’ve never seen him like that. Stoned. Drunk. Pissed off. Never. He grabbed the shotgun from under the bed and tried to blow my head off, but I think he was too drunk to work the safety so he just threw it at me.”

“Jesus, Carol.”

“I know. Scared me.”

“Was he on anything else tonight? Other than the moonshine I mean?”

She shook her head and flicked her cigarette compulsive before taking another drag and stubbing out the butt in a leaden ashtray.

“Where’d the moonshine come from? Did it taste bad?”

“I don’t know. It was Evert’s. Didn’t taste great, but what shine around here does?”

“No, I mean, do you think it might have been methanol? Any of the rest of you feeling sick, having blurry vision, difficulty seeing?”

“No.” she shook her head again.

Abernathy sighed heavily and stubbed out his smoke then got up. “Alright, I’m taking this with me,” he lifted the mason jar. “Get some sleep. I’ll let you know as soon as we have any news with Phil. Doctor Houser should be meeting us at the station. It’s probably some bad moonshine. If you start feeling sick get out the vodka and start drinking, if it's methanol poisoning that’ll flush it out, then call me.”

She didn’t answer at first, then said, “Don’t you mean the station?”

He tilted his head furrowed his brow, “Hmm?”

“Call the station you mean?”

“Yeah…” he nodded and walked to the door. “Take care of yourself, Carol.”

“You too, Abe.”

The front door creaked and banged behind him. Mazzy was talking to Paul and Evert by the car. The back door was open and he could see Phil inside, laid down across the back seat, covered in the blanket.

“We ready to go, Sarge?” Mazzy called over Paul’s shoulder.

“Yeah. Doc on his way?”

“Said he’d meet us at the station.” He said and closed the rear door, careful not to brain their insensate passenger.

The other two stepped away from the vehicle and started back to the house.

Paul, a venomous look in his eyes, stepped in Abernathy’s path and lifted his chin, “You stay the hell away from my sister, nigger-cop.”

The Sheriff made a sharp jab with his left hand as he stepped around Paul, catching his windpipe with the webbing between thumb and forefinger. The movement was so sudden Paul didn’t have time to react.

Mazzy jumped, “Damn Abe!”

Paul doubled over face bright red even in the anemic light on the porch. He gagged and threw up, trying to pull in rasping breaths between stomach convulsions. Evert remained carefully still as if there was a rattlesnake at his feet.

“I don’t have time for your racist shit, Paul. We both know it won’t end well for you, so just leave it. Evert, are we going to have a problem?”

“No sir!” his voice a high pitched trill, “You know I don’t have a problem with colored people—I mean people of color—I mean…”

Abernathy sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose again, “Evert, just stop.”

He did.

“Where’d you get the moonshine?”

“What moonshine?”

Abernathy gestured with the jar in his right hand.

“Oh… That moonshine.”

“Yeah, that moonshine. Where’d you get it?”

“Hightower brothers. They’re making some new ‘craft shine’ ‘er whatever on account of all the stuff you can buy in the store.”

Abernathy grimaced and nodded. “Do yourself a favor, stay away from the stuff. They might be getting sloppy with their still.” To Mazzy, “Come on, let’s get back to the station.”

Paul levered himself up by the banister, “Be seeing you, Abe.” He wheezed.

“Go fuck yourself, Paul.”

He and Mazzy closed their doors and he keyed the ignition.

“Damn…” Mazzy breathed.

“What?” Abernathy put the car into gear and crunched over the gravel round about. “You think I shouldn’t have hit him?”

“Oh, no, I think Paul’s too stupid for his own well being. I’m just… did you see the look of fear in his eyes? I’ve never seen Phil so scared before.” Mazzy’s knuckles were white, clamped on his vest, thumbs hooked into the arm holes. He glanced over his shoulder, checking on their guest. “Gives me the creeps.”

“Probably just bad booze. Hightower’s are losing profits to the trendy flavored moonshine crap that’s been showing up in liquor stores, I’m sure they’re getting sloppy.” He paused, then smiled weakly at his deputy, “Thanks for letting me know about the call.” A little twist of guilt writhed in his belly, earlier he’d lied and Carol clearly knew it. Mazzy’d heard the address when the call came in, woke him and picked him up on the way.

“I knew you’d want to be there for her.”

“Yeah, well… Thanks.” He pulled onto the main highway back into town, flipped on his high beams and pressed on the accelerator. Despite the moonless dark of night, Abernathy drove a quick pace down Redline Road. There wouldn’t be any racers out tonight, some conscientious citizen always anonymously donated a couple cases of beer or had Mamma Fu’s delivered on nights that there were gonna be races. There was always a backlog of paperwork to finish and it seemed wasteful and rude to turn away a gift, especially since there was never anyone around to turn down. Abernathy let the boys stay in the station to handle pencil pushing that really kept the wheel of justice rolling while the good old boys blew off some steam burning octane. So long as no one died that’s how it would stay.

Their guest in the backseat whimpered. Abernathy glanced in his rearview to see Phil seated bolt upright, the skin around his nose and mouth looked grossly thick and tough, cracked and peeling. His eyes were huge, dilated out to mere black pits. “What the f—”

“Abe!” Mazzy shouted, bracing himself on the dash and hauling on the oh-shit bar.

He looked ahead in time to see a sixteen-point buck walk squarely into the middle of the road. Abernathy slammed on the brakes and felt the ABS engage accompanied by the stuttered scream of tires. The cattleguard gently nudged the huge buck’s flank as the car came to rest, big engine purring incongruously in the silence. Mazzy’s breath came in shuttered sharp exhalations and Abe remained rigid, arms locked against the steering wheel.

Eyes like puddles of oil stared back at the two officers, blank, empty and hideously hostile. The animal chewed absently on a long, ragged strip of something unidentifiable in the darkness of the country road, the light from the headlamps were blotted by the buck’s mass. Abernathy’s heart pounded and he forced himself to slowly relax his braced arms and move his right hand down to the sidearm at his hip. The buck moved, hooves audible on the pavement, even through the reinforced glass and soundproofing of the cabin. It sauntered around the driver’s side corner and Abernathy eased his pistol from its holster, carefully aiming it from the hip up at the buck as it drew level with his window. The big male lowered its head until it was looking in at him through one eye and Abernathy could hear his own teeth creak beneath the strain of his clenched jaw. Abruptly, it nudged the window with its muzzle, leaving a dark smear, then rose and trotted off into the night. Neither man moved until the clip clop of its lazy canter faded to nothing, then Sheriff Abernathy stomped the accelerator through the floor.

Abernathy glanced up at the rear view expecting to see either the deer or Philip staring back at him but saw neither. He stuffed the gun back in its place and gripped the wheel with both hands.

“Just what the Fuck was that?!” Mazzy shouted.

He didn’t answer.

“Sarge!” a tremble in his voice, “What. The fuck. Was that?” Mazzy sat sideways in his seat, facing him, his face was ghost pale, right hand clenched on the handrail above his head.

“Mazzy! Get ahold of yourself.” He said with as much steel as he could put into his voice. “It was a deer. Just a stupid deer. Probably in rut looking to fight anything that moves. You’re just all twisted up about Phil and got yourself all spooked jumping at shadows.”

Mazzy shook his head violently, eyes wide with panic, lips a thin line in his face.

Abernathy growled low “deputy, if you don’t pull yourself together I will knock you senseless. Do I make myself clear?”

He blinked, rapid little fluttering blinks, but Abernathy watched the tension unwind like a spring slowly let out in his peripheral vision. Then Mazzy took his first full breath in several minutes and leaned his head back against the rest. “You’re right. I’m just shook up.” He shook himself and rubbed his arms. “Holy shit though,” he laughed, a little too high pitched to be natural, “did you see the size of that buck? What was he like twelve or fourteen points?”

Abernathy let his foot slowly off the pedal. They were doing well over a hundred miles an hour down the road so he eased the vehicle to a more reasonable seventy or eighty. He nodded to Mazzy, “more like sixteen I think. Check on our passenger, will you?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure. All that tranq in him, he’ll be down for hours, but I bet that braking you did probably tossed him around a little.” He flexed in his chair and craned his neck to see in the back, then sat and wiped the palms of his hands on his knees, “Yeah. He’s fine. Probably have a few more bruises, but he’s still out.”

“Glad to hear it.” Abernathy mused.

They drove the rest of the way back to the station in silence, Abernathy forcing himself to stop looking in the rear view every few seconds expecting to see Phil fish-eyed and ghoulish.

      ***

The station was located just off the main strip downtown. Close enough to be reassuring, but far enough away as not feel oppressive or looming with its concertina wire topped fences and small fleet of squad cars. They pulled in around back to the few spaces outside the restricted area fence and parked next to Doc Houser’s big green Tahoe. They’d radioed ahead and Doc was waiting at the side door to the station where they brought people in for booking. Abernathy shifted into park and cut the engine, opening the door.

“Doc.”

“Sheriff.” Houser’ voice was like gravel. Like Abernathy himself, he was a transplant here to Garfield’s Crossing. Some 20 years his senior Doctor Dutch Houser was in his early sixties and had served first as a doctor in the air force, then later as a trauma surgeon at Grady in Atlanta. He’d retired to Garfield’s Crossing a decade ago and kept himself busy by acting as the resident saw bones, making house calls and setting limbs as necessary, “Phil gone and tried to blind himself?”

“Sorta looks that way” he said climbing out of the cruiser.

“Some people never learn, do they?”

Abernathy just shook his head.

“No sir they do not,” said Mazzy as he closed his own door and opened the rear passenger side. “How you doing Doc? Thanks for coming out so late.”

“I think you mean early, and it’s no bother. The older I get the less I sleep.” He chuckled, grabbing the door handle at the station entrance. “Come on, let’s bring him inside.”

Abernathy closed his door and noticed the dark smudge on his window. He scratched at it with his thumb nail and some of it flaked off. Without a thought, he licked his finger and tried to rub it clean. The copper tang hit him and he understood immediately why the ragged strip hanging from the deer’s mouth had set his teeth on edge. The smear on his windows was blood.

Mazzy asked, “Abe, you wanna grab his other shoulder and we’ll fireman him into the building?”

He wiped his finger on his pant leg and nodded, “Yeah, let’s get him inside.”

Together, Mazzy and Abernathy carried Phil into the station and into one of the secure clinic rooms they had for caring for injured detainees. Doc set to work with Phil, taking vitals, blood samples and generally seeing to his care. To Abernathy’s surprise Phil looked fine, a little pallid, but the cracked and peeling lips were nowhere in evidence.

Doctor Houser assured Abernathy that he’d update him on Phil’s condition as soon as he was done with his examination and Abernathy left him to it. He joined Mazzy in the main office of the station, a long room, with a dozen desks cluttered with paperwork. Samantha Pinkerton, dispatcher, was hunched over a mic talking urgently to officers on the other line. Mazzy stood next to her, his face a mask of concern.

“We got another one Sarge. In fact, our two other patrols are out right now responding to calls of people acting erratically.”

Abernathy frowned, “Sam, are they anywhere near each other?”

She pushed her petite square framed glasses up her freckled nose and shook her head, “No sir. They’re all over the place. We’ve already got one person in lock up right now yelling and screaming about people being monsters. Jameson and Arp picked him up while you two were on dispatch to Carol’s place.”

“Did anyone report about any moonshine or the Hightower’s?”

“Yessir,” she affirmed, “Arp said the perp threw a jar of moonshine at him when he wasn’t expecting it. Totally soaked him. I got him a second vest and a change of clothes. They went back out as soon as he was suited up again. We left his clothes in an evidence bag in the infirmary, smells like jet fuel.”

“Who’s the perp?”

“Some kid. White Male, late teens, early twenties. No ID. He’s not giving his name and he’s tripping pretty hard. I don’t think even he knows who he is right now.”

“Okay,” Abernathy rubbed the developing sandpaper on his jaw then kneaded his neck muscles, “Let’s get Doc to draw up some additional sedatives in case we need to use them, then get on the phone with Miller and Nelson. I’ll ring up Kit and Ronald and get them to come in too.”

“What about Turner?” Mazzy asked.

“Nah, his wife delivered a couple weeks ago I don’t want to drag him into this until we have a better idea of what is going on.”

Samantha cut in, “Peter and Reggie just bagged a guy trying to take on a couple of DeadKnights down at the Devil’s Grin. They’re bringing him in right now.” She pressed her finger to the headset’s ear piece, then spoke, “It’s Al Whitman, sounds like the Dead-Heads got a piece of him before our guys got there and were able to break it up. They’re requesting Doc be ready with some butterflies and some sedative. Said he’s got a pretty ugly gash on his scalp.”

“What’s their ETA,” Mazzy said, already taking long strides toward the clinic.

“6 minutes.”

“Alright, I’ll help Doc get Phil into a cell and get him ready for Al.”

Abernathy nodded, pleased with his team and starting to feel some of the uncertainty fade as procedure took over. He went to his office and started calling officers in. It took him thirty minutes to get both Kit and Ronald on the horn and moving. By then Peter Thomas and Reggie Euler had been back to their desks and gone again, sent out to provide backup for Arp and Jameson, who needed an extra couple squad cars to bring in a group of four that were all high, belligerent and handcuffed to an immovable object.

***

Doc rapped on his door frame and Abernathy jolted forward in his chair where he’d nodded off. He didn’t remember falling asleep.

“Abe. The sun’s coming up.”

Abernathy groaned and picked up a cup of coffee someone had set on his desk. It was cold, but he drank it with a grimace anyway. “Thanks, Doc. What’s the count?”

Dutch came in and settled down into a worn tan leather chair in front of the sheriff’s desk, pursing his lips. After a moment he answered, “They’ve been able to bring in ten. Two more shot themselves and one of the four that Arp and Jameson had detained dislocated her own thumb and escaped into the woods.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah.” Dutch conceded.

“Alright, what’s your opinion? What are we dealing with here? Cause I don’t think this is just bad moonshine.”

Dutch considered, frowning, “Saw behavior like this at Grady with crap like bath salts and PCP.”

Abernathy nodded, “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking too.”

“But I’ve had time to test Phil and your John Doe, both test negative for either.”

“Hmmm” he rumbled.

“I tested some of the booze on Arp’s uniform and it came back positive for psilocybin and some other junk the mass spec can’t identify. I’m placing a call with a colleague at Georgia State after I get a couple hours shut eye.”

“Thanks. Has Phil come around yet?”

“He’s awake, but he’s still not right. If it’s shrooms that stuff can last for hours with the right inhibitors keeping it from being metabolized. Your John Doe might be a better option. He’s the only one that’s been sleeping.”

“Alright, Thanks Doc.”

“Don’t mention it. I’ll call you in a couple hours.”

Abernathy got up, walked Doctor Houser to the side entrance, shook his hand and said goodbye. Closing the door behind him Abernathy went through to the office on his way to the holding cells, thanking his team for their hard work and let those that were asleep, with their heads on their desks, remain so.

Upon opening the reinforced door to the holding cells he heard the muffled cacophony of half a dozen shouting or sobbing voices. He hardened himself against the sounds of their misery, picked up the log book and checked to see which cell the John was in. Cell 4B. He signed the logbook, removed the key to the door and walked down the hall of blank faced reinforced steel doors. 4B was notably quiet, he slapped the view screen open on the door’s high narrow window and peeked in to see a figure in ripped, dirty clothes, curled on his side on the thin foam rubber pad that served as all cell mattresses.

Abernathy banged on the door with his fist.

The figure remained still.

“Hey… I’m gonna open this door now. I need you to get up and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Still there was no movement from the man on the pad.

He slowed down and took in the tableau. The kid was lying on his side, one shoe off, the other was out of sight, presumably lying against the near wall. His blue jeans were too big and caked with dirt and mud. His shirt was in tatters, plain black where it was still intact. A long tear left most of his skinny back exposed, ribs in sharp outline against the skin. The hair on the back of Abernathy’s neck began to pin prick up in attention as the details came together. The beginnings of a long mottled shadow covered the bottom third of the John’s back, roughly parallel to the ground. He slammed the key in the lock and gave it a sharp twist. The bolts pulled back from the frame and Abernathy hauled on the door, swearing. The room stank of stale body odor and sewage. He approached with caution, watching the sharp outline of ribs for movement, but saw none. As he drew closer, the tang of vomit joined the saturated air. A gray slick of fluid splashed the wall in front of the kids face. Abernathy pulled a blue glove from a pouch at his belt and pulled it on, then reached out and touched the kid’s neck. He was cold, stiff and motionless.

“Shit.”

The Hightowers were gonna have some sobering, cold hard questions to answer after this. And they had better have some good answers.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

© Novis Opera  LLC 2017

Moses Jones and The Meal Ticket

Moses Jones and The Meal Ticket

The Skull and The Saber

The Skull and The Saber

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