Sterling River, Tenn. – Richard Detin was found dead in his home this morning by his son, Martin Detin, upon returning from work at a local steel mill. Richard Detin was discovered lying in his bed with numerous wounds about his head. According to the sheriff’s office, the elder Detin was bludgeoned to death with a hammer or like instrument. Martin Detin said he knew something was wrong when he came home and discovered the back door torn free from the hinges. The sheriff asks that if anyone knows anything about this heinous act, to please come forward with information. The sheriff assures all calls will remain anonymous.
Garrett County – Highway Patrol this morning found a car parked in a wooded area off of State Highway 42, just outside the small town of Sterling River, Tenn. Inside the vehicle were three bodies, a woman and her two little girls. Investigators say the family, whose names they are not releasing yet pending notification of surviving relatives, are from out of state and had probably pulled over to sleep. The windows had been smashed, and the family beaten to death with blunt instruments. Anyone with any information is urged to come forward.
Garrett County – Another abandoned car was towed this morning from the rest area on Highway 42. The early model sedan makes three automobiles towed from the rest area in the last two months. Wrecker driver Dale Uliss of Uliss Tow Service says, “Sterling River seems to be the auto dump site. Cars get stripped and left all the time. It’s really bad on Highway 42. There’s nothing on it but woods for ten miles. No one ever sees anything, or knows who left what.”
Rab_Raekon_Report: The edge of the world seems to be somewhere right around Sterling River, TN. More people seem to go missing in that “neck of the woods” than most other places. According to official reports (that I’ve not read) when travelers pass through Sterling River, they fall off the face of the freakin’ Earth. It even happens to the locals more than they care to admit. DIRTY LITTLE SECRET ALERT: If you ask the townsfolk about the brutal murders that have been committed over the last few decades in Sterling River, you really get the cold shoulder. And don’t dare ask about the screeching sounds that pierce the dead of night….
Ali closed her laptop, but the articles still crowded her thoughts. Dozens of them she and Stewart, her assistant, had dug and unearthed. It seemed a great idea to her bosses at AmericanMyth.com to travel to Sterling River, a small Tennessee backwater, to investigate the story of the little town where people just seem to disappear. She didn’t really mind the assignment, but with the winter being particularly cold, she wasn’t too thrilled with it; she had petitioned for the Florida gig. But she lost, and now she found herself riding shotgun as Stewart sped down the highway. Highway 42, straight for Murder and Missing Person Central.
“Are you warm enough?” Stewart asked, stretching his back.
“Enough,” Ali sighed. They had left civilization some time ago; it was wilderness that enclosed them on all sides now. “How long until we get there?”
“Last sign said it was twenty miles.” He checked his watch. “We should be there in about thirty minutes, now. I guess.”
Ali opened her laptop, then closed it again. “Wake me when we arrive.”
“Will do.” Stewart checked his mirrors. They were alone on the highway.
The sign welcomed them to Sterling River, and invited them to stay awhile, and a road sign warned them of an approaching intersection shortly after. At the intersection, a small market with relics for gas pumps sat on the left; two churches (one Baptist, the other Church of Christ) sat on the right. A block of battered buildings could be seen further down the road, but little else.
Stewart shook Ali’s shoulder as he slowed the car and pulled into the market. Ali opened her eyes and yawned. “Welcome,” Stewart said.
“Is this it?”
“It’s definitely not the big city.”
Ali said, “This isn’t even a small town.”
Stewart eyed the market. “They’re open.” He looked at Ali. “Should I?” His face quizzed her.
Ali unfastened her seatbelt. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you,” Stewart was relieved. “I’m not good with actually talking to people.”
“How the hell did you make it to the top?” Ali said, giving herself the once-over in the vanity mirror.
“I’m not at the top, yet,” Stewart replied. “The top would be your job. I’m not the ace reporter.”
Ali opened the car door. “We’re both still climbing.” She slammed the door a little harder than needed. She pulled up her collar against the chill wind and headed across the gravel.
Two old men stared at her from the condensation laced front window. Ali could tell they were seated at a small dining area. She pushed the door open and a cluster of bells jangled over her head. The warmth hit her, and she was glad to be out of the car, the last of the wind strangled by the closing door.
“Good morning,” one of the elderly gentlemen creaked, taking a moment from the checkerboard. The other turned and politely nodded his head.
“Good morning,” Ali smiled, still pulling at her collar.
A young lady in a tattered blue sweater came to the counter from a compact kitchen in back. She rolled her sleeves down. “Hi.” She stood at the cash register, and Ali felt her eyes skimming over her from head to toe and back up again. The men were back into their game.
“Hello,” Ali approached the counter. “It’s cold out there.”
“Sure is,” the young lady said. “Can I help you with something.” Steam hissed from the kitchen.
“My name is Ali Thomlan.”
The young lady smiled politely.
When their was no name exchange, Ali continued. “This is Sterling River, right?”
“Pretty much most of it,” the young lady said.
“Okay.” Ali pointed out the steamed windows. “My colleague and I are in town for a couple of days. On business. Is there anyplace to stay? A motel, or something?”
The young lady laughed. “I’m sorry, ma’am. We don’t have anything like that in this town. This is Sterling River.”
“So it is.”
The elderly man who greeted Ali spoke again. “Motel is that way,” he pointed back out of town without taking his eyes off the checkers. “Twenty miles. Twenty-five.” His opponent made a move, hammering the piece home.
“In the next town?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the young lady said. “What business do you have in Sterling River?”
Ali fished a card from her coat pocket. She handed it to the young lady. “I’m a reporter.” She added, “Investigative reporter.”
The quiet gentleman turned around. “What are you here to investigate?”
Ali had to clear her throat a little. “I’m with an on-line magazine. AmericanMyth.”
“Ain’t no myths here,” the young lady said, her politeness gone.
“But your town,” Ali said, “Sterling River, has had some strange…occurrences…over the years.”
“Ain’t no myth,” the young lady reiterated.
“I just want to do a story on the town,” Ali said. “Your town. The things-”
Stewart honked the car horn. Ali cringed at the sound.
“We only want to ask a few questions,” Ali said.
Stewart honked again, letting it linger.
“Your colleague is calling,” said the young lady.
Ali gave up with a smile. The young lady returned to the kitchen. “Thank you,” Ali said.
“See the sheriff,” the talkative old man said. Ali halted at the door. “Extra rooms above the station. If you want to stay. Keep driving, you’ll come to the town proper. Right across from the front doors of the courthouse.”
“Thanks,” Ali said. “Would it be okay to talk to you gentleman a little later?”
The quiet old man inspected one of his game pieces. “Lots of people have come asking questions.” A smoke alarm went off in the back kitchen. “You ain’t the first,” he said, reflective. The alarm went silent.
The other old man added, “You won’t be the last, either,” and the two of them nodded quietly to each other, wryly smiling.
Sheriff Gillis sat leaned back in his chair, feet propped on his desk, and hands behind his crew cut white hair. “You can stay, I reckon. I don’t mind any. No one else will either.” Ali and Stewart glanced over the empty holding cell. Muffled voices came from behind a frosted glass door marked CENTRAL DISPATCH. Cars and trucks busied themselves outside navigating around the town square. People walked passed the sheriff’s office, gawking through the window at the strangers. Gillis would wave at familiar faces.
“Thank you, a lot,” Stewart said.
Sheriff Gillis snorted. “No trouble. The deputies won’t bother you folks any. They mainly stay out on patrol.” He spat a wad of phlegm onto the floor beside his chair. “Two officers on patrol, every shift.”
“Really,” Stewart mumbled, “two. Every shift.”
Gillis spat again, wiping his chin with the back of his hand.
Ali glanced away, politely. “Sheriff, I’d like to ask you a few questions. If you have the time,” she said.
“Sure. I figured you would get to that. Reporters been coming here for years. On and off, you understand.”
“About the disappearances,” Stewart said, face pale, still thinking of the phlegm.
“Yeah,” Sheriff Gillis replied. “But it’s not like people get offed here on a regular basis.”
Ali interjected “But Sheriff-”, but Gillis cut her short with a wave.
“We’ve had more…things…happen here than some small towns, miss. I give you that. But it’s nothing special. You’ll discover that, like all the rest that come snooping.”
Ali crossed her arms, not realizing her stance, then relaxed. “Sheriff Gillis, will you tell me about the disappearances, and the murders that have occurred here throughout the years?”
Gillis smiled. “I thought you were here to get to the bottom of all that. Investigative reporter.”
She rolled her tongue in her lip. “I’m here on assignment. I just want to write a story and get paid for a good job. Curious things for curious readers.”
“Abandoned cars turn up all the time,” the sheriff said. “More times than not, it’s people run out of gas, or broke down. That doesn’t get in the papers, does it? Not curious enough.”
“No,” Stewart said blandly.
“Damn right,” Gillis said.
Ali asked, “What about the murders? There have been a lot of brutal murders here, dating back decades. Locals and strangers.”
“What about them?” Gillis said. A trickle of sweat swelled at his temple. He wiped it with his hand, then cleaned it on his pants.
“Anybody arrested for the crimes?”
Sheriff Gillis snorted a second time.
“From what we have read, they are all still unsolved cases,” Ali continued.
Gillis spit again. “Nothing to tell,” he said, his voice a slow rumble. “They’re all dead.”
Stewart hauled their two suitcases from the trunk of the car. “I’ll take these upstairs,” he said. “Be right down.”
“I’m going to go ahead and look around,” Ali said, shivering in the wind.
Stewart slammed the trunk closed. “Without me?”
Ali was walking away. “You’re a big boy, Stew. Be nice to the locals.”
“Where do you want to meet?” he called after her. She threw up her hand, waving farewell.
Stewart carried the luggage into the sheriff’s office. Gillis was still propped at his desk, cradling the telephone between his ear and shoulder. He covered the receiver with his hand and pointed past the cell to a slender set of stairs. “Room at the top. Light switch next to the door.”
Stewart said “Thank you” quietly, but Sheriff Gillis had already delved back into his phone call. As he ascended the stairs, Stewart caught just a snippet of what Gillis was saying: “You found it where-”
The upper room was a makeshift command center, of some sort, among other things. Stewart guessed it served the purpose of meeting room, storage room, and, maybe, welcome wagon. Two cots were pushed against one wall; a large, rectangular table, battered and in need of refinishing, was planted in the middle of the low ceiling attic. Christmas decorations were stuffed in the corners, and scattered to rest wherever space was available. A paper mache’ dog head, from a parade float Stewart guessed, sat on a ripped, bare spring couch.
“Hell,” Stewart muttered. He dropped the luggage next to the dog head and closed the door on his way out, cursing. Sheriff Gillis was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.
“Let’s ride, Clyde.”
“What?” Stewart squinted.
“Something you might be interested in,” Gillis said. “Get in the car.”
Ali circled the town square twice, window shopping, taking in where everyone was going, what they were doing; deciding the best place to start for information. And wondering if Stewart had already gotten lost, or beaten senseless by Gillis.
Her cell phone beeped. It was a text from Stewart. He was heading out with the sheriff for parts unknown. She replied for him to check in with her in an hour.
Of the several antique shops occupying space on the town square, K Antiques appeared to be the most popular with the townsfolk. Ali had observed a steady current of customers at the place. She decided to start there, and if it went bust, she would try the little grocery on the corner.
An electronic bell chimed softly when Ali opened the door. There were a handful of customers milling about the shop, inspecting the old furniture and odd collectibles; their eyes all sought her out when she crossed the threshold, inspecting her, instantly recognizing her as a tourist, labeling her a stranger. It was in her head, but Ali was sure she felt the temperature drop a couple of degrees inside the store.
Ali turned to the nearest merchandise, shelves of old books, and began to scan over them, flipping through yellow pages of tomes that were of very little interest to her.
With the supposed tourist lost in reams of out-of-date school books, the regulars continued their personal inspections.
A neatly dressed, older gentleman approached Ali. “May I help you miss?” he asked. He had an accent, Eastern European.
Ali returned a botany book to the shelf. “I’m only browsing,” she said, meeting his clear blue eyes. “But thank you.”
“I am Mr. Kroenger, if you should have any questions,” he said half turning.
Ali said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I am full of questions.” She spoke gently, intoning privacy. She looked, relieved that everyone else was preoccupied with their own matters.
“Indeed,” Kroenger faced her again, a small smile on his face.
“Indeed,” she toyed with her necklace.
“I have lived here for fifteen years, now,” Kroenger told her, “still new to Sterling River by community standards. But I have lived here long enough to have acquired a sixth sense. I know a tourist when I see one.” He smiled, easing his hands into his pockets. He leaned forward and whispered, “What paper do you work for? Or are you freelance?”
Ali quickly glanced over the store. Still, the customers seemed to be minding their own business. “An on-line magazine. American Myth.”
Kroenger dismissed the rows of books. “Forget these,” he said loudly. People glanced in their direction. “But I do have something you may find interesting. In back.”
He walked away, Ali followed him, ignoring stares. They passed a younger man answering a lady’s critical questions about a century old jewelry box. “Frederick,” Kroenger said as they passed, “please take over.” The young man nodded and said, “Yes, father,” respectful.
Kroenger led Ali through a beaded partition to the back room. A pristine porcelain tea set was prepared on a small table. “Please,” Kroenger indicated for her to be seated, then poured her a cup of tea. “Sugar?”
“No,” Ali said, courteous, unbuttoning her coat.
Kroenger poured himself a cup and relaxed across the table from her.
“I’m Ali Thomlan.”
“Ainoff Kroenger,” he bowed his head respectfully. “Proprietor. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“This is nearly the only hospitality I’ve witnessed so far. Some of your fellow townspeople can be quite impolite.”
Kroenger chuckled. “You’re an outsider, I know what that is like,” he said. “You mean no harm and neither do they. But you are turning a stranger’s eye to Sterling River. Putting them on trial, almost. Being critical of them, the town. The past.”
“I’m only here to write a story,” Ali said.
“About them.” Kroenger sipped his tea.
“Not the first. Not the last.”
“Exactly.” He listened to the door chime. “Here to write about the murders, and all that other nonsense.”
“People disappearing isn’t nonsense.” Ali held the warm tea cup with both hands.
“No, it’s not. But there are very reasonable explanations.”
Kroenger met her gaze intently. “It’s been reported before, Ms. Thomlan. Surely you’ve researched the decades of information available to you.”
Ali propped her elbows on the table. They were close, she could smell the musk of his cologne. And Kroenger thought he caught a shimmer of dread in her eyes, only fleeting and momentary.
“It’s interesting, what’s been reported.” She paused, watching his face for weakness or possibly judgment. “Car trouble can only account for so much. Surely you know that.”
Kroenger exhaled a comical sigh. Ali relaxed.
“I know that people will not give you the truth,” Kroenger said, serious and grandfatherly. “They want to blot it from their minds. Best not to think about such things.” He laid his hands flat on the table, giving her the facts straight. “The best kept secret is the one the whole town knows.”
“Including you?” she pressed gently.
“I know fragments,” Kroenger said, and there was an internal change. Something worked inside his head, turning wheels of doubt, and he was thinking twice.
Ali noticed his hands tremble. He clasped them together and hid them under the table, out of sight.
“I would not like to know the whole truth,” he told her bluntly.
“Will you tell me what you know?” she asked, and there was that countenance again of uncertainty as she fidgeted with the gold chain around her neck.
“First,” he said, and paused as the front door chimed again. “First, Ms. Thomlan, tell me what you came here armed with. What do you know?” A mischievous smile had broke out across his face.
“Not much,” Ali replied, a stronger woman now. “Just what I’ve read. Basics.” She glanced down at her tea, hesitant.
Kroenger spoke evenly. “It is safe here,” he urged her. “I’m an outsider, too, remember.”
Ali put all pretenses aside. Kroenger now knew he had underestimated his guest. There wasn’t a weakness in her at all, no fear, only a veneer of timidity. It all melted away, and her true face shone, fire in her eyes. He knew he had played into her hands when she asked, “What do you know about the Mallet Man?”
The sheriff’s patrol car turned off the road onto the dirt driveway. The two-story slatboard house stood barren in the middle of the flat land. It was empty out here, save for the surrounding hills and woods. Stewart ran every scenario through his head of every movie he had seen and every article and book he had read. Things happen in places like this, he thought, and none of it was ever good.
Gillis guided the cruiser past the house and through an open gate in back. Stewart gripped his cell phone tightly. He already had regrets. A small part of him not only wanted Ali here, but wished that he could trade places with her entirely.
“You’re really white,” Gillis said, guiding the cruiser down the dirt trail across the rolling fields.
“I get car sick,” Stewart lied.
“Sure you do,” Gillis smirked. Cattle stood in pasture, complacent as the cruiser drove by. “Learn to relax, boy, or it will be an early death,” and he chuckled silently to himself.
More blood drained from Stewart’s face.
Up ahead were three men standing abreast of each other, broad shoulder to broad shoulder. Their backs to the approaching company, they stared down at something Stewart at a large mass he couldn’t see clearly.
Stewart knew, as Gillis stopped the car mere yards from the congregation, that he was awash in worry. He would admit to himself, he was afraid.
Sheriff Gillis opened his door. “I hope you have a strong stomach.”
The men parted, greeting Gillis, and Stewart could see what appeared to be a cow dead at their feet.
Stewart climbed from the car, and quickly followed at Gillis’s heels. The three men greeted the sheriff and eyed Stewart. Stewart did his best at avoiding the carcass. The smell, though, was everywhere.
“Morning,” Gillis said, shaking the older gentleman’s hand. “Leland Glenn,” the sheriff said to Stewart, and brusquely finished introductions. “Dale and Merle Glenn. Stewart-”
“Foree. Stewart Foree.” He shook their callused hands in turn, trying to be firm. He could tell from their expressions, they knew he wasn’t. Dale even wiped his hand on his pants after turning loose of Stewart’s smooth palm.
“What’s his business?” Merle asked Gillis. Stewart was reminded of his parents, pretending he was even in the room, when discussing what was wrong with their son and bandying possible theories.
“Reporter,” Gillis gruffed. “Might can help.”
“This happen other places?” Leland asked.
The men parted further, and Stewart had no choice but to look.
The poor creature’s head had been badly beaten, caved in and unrecognizable. It’s stomach tore open and gutted. Entrails were scattered across the ground, still steaming in the cold air.
Stewart nodded, feeling his gullet constrict.
“Yeah,” Gillis answered for him. “This has happened in a few places.”
Leland said, “Good, not just us then.”
Gillis stared at Stewart. He seemed half pleased at the unease on the young man’s face. Stewart met his gaze, happy not to see the thing, and tried to compose himself.
Stewart swallowed hard. “This, uh…happen here before?” he finally spoke.
“This is our second,” Leland said.
“About the fifth, ain’t it sheriff, across the county,” Merle said.
“Six,” Sheriff Gillis corrected him. He told Stewart, “This year.”
“This year?” Stewart squeaked, hoping the men didn’t notice much. He concentrated his voice. “How often does this happen in Sterling River?”
“Two or three a year,” Gillis said. “That’s normal for us. But this,” he paced around the remains, “this is different. Six this early in the year.” His thoughts troubled him.
Dale kneeled down and pointed at the rupture of the cow’s stomach. “Something just tore the damn thing open. You can see where it took bites.”
Merle kicked at a pile of intestines. “Even ate on its guts. Most of them.”
Stewart’s stomach turned. “What do you think did it? A bear, or something? You have coyotes?”
“No bears,” Leland said. “We have coyotes.”
“Not as many as we used to,” Gillis said darkly.
“What do you think did it?” Stewart asked.
“Any number of things,” Gillis said. He and Leland stared at the carcass, looking to some hidden point in their own brains.
“Whatever it is,” said Dale, “it must be hungry.”
“Or practicing,” Merle said. Leland and Gillis were concerned in silence, their gaze drifting off to the woods.
“It’s just a local legend,” Kroenger said, “the town bogeyman.” His nerves were threatening to overtake him, but him fought them off. “A story kids love to tell, to scare each other.”
“Does it scare the adults?” Ali leaned back in her chair, in control. “It’s safe,” she said. “No one is going to harm you here.”
A small explosion of anger puffed through Kroenger. “Where did you learn the name?”
Kroenger silenced her. “Yes. Where?”
Ali raised her eyebrows, toying with him. “Is it not safe to say his name? Will he come get me?”
“There is no joke found here,” Kroenger scorned her.
“I thought it was all nonsense.”
“Not here,” Kroenger was heated. “Not in Sterling River. It is not talked about. This is real to these people.”
“Something real murders,” Ali said. “Tell me about him.” She leaned close; he smelled more of sweat now than cologne. Ali could see glistening beads sitting on his forehead. “No one will know.”
He swallowed his first words. He felt he was on trial now. He wasn’t an outsider anymore, not sitting here with her. He was a citizen and she was not. He felt he was being interrogated for something he was not a party to, asked about crimes he did not witness. “I know very little,” Kroenger said.
“Every little bit helps,” said Ali, the sharpness gone from her voice.
“I have picked up fragments,” Kroenger resumed. “Small tidbits of gossip here and there.” Ali poured him more tea. He sipped it, hands nervous. “I don’t know the complete story. As I said, I don’t want to know the whole truth of the monster. Yes, monster. He, it, whatever name you choose. He lives somewhere, God only knows. But he lives here, in Sterling River. He hunts here, he kills here. Whatever gets in his way, he kills it. Whatever he hungers for, or is threatened by.” Kroenger’s voice had dropped to a whisper. Ali had to strain to hear. “It is a man, I know that. I know if you see him, it is never good. Few ever survive.”
“Have you ever seen him?” Ali kept her voice low, too.
Kroegner made the sign of the cross. “Dear God in Heaven, no. And I hope I never shall.”
“Tell me,” Ali said, “who has?”
Kroenger shook his head.
“Please,” Ali insisted politely, “give me a name?”
Kroenger took a pen from his pocket.
Stewart bounded up the stairs and burst into the room. Ali was sitting at the conference table looking over notes and photocopied newspaper clippings. He ran to the far corner to the bathroom, fell on his knees before the toilet and threw up.
“Rough day, honey?” Ali said jotting notes on a legal pad.
Stewart slumped back on the floor, wiping spittle on his sleeve. “Dead cow.”
“That’s good,” she said absently.
“Like really dead,” he belched and grimaced at the taste that came with it. He inhaled and exhaled to steady himself. “Tore up. Tore apart. Just…everywhere,” and hugged the porcelain bowl and wretched.
Ali glanced up from her notes, pen thoughtfully at the corner of her mouth. “That is what, six this year alone?”
Stewart sat in the bathroom doorway. “How in the hell did you know that?”
She smiled, jotting something in her notes. “I snooped through the sheriff’s desk when I got back. He made a note of it.”
Stewart climbed to his feet and looked over the small shower stall beside the toilet. “How many inmates you think been in there?”
“I don’t know.” She raised her eyes to him. “That turn you on?”
He made a mocking face. “I feel funky. I’ve been staring at cow parts all afternoon.”
“Does that turn you on?”
Stewart heaved, clamping his lips tight, and slammed the door closed.
“Don’t tarry long,” she called to him after his sounds of sickness had abated. “Clean the puke and cow innards off you. We have some business to do.”
He opened the door part way, his face chalky and damp. “Is it gross?”
Ali shrugged. “Locals.” She leaned back in her chair. “You never know.”
Sheriff Gillis parked his patrol car at the curb beneath the crooked golden light of the street lamp. He let himself through the leaning little picket gate and knocked on the darkened front door of the house.
The porch light flittered and a face peered through the curtain. Gillis nodded at Frederick. The young man opened the door gently, trying to ease the grind of the hinges.
Frederick kept his voice low. “Yes, sir?”
“Frederick,” the young man politely corrected the sheriff.
“Yeah,” Gillis mutter. “I’m here to see your daddy.”
Frederick shook his head. “He has already retired for the night.”
Gillis had his head tilted, like a dog trying to understand a human. His face twisted up, picking at the words. “He has already gone to bed?”
“Yes,” Frederick said. “He is asleep.” Gillis detected a mild hint of irritation in the young man.
“Well,” Gillis said, “get his ass up.” He speared Frederick with his eyes and gritted his teeth. “This is fucking life or death!”
Frederick turned away, allowing the door to swing open and yelled “Poppa!” But Kroenger was already standing mid-way down the stairs.
Gillis barreled in, pushing Frederick aside. “What the hell were you thinking?” he demanded.
“I am not sure I know-”
“You know damn well why I’m here!” Gillis roared, stabbing the air with his finger. “You know what the hell I’m talking about! Do you know how many people have told me tonight that you were talking to that reporter lady? DO YOU?”
Kroenger said calmly, “No. I don’t.”
“A helluva lot!” the sheriff spat. “A whole damn bunch.”
Kroenger sat down on the stairs.
“If I know,” Gillis said, “then other people know. A lot of people.” The fire had died from his voice. “It’s going to be all over town. If it isn’t already. You know how news and gossip spread in this damn place. You’ve lived here long enough to know that. I’m sure most everybody knows by now.”
Kroenger struggled to keep his head held up. Frederick stared and listened, but was absent.
Gillis massaged his temples, trying to postpone an oncoming headache. “What were you thinking?”
Kroenger’s features were slack, bags developing under his eyes. “I don’t know.” He was almost apologetic, almost pitiful.
“You’re on your own with this,” the sheriff said. “I’m not in it. You’ve brought it on yourself.” Sheriff Gillis turned and left, closing the door as he went, leaving Frederick to watch as his father began to cry.
Evangeline Murphy, nicknamed by the community The Dark Angel, welcomed Ali Thomlan and Stewart Foree into her home. The ramshackle little place, on a dead end lane at the edge of town, popped and grunted as the night’s gentle wind brushed its sides.
“Welcome,” she said from the porch where she had been waiting. Her spine was bent, and the only thing that seemed to keep her from tipping over was her homemade cane. “Please, come on in,” she entreated them as they approached from their car. As aged as she was, her voice was lively, chirping from the deep furrowed black wrinkles of her face.
“Thank you for meeting with us,” Ali said, offering her hand.
Evangeline looked up at her. “I don’t shake hands, honey,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “I send blessings.”
Stewart laughed uneasily.
“This way,” Evangeline said and lead them inside.
The rooms were brightly lit, casting out the shadows and giving light to the peeling wallpaper and warped boards. A musty scent was pervasive. Stewart tried to casually cover his nose as he and Ali exchanged a small look.
Evangeline eased herself into an old rocker, and motioned for her guests to sit nearby on a dusty red velvet couch. “Please,” she smiled with a wave of her hand.
Ali and Stewart sunk to their elbows on the cushions. “Smells like mothballs,” Stewart whispered. Ali scolded him with an arched brow.
“So you want to know the story?” Evangeline asked frankly.
Ali answered, “Yes, ma’am.”
The little crooked lady laughed lightly. “Everybody else is afraid to say a word. Won’t mutter a damn syllable.” She shook her head, pondering her fellow townspeople. “Quiet as church mice. They sure are. Lord, bless’em.”
“But you’ve never been interviewed before,” Ali said.
“No,” Evangeline replied, ” I sure haven’t. No one wants to talk to the Dark Angel.” She smiled. “All the city folks who come down here on their hunts, they think I’m crazy. A crazy old woman.”
“Why are you so eager to talk, Mrs. Murphy?” Stewart asked with full manners.
“I’m not a missus anymore, young man. Not for a long time.” She tapped her cane on the floor for the times past. “I’m willing to talk, because, well, I don’t have anyone else much to talk to. Most of my friends are dead.” She laughed at herself, “And I do love to gossip!”
Ali let Evangeline’s laughter subside. “Everyone seems afraid to talk,” she said. “We can’t even say the name Mallet Man.” Ali saw Stewart slightly cringe out of the corner of her eye.
“Yeah, people are afraid,” Evangeline said. “And rightly so. He’s real. No doubt. And don’t you forget it. You forget, and it’s bad news all around.” She was quiet for a second, to catch her breath. “I’m not much afraid though. Especially not of dying. I have no fear of that at all.” She laid her cane down beside her chair. “Besides, I don’t think Mallet Man would ever hurt me. I helped to raise the boy.”
“Back in 1939, that was the year he was born, I was a seamstress, a cook, an all around maid, you see. My husband was a carpenter; he worked with his daddy. I was friends with his mamma. We did odd jobs around the town, doing sewing for folks and the like. I still remember the day he was born. Cold. A very cold day in October. And Lord, the storm that was howling that evening! Thunder exploded in the sky, and lightning strikin’ everywhere; started three different fires the best I can remember.
“But, my, he was a beautiful baby. But you knew there just was something different about him, you know. His mamma knew it. She could see the mark upon the boy. There was a stain on his soul. Even then.
“They named him Edwin. That’s his name: Edwin Gornick. I don’t really know where all that Mallet Man business comes from. If he’s after you, he doesn’t use any particular weapon; the man will use his bare hands to gut you.
“But he was beautiful, like I said, a beautiful baby boy. He was different, though. A quiet child. Always to himself. He was touched, you see, touched in the head. Maybe by the Devil, only God knows for sure. Such a beautiful little boy, but when he looked at you….Even when he was a baby on up older…when your eyes met his, you could see the Devil turning the wheels in his head.
“It was in 1946 that his parents passed away. Caught the flu, the both of’em. His daddy caught it first, then his mamma came down with it just a couple weeks later. That was in November of ‘46. It didn’t take long. They were gone by Christmas.
“So what were we to do? He was left an orphan, poor little thing. No other family around these parts, or anywhere, that could be found. What were we to do? So Bartlett, that was my husband…so Bartlett and I, we decided we would take him in. Raise him with our children, Ronald and Marilyn. Now, you might think a colored family taking in an orphaned white child would raise a fuss, especially in those days. But it didn’t. He was backwoods white, you understand. Nobody really cared about him.
“Sure, folks all said what a shame it was, a little boy losing his parents like that, and nowhere for the little fellow to go, and they all said something should be done to help him. But it when it came down to it, when it was time to help, none of’em ever stepped up to the plate, like you say. They sure talked a good game, though.
“So we took him in. We had good intentions. His parents were our friends….Looking back, I realize it was a mistake. We were just wanting to help….We just wanted to help him. Maybe if we had let the state take him, maybe he would have gotten the help he needed. Probably not, though. He probably would have fallen through the cracks and been worse off. If there is anything worse than what he became. Lord, bless him.
“Edwin was okay at first. Don’t get me wrong, it was a big adjustment for him. He didn’t come out of his shell right away. There are times, I wish the boy had never come out of his shell.
“It was new for him, all right. Me and Bartlett didn’t want to replace his parents, but there we were, new parents. And he had a brother and a sister, something he had never had before. Now my kids were older than him, so he was the baby in our family. Our children were already teenagers, and they did make a fuss over the new little one.
“He was shy, at first. Withdrawn, I guess you could say. He stayed to himself a lot, just watching things go on around him. I think, now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think on it, Lord Jesus, the years go by. I think, now, he wasn’t just watching us, he was stalking us, in a way, you know. Looking for weakness. I’m telling you, with all the Saints in Heaven as my witness, that child was just born bad. His very presence made a person uncomfortable. Like I said, you could see the Devil turning his wheels.
“Everything was fine those first few years. As fine as such a thing could be. We struggled through it, not that we didn’t struggle before he came to live with us. We struggled after, also. But he found a routine, you know, we all did, in the family. Marilyn, our daughter, doted on him. She said it didn’t matter if he was an odd little creature, she loved him anyway. Marilyn always wished he were younger, still a baby, just so she could hold him in her arms.
“But things change. Things always seem to change, don’t they, even when you don’t want them to.
“It was in 1951, summer of that year, when it happened, when change really came on us. Eddie, that’s what we called him; Eddie turned twelve that year, right at the end of Spring. It was that summer, in July, that he killed our son. July 29. That was the day he murdered Ronald. It was a Sunday.
“We didn’t think he did it at first. We had come home from church, and after our family meal, the boys went to play outside like they always did when they had some free time. Out in the woods behind the house where we used to live. I think Eddie really ever played though. I think he would just wander around out there. Getting the lay of the land, I guess.
“The river wasn’t far from our home. Once you crossed the fields, there was this steep bank that led down to the water. We thought Ronald had fallen.
“It was my husband who found him. It was getting dark and the boys had yet to come home. That was like them. Soon as the sun was setting, Ronald would get on home. And Eddie would be following along behind him.
“Bartlett went searching for them. He found Ronald down there by the river. We figured he had fallen, and that’s what killed him. Eddie must have gotten scared and ran. Hid somewhere, afraid. He was nowhere to be seen.
“Ronald was mighty beat up. From the rocks, falling down the bank like that. That’s what we figured.
“My husband, and some of the other men folk, they were out late looking for Eddie. He must have been so scared. They never could find him. It wasn’t until the next day he showed up. Come out from the woods, pretty as you please. Gloomy as always; couldn’t tell if he was upset or not, really.
“We were happy to see him. To know he was okay. First thing Eddie said to us was, ‘He fell.’ We didn’t have to ask, he just told us. And he never said another word about it. Though, he never said hardly two words about anything.
“It was after the funeral when I began to think otherwise about the whole thing. Bartlett, he had thought different long before then. He thought it was something more than an accident from the very beginning.
“’A fall wouldn’t have done all that,’ Bartlett told me later. He told me how our son had looked; I never saw his body, you see; my husband said it would have been too much to bear. He always thought I was delicate. But I never saw our son’s body, because my husband told me not to. Some of the other men folk, though, they saw him, they agreed with Bartlett. It was more than a simple fall.
“Bartlett told me one night, ‘Something’s got to be done. About the boy. Something’s got to be done.’
“A part of me didn’t want to believe the truth about it all. That mother part of me, you know. I had come to think of Eddie as my own child. I just couldn’t believe he would do such a thing as kill Ronald. Only the mother part of me believed that. The other part of me, that rest of my heart, it knew. It knew Bartlett was right. And it knew something did have to be done about Eddie. For our daughter’s protection, and for our own safety. The safety of us all, you understand.
“Eddie only looked like a child. On the outside. On the inside, he was something far worse. Far worse indeed.
“Bartlett said he would take of it. And I let him. That, too, was a mistake.
“I’m not a murderer, I’m not a killer. And to do what had to be done, especially to someone who was almost a child like Eddie, it took a heartless, cold-blooded killer to do the job. But Bartlett was no murderer, either, you understand. But he felt it fell to him to do it. ‘It’s my responsibility,’ he said. But the only responsibility in such matters falls to the Devil.
“I watched them go off that morning. It was a Friday, in September. Bartlett told Eddie he wanted his help in clearing one of our neighbor’s fields. It was a lie, of course. I think Eddie knew it was. I watched them from the door, they just walked off into the woods. I could hear Marilyn sleeping, hear her breathing nice and even. It was so calm and quiet that morning. It was a gray morning, I remember that too.
“They walked off, Bartlett carrying his old homemade tool box and Eddie following along behind him, just like a little church mouse. It seemed those trees just swallowed them right up. It was like they just disappeared from my sight.
“I didn’t see Bartlett again until Saturday morning. His cousin, Bartholomew, helped me to look for him when he didn’t come home. We found his body tore up, and cut open, not far from the doorstep of our house. I never heard him scream. His head had been bashed in; he didn’t even have much of a head left. He was tore up something awful. And it looked like some of his insides were missing.
“I took my daughter, and we left that house that day. Never went back there.
“I never saw Eddie again, either. Still haven’t, after all these years. All these years…Lord, how they pass by….Bless and protect us.”
Deputy Clark, barely free of his teenage years, held the door open for Ali and Stewart while they entered the Sheriff’s Office as he exited. Deputy Clark, dimpled and fair-haired, allowed his eyes to check out the shapely female reporter from head to toe and back up again, pursing his lips at the sight of all of her.
“One more admirer for your list,” Stewart said once it was safe.
Ali trudged up the stairs. “If you want all the attention, you’ll have to move on from internship.”
“I get the couch,” he said, pushing past her to the door at the top. He opened the door and the dim light greeted him with the visage of the paper mache’ dog head. He jumped back with prissy gasp.
Ali shoved him aside and crashed on the couch next to the head. “Grow a pair,” she said.
Stewart closed the door. He handed Ali a small digital recorder from his coat pocket as he passed to a cot and stretched out.
Ali held the recorder in her hands for a brief second, curiosity stirring her thoughts, and then let it drop to the raveled cushions. “Do you think it’s real?”
Stewart had his arm thrown across his face. He sighed. “I don’t want to think about it. How could they let a madman, if he is real,” he stressed, “roam free all these years. This goes back decades, for crying out fucking loud.” He moved his arm and stared at the water damaged ceiling. “This whole town is messed up. If he is real.”
“There’s something here,” Ali said. “No telling what. But somebody is doing some strange work.”
“Do you believe Evangeline?”
“Hard not to.”
“Maybe they just make all this shit up,” Stewart said. “To scare people. Fake all the reports and accidents. Old Man Terrorizes Small Town.”
“The missing people? The murders? Not all of them are faked. These are actual cases. You’ve read them, file after file. Gillis and whoever can fake the reports here in Sterling River, but people from all over the country have gone missing in this area.”
Stewart asked softly, “And if he is real?”
She shrugged. “I’ve never reported on a real monster before. UFO’s, yeah. Ghosts, sure. Demons, goblins, and gremlins.”
Stewart raised his head and looked at her, waiting. But Ali had no other answer.
Frederick jumped awake. A hand was welded over his mouth and he struggled in his bed to free himself from it, but the man it belonged to bore down on him.
“Quiet!” his father hushed him. “Quiet! Quiet!” he desperately urged him.
Frederick stopped his protests, his heart still beating in his ears.
The elder Kroenger withdrew his clammy hand, making a fist to hide his trembling whether or not his son could see it in the dark.
“Poppa,” Frederick said, but his father’s hand sliced the air to suppress any noise.
Kroenger whispered, dense and deliberate, in his son’s ear: “He is here.”
Expectant chills scurried over Frederick’s skin like roaches running from the light. He moved his head up and down, as heavy and weightless as it was, letting his father know he understood.
Boards strained in hallway.
“Go,” Kroenger commanded his son. “Find Gillis.”
Frederick slipped from bed as his father stood guard at the door. He opened the window and slipped over the sill into the blowing night.
“Poppa,” he said, holding himself half inside.
Kroenger held his finger to his lips and waved his son away.
Frederick caught a last glimpse of his father easing the door open to look, and then let himself drop from his upstairs window to the muddy ground below, bending his knees and rolling on his landing.
He looked up at the window, hoping his father would have a change of heart and follow, but knew he wouldn’t. Frederick abandoned his spot and slunk along the side of the house. He didn’t notice the downstairs window open until he crossed in front of it, the den curtains merrily licking his face as he passed. The open window didn’t register in his mind until the hands stuck out from the darkness and wrapped around his neck, snapping bones as they lifted him off the ground into the spiritless void of the house.
Kroenger was on the landing at the head of the stairs when he heard the commotion in the den. He heard the crack of bones, the skuddle of legs kicking out against the furniture and floor until there was no life left in them.
Kroenger half leaned, half collapsed to the wall, the sinking in his stomach and the slow throb of his heart knowing he had just listened as his son was murdered. He tried to force his feet down the steps, but they drug at the edge and he nearly fell. The wind was growing outside, and he could hear nothing else.
He fell back, and laid their sprawled on the stairs. “Take me,” he said aloud to the darkness. “Come and get me! Do your worst, you murdering bastard!”
Kroenger found strength and sat up. “Kill me!” he screamed and stood. He marched the couple paces back up the stairs and flicked the light switch.
The chandelier blazed and Mallet Man stood inches from him, their noses nearly touching.
“YEEE-AHHH!” Mallet Man shrieked a banshee-like yell that cut life itself to halves.
Kroenger stumbled back, clutching his chest and eyes bulging. Mallet Man caught him by the shirt and pulled him back from the stairs.
“YEE-AHHH!” he screamed again in Kroenger’s face and tossed him onto the landing.
Kroenger slid across the wood, knocking his head against a table. Dazed, he tried to crawl away, his right arm tingling, his chest tightening.
Mallet Man stomped on Kroenger’s ankle, crushing the bones. Kroenger bellowed, but Mallet Man tossed his sweat-slicked bald head back and bellowed with him, spitting into the air, and drooling like a mad animal.
Kroenger cradled his ankle. “Please,” he said through the tears and gasps, “be merciful.”
Mallet Man raised a club over his head. He laughed and swung.
As it came down, just seconds before he felt the full impact across his face, Kroenger realized the club was his son’s leg.
Dale and Merle Glenn climbed down from their tree hut in the early morning light, stretching and farting and shaking off what fears they may have had of the dark and the things what lurked in it. They had had a clear view of the land and the cattle from their treetop view, but the night had passed as quiet as a graveyard, just as they had secretly hoped.
Leland, their father, crossed the far field in a jeep, pulling to stop beside them as they emerged from the bordering trees.
“Nothing at all last night,” Merle told him, sounding disappointed and disgusted, stowing his rifle on the back seat.
Dale held on to his gun. “Hide nor hair of it. Not a damn thing.”
Leland said, “Him. Not it.”
Dale and Merle grinned, amused.
“He’s a man. Don’t forget that,” their father said soberly, and their smiles vanished. “Get in,” he told them, “the sheriff called me. He wasn’t here last night because he had business in town.”
They climbed in and hung on. Leland sped away across the frosty field, yelling above the engine: “Sheriff wants our help.”
Sheriff Gillis kicked the door in, splinters erupting, hinges raped and screaming. He charged into the Kroenger home huffing and spat a wad of slime on the floor.
“Look!” he hollered. His face was red and his cowboy hat was crooked. Veins pulsed and protruded from his neck. “Look!” he pointed at the body of Frederick Kroenger. “You can’t even recognize his father’s body!”
Ali Thomlan, tentative, crossed the threshold and viewed the body. This is why Gillis had woken them, ranting and raving; he wanted them, her in particular, to view the handiwork. Her stomach did loopty-loops; she would have sworn her intestines twisted into knots. She thought it was a good idea that she had told Stewart to wait in the patrol car. He certainly would not have been able to stomach this.
“You did this,” Sheriff Gillis through the words out like bile. “You, Miss Reporter. You come down here with your big city-”
“Oh, shut the hell up,” Ali said calmly. “My big city what? Ideas, ideals, moral decay, inquisitive mind? Big City Snooping?” The sheriff’s neck veins beat stronger, but she continued, encouraged by it. “How many times have you given this speech, Sheriff Gillis? Or is this the first time you have given the age-old Big City Speech?” She stood toe to toe with him, his trenchant breath stinging her nose. “Is that it, this your first time? Are you a Big City Virgin?”
Gillis took three steps back from her. The anger never left his face, but the fire had been dowsed. He cleared his throat, thought of spitting, but didn’t and swallowed it. “The fact is,” he said, “these people wouldn’t be dead if you had never shown up in Sterling River. You, or you little friend out there.”
“No,” she said pointedly. “The fact is, these people, and a lot of others, wouldn’t be dead, if something had been done about Mallet Man a long damn time ago.”
Gillis huffed. The red had slowly seeped from his face. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he said. The words were infused with years of regret.
Stewart stood in the doorway. “Those men are here to see you.”
Gillis sidestepped Ali.
“Leland Glenn. And his sons.” Stewart let the sheriff pass. Ali followed quickly after him.
“Everything okay?” Stewart asked.
“Yeah,” she answered absently.
The guest accommodations were used as a meeting room. A map of the Sterling River and the surrounding county was laid out on the table. A red circle was drawn at the center over a large portion of forested area.
“He’s somewhere in here,” Sheriff Gillis said. “It’s a big area. The heart of the county. This is where his home is,” he waved his hand over the circle.
Leland looked to the group. “We,” meaning he and the sheriff, “we have a good idea where his home is. Where he lives.”
“How?” Stewart asked.
Leland and Gillis looked at each other, waiting for the other to speak. Gillis finally did.
“We found his shack once.” Gillis sat down, propping his elbows on the table. “Years ago. We were out hunting.”
Leland added, “Came up on it by accident. Complete accident.”
Gillis agreed. “I’m sure if he knew it, he would have killed us.”
“You never told us that, daddy,” Merle said.
“Best not to, I imagine,” Leland told him.
“No one else has ever found it?” Ali asked.
“No one goes there,” Gillis said. “We all know better than to trespass.”
“And those who have found it…” Leland said. “Well, they weren’t alive afterward to talk.”
Dale examined the map. “You think you can still find it?”
“Been a long time,” Gillis said.
Leland nodded, pushing the memory back as best he could. “We were scared shitless we when we saw it.” He thought, recalling but not wanting to. “We saw him inside, through a makeshift window. We turned tail and ran.”
“Who the hell wants to remember?” Gillis asked quietly. “I wouldn’t bet my life on the exact location.” He instantly chastised himself for the choice of words.
“It’s somewhere in the north part,” Leland indicated inside the red circle.
Dale straightened his back and popped the tension in his neck. He mustered just enough country boy bravado. “Lets kick this bitch in the teeth!”
“Why do we have to go?”
Sheriff Gillis glanced at Stewart in the setting light. A strong wind whipped the trees overhead. “We’re in this together, Mr. Big City,” he said.
“Besides,” Ali said, “it’ll make a damn good story.”
“We don’t even have guns,” Stewart complained as they hiked along. “Why don’t we have a gun?”
“You ever shot a gun?” Dale asked.
“Then you don’t get a gun,” Leland said leading the way through the brushwood.
Ali patted Stewart on the back. “Plus, we’re expendable.”
“Fucking great thing to say,” he said, knocking sweat from his eyes.
They marched on in silence, the calls of the wild bursting forth around them. The light was all but gone and the dark sackcloth of night was creeping over them. The group only stopped long enough to catch a breath and for Dale to take a piss. Ali was amused by it; Stewart turned his back in disgust.
The Dark Angel, Evangeline Murphy, sat in her favorite chair, sipping tea with an old family Bible resting on her lap. She could hear the stray neighborhood cats at her back door, pawing and meowing in the wind, waiting to be fed. But she dared not move, she especially dared not to step foot outside.
“Not tonight,” she muttered. “No. Not tonight.” She sat her tea cup down and gripped her Bible. “This is no night to be out.”
The wind roared outside.
“Listen to that,” she said. “There’s a storm coming.” Her voice was loud in her empty house, and it bothered her. She whispered, “Dear Lord Jesus, bless and watch over us all.”
Night had come on full over the hunting party. The wind thrashed its strong arm, and every breath and whimper not of the group punctured their ears and startled their senses to full attention.
The cold gnawed at them as they treaded cautiously in the dark, feeling their way around trees when sight was impossible, stumbling more times than naught.
Stewart pulled a pen light from his jacket. Before he barely got the thin filament of beam on, it was quickly slapped from his hand . He didn’t know who had done it, but he got the point loud and clear.
“Rest,” Gillis said plainly and the company halted.
Ali leaned against a tree, shivering. Gillis and Leland stood near her, shielding her from the breeze.
“Are you okay?” Gillis whispered.
She rubbed her arms for warmth. “Yes,” she said, teeth chattering.
“We’ll keep you safe, ma’am, don’t worry,” Leland said.
Sheriff Gillis snorted. “She’ll keep us safe.”
Ali smiled, though she doubted he could see she appreciated the compliment.
A quick succession of two bolts of lightning stretched across the sky. Leland and Gillis looked around as a reflex.
Stewart and Dale were at Leland’s side.
“Where’s Merle?” Leland asked. Tension pulled his breath. He urgently pulled at his sons sleeve. “Dale, where’s Merle?”
Dale spun his head wildly, getting nervous. “He was behind me, daddy, honest. He was behind me.” He cupped his hands and yelled, “MERLE!”
Gillis slapped him across the head. “Shut up!” he said. “You want to get us all killed?”
“No!” he answered, still too loud. “But Merle-”
“Shut up!” Stewart said.
“Everybody calm down,” Gillis said.
Leland pulled Dale close to him. “How long has he been gone?”
“I don’t know.”
They huddled together, Gillis poking his head up as look-out.
Ali asked, “When was the last time any of us saw him? It’s been a while since I noticed him.”
“I don’t know,” Leland said.
No one knew.
“We have to find him,” Dale said, “he’s my brother.”
“We’ll find him,” Ali assured him.
Lightning struck a tree, setting it afire. They jumped, bathed in orange-red glow.
Stewart clung close to Ali. “I think we should turn back.”
“No! No way!” Leland said, his voice rising. “We came here to do a job.”
Branches snapped, limbs broke. Somewhere it sounded like a tree fell. The night was brimming with noise and panic.
“Merle is missing!” Dale yelled at Stewart, as if he did not know the newest obstacle they faced.
Ali tried to calm the situation. “We can’t lose it here, people. We have to stay on target.”
Then the shriek drilled through the chaos of the words and wind and fire. “YEE-AHHH!”
Ali gasped, clenched at her throat. Stewart felt warm urine spread across the front of his pants and run down his leg.
“What the fuck?” Dale screamed, raising his rifle.
“Oh, shit,” Leland said. He had his gun up at the ready, as did Gillis.
Stewart partially hid behind Ali. “Why couldn’t we have gone to Florida? Why, dear God, why?” Salty tears ran down his cheeks.
A WHOOSH through the air and a rifle hit Leland across the face. He fell, holding his head. Gillis pointed his rifle in the direction it came from and fired blindly.
Stewart covered his ears. “Did you get him? Did you get him?”
Dale was checking on his father and tossed the thrown rifle aside. “It’s Merle’s, daddy! It’s Merle’s gun!”
Leland moaned. A hole gaped across his forehead. “Oh, shit, daddy. Sheriff!”
Gillis had his gun raised, eyes to the dark, his finger itching at the trigger. “Not now,” he said.
“But he’s hurt bad,” Dale protested.
Ali knelt beside them. Stewart was glued to her side and trembling. “Let me see.”
Flames were falling from the tree and lightning still scarred the sky, thunder booming. Gillis was keeping calm, marginally. Dale was waving his rifle around like a madman, taunting their unseen attacker.
“Come on!” he shouted. “You want a piece of me you bastard?”
Gillis dodged out of the line of Dale’s sights. “Do you want to kill us?” he said and pushed the gun barrel away, but Dale mistook the action, thinking Gillis was trying to relieve him of his weapon. He shoved the sheriff. Gillis fell back onto Stewart.
A craze warped Dale’s face in the fiery glow. “We’re to do a job, aren’t we?” he hollered. “Let’s do it!”
Ali’s attention was elsewhere. She was tending to Leland, wiping blood from his head, trying to apply pressure, but the crimson river still flowed. She gave no mind to Dale.
Stewart sat up, looking from Dale, who seemed mad and was now scaring him, to Gillis who had climbed to one knee using his gun as a support, to Ali who was all-consumed with the injured father of the raving lunatic.
Gillis was calm, calculating their chances of survival. If Mallet Man didn’t get them, Dale would probably get them killed in some fashion.
Leland was moaning.
“Let’s kill this piece of shit!” Dale was screaming.
The screech came first. “YEEE-AHHH!”
Somehow, startled beyond comprehension, Dale turned and was tackled to the ground.
Gillis raised his gun to aim.
As he was taking Dale to the ground, Mallet Man flipped forward, springing from Dale, and struck Gillis with his feet, knocking the sheriff backwards and the gun from his hands and breath from his lungs.
Ali and Stewart scattered. Mallet Man was hunched down, poised to spring again. He growled at them. His face was smeared with blood.
Dale rolled over, still gripping his rifle in contracted hands. Mallet Man locked eyes with him. Dale pulled the trigger.
A puff of smoke and a spit of fire.
Dale was off his target. The bullet entered the Sheriff Gillis’s head and exited the other side.
“Shit on me,” Dale grumbled.
Mallet Man stood, casually, and pulled something from behind his back, from the waist of his ratty pants.
Dale’s frightened gaze fixed on it. A steel mallet.
Mallet Man grinned.
Dale’s hands shook, he stared at his rifle blankly, he no longer knew what to do with it or how to work it.
Mallet Man raised his weapon and brought it down. It sunk into the back of Dale’s head with all the ease of a sledgehammer through a melon.
Dale convulsed. He never had to scream.
Mallet Man brought the mallet up from the goo that was Dale’s head, then swung again, adding the sound of crushing bone to the roar of wind and thunder.
Dale’s body jerked once, and no more. Mallet Man dropped to his knees. He buried his face in the brain, bone, and gore, lapping it up and snorting like a hungry little pig. He stopped. His head tilted. He looked at Ali and Stewart cowering in the burning light.
“I…I…” Ali stuttered. She realized she had never been more terrified in her life than right then staring down this wild thing. “I…oh, God….”
Mallet Man jumped up. Ali, in some numb back part of her mind, wished she could see his face clearly, more detail. He wasn’t that tall in stature, and moved more than well for someone his age, or far younger, and his profile and silhouette were so plain, so human; would he look average as well? Would his face be just that, a man?
“Don’t kill us!” Stewart screamed, crying and blubbering like a fool. “Don’t kill us! OH FUCK DON’T KILL ME!”
Mallet Man laughed. It started small but grew like the howling wind, loud and full and disgusting.
Ali discovered she, herself, was crying.
Mallet Man’s laughing fit stopped abruptly. He hunkered down over the sheriff’s body and raised his mallet high.
Ali was up and running before the mallet came down. She didn’t see it, but she heard it. And that was enough for her.
Ali was running, vaguely aware of someone running after her. She pictured the nightmare of Mallet Man hot on her trail, grinning absurdly, and she thought she heard his insane chuckle. She made her legs continue, though an ache had developed in her muscles, starting in her calves hind legs and working up. Her heartbeat tripled.
She faltered and fell, picked herself up and never lost pace. Running and crying and praying. How far to the car? Was this even the right direction? She didn’t know.
But she did hear something. Something was following her. Someone was back there.
She heard it again.
Was it a laugh or a sob?
“No,” she gasped, hurting and careening through a wall of limbs that slapped her face and made her bleed.
She had forgotten about Stewart.
How could you have forgotten? She asked herself, and wondered how she was supposed to answer that little voice.
She tripped and ate a mouthful of dirt in the tumble. She spat out the chunky sod and vomited up everything that was in her stomach.
Stewart was beside her now. He tried to pick her up, haul her to her feet, as she heaved and spewed. “We have to go,” he said, dragging her. She could smell the piss and shit from he had soiled himself.
Her retching stopped, but her feet would start. “Stewart,” she gasped. Crying took hold of her.
She craned her head. Stewart was pale.
Mallet Man smiled. “Need help?” he asked again.
Stewart dropped Ali. “Please,” he said, pitiful and plaintive. “I don’t want to die….”
“YEEE-AHHH!” Mallet Man yowled to the sky as lightning danced through the dark clouds. The yell rose up through the tossed trees and met the droning thunder.
Stewart fell to his knees. “Please…please….” He bowed down, begging.
Mallet Man looked down on the pathetic sight. He bore no smile. He stared at Ali. She was curled up, knees to her chin.
“I’m sorry, Stewart,” she said, but the words were overcome by the thunder and air.
The mallet met Stewart’s ribs. He cried out as they snapped and fell over. His voice could not express his pain, his agony reached a pitch none could hear.
“Edwin,” Ali said, struggling to stand. “Mr. Gornick.”
Mallet Man grabbed her by the throat and brought her up to his face. She couldn’t see the details that made his features, only the designs of madness were woven there.
“He’s in here,” Mallet Man said, rubbing his head with the mallet. His hot breath smelled of rot and death. “But we don’t let him out.”
He threw her, discarded her like trash. Then Mallet Man turned his attention back to Stewart whose pain wouldn’t even let him writhe.
Mallet Man stood over him as the first drops of rain began to fall. Stewart’s eyes were wet with tears, unable to close from fear. He stared up at the monster.
The heavens ripped open and the deluge fell.
Mallet Man hammered the mallet into Stewart’s chest, hammered until it gave and flesh was jelly.
Ali crawled before she found the strength to run. She thanked God for the storm, the hard driving rain, for drowning her ears so she couldn’t hear the carnage behind her.
She wasn’t sure where she was going, where she was running to. She knew where she wanted to go, but didn’t know how to get there. She wanted to go home, but couldn’t make it out of the woods.
It was blind luck that brought her to a fence which she failed at climbing over, but was able to crawl under. It was a blessing that on the other side of the fence was a road.
She ran down the road, though running would be stretching the truth. Her muscles were past their limit, and all she could manage was a slow jog. She wouldn’t allow a glance behind, she didn’t want to know if he was there or not. She kept her mind on going forward, but couldn’t keep from springing at every strike of lightning and clap of thunder.
“Please God, please God, please God,” she prayed with every step.
When lights came over a hill, she thought that maybe she had died and was running into the Light she had read, and reported, about so many times.
But it was a car. And it stopped.
She stood in the lights, in the pouring rain, and waited. She didn’t know why, it may have been she had finally given out, that her body was ready for shutdown. Her spirit had already had its last hurrah.
“What on earth has happened to you?” a man said, shielding himself from the rain with a newspaper.
“I was out there,” Ali said. She wanted to point to the woods, but her arm wouldn’t move.
The man talked to someone inside the car. The interior light was on and Ali could see a woman on the front seat. The woman shook her head, agreeing to something.
The man came closer. “You look like you been through some hell.”
“Yeah,” Ali said weakly.
“Well, get in the car. We’ll drive you into town.”
“Thank you,” Ali said.
“It’s all right, no problem at all,” he said. He was close enough for Ali to partially see in the headlights. An older man, with a kind face.
“Thank you,” she said again.
“Your welcome. It’s pouring cats and dogs out here,” the older man said. “Both of you get in the car.”
Ali’s heart sunk. She turned. She met the mallet.
Near dawn, just as gray light peeked over the horizon on another day, the Dark Angel opened her back door and threw out scraps of food to the few cats that still tarried there.
The rain had abated just after two o’clock that morning, and Evangeline Murphy savored the stench of the river that was lofted on the air. That was the one thing she always enjoyed, the smell of rain.
“I’d join you little ones, but these steps are slick, and I’m afraid I’ll fall.” The cats purred and ate up the bits of toast and egg.
The cats arched their backs and hissed. Something moved in the shrubs.
“Here kitty,” Evangeline called to the shy stray. “Plenty here for everybody.”
The thing moved, and its back was to the rising pinpricks of light.
Evangeline couldn’t see his face, didn’t want to see his face, but she knew who it was.
“Good morning,” she said. “You’ve been causing a mess of trouble, haven’t you?”
He didn’t answer.
“I pray for you, Eddie. I’ve never stopped praying.”
The form was gone. He was gone. She didn’t see him move, but the shadows cled him once more.
Evangeline sniffed, and scratched her nose. “Help him, Lord,” she said. “Bless us all.”