Updated: Dec 13, 2018
The thing--the juggernaut--almost looked human, in the same way a child’s crayon drawing might almost look like a horse. The pieces were there, but the proportions were way off. It towered an easy seven feet, even with the clear curvature of the spine that gave it a sideways hunch. The body was inhumanly wide, like an upright grizzly. The hands, a dark shade of ashy gray, were hairy and composed of fingers like sausages and nails blackened from blood ruptures. As it dragged the sledgehammer across the pavement, it moved with an arrhythmic gait, as if it were still learning to walk on two legs of different sizes.
Like a chimera from the ancient stories, this creature stalking ever closer was made up of mismatched parts. The head didn’t come close to anything remotely human, but its visage is burned into the core of my memory in a place where no amount of therapy will ever allow me to forget.
The face, if you can call it that, was coated in black scales and comprised of an elongated snout that formed the top half of a jaw. The bottom was equally long, connected at a hinge like that of an alligator, with ivory hooks growing wildly in every direction from the maw. If the monster had any eyes, I couldn’t see them.
The lipless orifice hung open, exposing a wet tongue tangled in the jagged rows. The teeth were overgrown like a cancer, and there was no way the mouth could ever close without shredding the gums to pieces. I don’t know how it ate, and I wasn’t keen on finding out. The noise coming from within was a wheezing gurgle, steady, with each shallow breath.
For the life of me I can’t figure why, but somebody had gone through a lot of effort to dress him. On the outside, an extra long black duster. Beneath, the body was more or less contained within a long-sleeved blue jumpsuit, and on its feet were a new pair of enormous black tactical boots.
There was a sort of fog about the creature, and as it came closer I realized that the humming cloud around its face was actually a thick swarm of flies. Festering boils on its neck wriggled with maggots, and I became dizzy just trying to fathom what I was beholding.
This must have been what they thought of when they first invented the word “abomination.”
I kept my Beretta steady, waiting for the thing to charge. With the way it ran back at the bowling alley and in the cemetery, I likely wouldn’t have but a split second--if that--to take it down. The gun was pointed at the widest point on its center of mass--the chest, where I quickly noticed a cluster of bullet holes already in the jumpsuit, stained black.
Looks like I hit him already.
Whatever this thing was, my pathetic 9mm wasn’t going to do more than annoy it. But at this point, running simply wasn’t in the cards. Yet again, I found myself with the ever-familiar feeling of being a sitting duck.
Think fast, you’re running out of time. Options?
Run? Hide? No, too late for that.
Shoot it? The thing took four shots to the chest before you launched him off the car. He’s not going down from bullets. Unless…
Head shot? Could work.
Go for the weapon? Shoot his hands? Also valid options. But even without that hammer, a charge from that thing would be like getting run over by a truck. I need to slow him down.
Slow him down. That’s the play. I can keep a hammer’s distance, but not if this thing starts moving like he did earlier.
I pointed the gun at his knee and fired six shots in rapid succession. The cloud of flies exploded off the monster after the first impact, and the creature stopped.
But it didn’t go down.
It stood still with that expressionless reptilian face.
After a tiny eternity, the thing shifted its weight to the good leg and lifted the wounded one, moving it clumsily forward, then landing. I held my breath and watched as it tried out the injured limb, then dragged the metallic weapon forward and moved its other leg. It had just taken another step, and all those shots had succeeded in doing were jack and shit. The cloud of flies had returned to the area around the monster, and I prepared myself to go out swinging.
When he charges, start shooting.
If there’s a reason God decided not to let me die right then and there, I don’t know what it could be. I’m not a good person. I’ve barely done anything in my time on this earth to make anybody miss me when I’m gone. But whatever the reason, this was not going to be the moment I had to face my maker.
The partial deafness from the gunshots coupled with the situational blinders kept me from noticing the black vans until they had sped past me and screeched to a stop.
I didn’t see where the smoke grenades came from, but the parking lot was swallowed in the thick gray in a matter of seconds. The last thing my eyes were able to pick up was the juggernaut lifting the weapon over its head.
When the shots started, I hit the ground. By my count, I was dealing with at least half a dozen fully automatic weapons. I held my breath and started to crawl away from the fray.
The next thing I remember was waking up on the floor of a moving vehicle with a splitting pain in my side reminding me of all the shit I’d put my body through that day. I was on my back when I came to and sat straight up.
How the hell did I get here?
The van rocked back and forth as we drove. There were no windows back here, only bench seats against the walls and five heavily armed men in camo fatigues and tactical gear. In front of me was a sixth man, only he didn’t have a weapon, or helmet, or any kind of gear. He was dressed in a tan t-shirt and jeans, and when he saw that I was awake, he smiled and said, “He’s up. Good. Welcome back.”
“Where am I?”
I instinctively reached for the spot on my side and found nothing but an empty holster. One of the armed men put a firm hand on my shoulder. His way of saying, “Take it easy. And no sudden moves.”
“Don’t worry. You’re safe now,” said the man in jeans.
“That’s not what I asked,” I said back. “Who are you people?”
“We’ve been watching you for a while, detective. You’re lucky we showed up when we did.”
This is it. I’m finally getting to see the man behind the curtain.
“Where’s Vanessa?” I demanded.
“Wow,” the guy shot back, “You really have no idea what’s going on, do you?”
“I know enough. I know you’re part of some shady organization with reach and pull. I know you’re working on something big, and you’re willing to kill to keep a lid on it. And I know my niece was involved somehow.” I was showing my hand, but at this point I didn’t even care. They had me dead to rights, and even if I played dumb, there was no way they were going to let me off with a warning. “I also know you’re responsible for what’s been going on in this town. The disappearances, the phone calls from the dead, the weather. I don’t know how, but I know you-”
“Let me stop you right there,” he interrupted. “You’re embarrassing yourself. Because not one part of that was correct. Yeah, there’s something going on here, but we’re not it. We didn’t take Vanessa. We’ve been trying for years to find out who--or what--is actually responsible for all of this.”
“Bullshit. You’re saying that this shithole small town just happens to have two secret paramilitary organizations?”
He laughed. “No, no no no. Definitely more than two.”
The van made a sharp right turn and I started tracking seconds. I couldn’t be sure how long I was out, or even how they knocked me out to begin with, but if--if--I made it out of this van alive, I might be able to retrace my steps.
“Let me ask you something, detective. How much time have you spent at that gas station? I mean, concurrently? Because it looks like you actually slept there. That place messes with your head, you know. Most people can’t stand it for more than a couple hours at a time.”
I ignored his question and asked my own, “So if you’re not the ones that took Vanessa and framed me, then who the hell are you?”
“You can consider us... an interested third party.”
“Yeah,” I replied, echoing Spencer’s words from yesterday, “There sure seem to be a lot of those in this town.”
The man pulled a gun out from beneath his seat and pointed it. Before I could move, the men on either side of me clamped down their grips on my shoulders, holding me in place. I looked at the gun and recognized it as my own Beretta.
“You army?” the man asked. “I knew this guy. He was a ranger in the army. You remind me of him.”
“No, I’m not army.”
The man nodded, then stared at the ground, like he was trying to decide what to say next. The van made another right turn and I restarted my count.
“It’s weird that you would be so careful, constantly watching your rearview, switching up cars, keeping an ear to the ground, and still you couldn’t find the tracking device they put in your gun. Don’t worry, we took it out. They have no idea where we are now.”
“The ones that actually took your niece.”
I wasn’t buying this story for a second. After everything they had tried to throw me off the trail, this was just another elaborate set up. But why? Why not just let that thing kill me and be done with it? Were they testing me to see what I knew? How much I had figured out?
“For what it’s worth, we’ve been trying to find her. But these guys are careful. They cover their tracks, avoid every camera, leave no footprints. Then you came along and they got sloppy, they got frustrated, and they sent a knight after a pawn. No offense.”
Oh, fuck you.
He continued, “We’ve finally captured one of their tall guys. And all we had to do was piggyback off their tracking device and follow you until it decided to show. This is a big deal for us.”
The van turned to the right.
They’re driving in circles.
At this point I knew that there were two possibilities: Either this guy was telling the truth, or he was lying. And I couldn’t decide which was worse. But regardless, one thing was clear. I needed to get out of this van if I wanted to live. Once they were done questioning me, I was just a loose end.
“Ok,” I said, trying to buy time, “You’re the good guys. You want to take out the other secret organization. You must know more about them than me, right?”
“You know about planet X? Scientists have known for years that there’s another planet out there, because they can see the effects.” Jesus, does every person in this town talk in sermons? “They don’t know what it looks like or even where it is, but they know it’s there. This organization we’ve been tracking is huge, but all we get to see are the gravitational effects.”
“Gravitational effects? Is that what you call an eighteen year old girl vanishing without a trace?”
He kept the gun pointed at me and reached his free hand into his pocket to pull out a cell phone. As he typed on it one-handed, he spoke, “They sent one of the tall guys to grab her after she left the gas station. We tried to catch up to them, we really did. And, to be frank, we thought she was dead. Until the next day when she showed up for work like nothing had ever happened. Took us a while to realize that the girl that came back wasn’t really Vanessa Riggin.”
“So you took her, right? Kidnapped the double agent for questioning. That’s where this story is headed, isn’t it?”
He pressed a button on the phone and held it out to me while a video played. I instantly recognized the aerial view of Vanessa and Jamie’s neighborhood at night. The source must have been a drone, but it was steady and clear.
“This is the night she officially went missing.”
The camera was wide, but I could see the house in focus. I watched as the front door opened and Vanessa walked calmly to the edge of her driveway in jeans and a yellow t-shirt. She looked down the road at something out of frame, and then I saw it. The sheriff’s cruiser pulled to a stop and she got in the passenger seat. And then, they drove away.
“What is this? What in the ever living fuck is going on in this town?”
“Are you familiar with the theory of ‘Pocket Realities’?”
The steady pop pop pop pop from somewhere in the distance arrested all of our attention. I instantly recognized it as automatic weapon fire, maybe a mile or so out, and I could see the moment the same realization registered on the man’s face. He jumped out of his seat and grabbed a radio from somewhere in the front of the van and yelled into it, “Victor, come in! We hear gunfire, is the package secure?”
There was no response from the other end of the radio, but the gunfire continued. And then, it didn’t. We all held our breath and waited, until the man yelled at the driver, “Turn around, we need to help them.”
I wasn’t going to get a better distraction than this. I jumped out of my seat, wrapped an arm around the man’s neck, and spun him back towards the other men as a human shield. Before he knew it, I had my Beretta again, and it was pressed against his head.
“You’re making a mistake. We weren’t going to hurt you.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
I grabbed the handle of the van door, yanked it open, and dove out into the wet grass.
I tried my best to tuck and roll, but I still ripped open my stitches and bruised both elbows before sliding down the hill towards the forest. I could hear the van screeching to a stop while I pulled myself up and ran into the thick cover of the trees.
I spent hours out there in the dark, doing my damnedest to keep moving no matter what. I couldn’t know if they were following me or not, but I wasn’t going to take any more chances. Eventually I hit a creek bed and followed it up stream until I reached an old bridge, then I collapsed under it and slept until morning.
After those few precious hours of rest, I started following the road back towards town. I put my thumb out to the first passer by, hoping I might get lucky, and amazingly it pulled over. The car was a new-model shiny red firebird, and the driver was an old woman that I knew from my childhood, Aggie Sistrunk. She didn’t recognize me. She was already old when I was a kid, and at this point I wonder if she even knows what day it is. Old Aggie offered me a swig of her “medicine” while she drove me back into town. I politely declined. Then she asked me where I was headed, and I gave her the address.
Clyde didn’t get home until around noon, which gave me plenty of time to raid his pantry, clean up my wounds, and of course, search his house for clues. I came up empty in that last category, but I had already assumed that was going to happen. If he were one of them, he wouldn’t be sloppy enough to leave evidence of it in his underwear drawer.
Not that it was really much of an “if” anymore. I saw him in that video. He was the one driving the car that picked up Vanessa on the night she went missing. I should have seen it earlier. Of course the sheriff would have to know what’s going on. An operation this size can’t fly under law enforcement radar forever.
I wasn’t expecting him to come home until much later, but I was ready just in case. I surprised him in his kitchen, and let the Beretta do most of the talking.
“Hey there, Sheriff. Fancy seeing you here.”
He went pale, but he didn’t reach for his gun, or put up a fight. I was hoping he wouldn’t, but prepared just in case. Fortunately, things were working out. I took his gun and walked him into the den. There were no windows in here, no weapons, and the seats were arranged far enough apart that I could sit across from him without having to worry about him making a move.
Once his ass was down on the couch, I poured him a glass of his most expensive scotch and set it on the coffee table in front of him. A professional courtesy.
I took my seat on the divan across the room and broke the long silence.
“I have to assume you know why I’m here.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
“Maybe. Try harder.”
“We found the body in the trunk of Vanessa’s car. I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
“Pull my other leg and it plays jingle bells.”
What followed was another heavy silence. I could see he wanted to say something but couldn’t bring himself to do it. That was fine by me. As long as I was on this side of the gun, I didn’t mind waiting. Finally, he broke down and grabbed the drink and put the whole glass back in one go. Then he said, “Well, how much do you know?”
“That’s not how this works, Clyde. You tell me what you know.”
“I had nothing to do with Vanessa’s abduction.”
“Bullshit. You picked her up the night she disappeared.”
“What? No, I’m not talking about her. I’m talking about Vanessa. The girl I picked up that night wasn’t even-” He caught himself and took a long, sad breath before continuing. “I had very specific instructions for what I was supposed to do if this ever happened.”
“Instructions? From who? Tell me who you work for and this will all be over soon.”
He gave me a chilling look that I’ll never forget and said, “Thanks for the drink, detective.”
I should have been smarter.
I’ll never forgive myself for being so careless. For not giving him a thorough pat down. In the midst of all of my planning it had never even occurred to me that he might have a second piece. The gun in his ankle holster was a PS1 single shot. A pocket shotgun. Before I could scream "No!" he put the gun in his mouth, ate the bullet, and painted the walls of the living room.
Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
My brain kicked into overdrive. Why would he do that? What do I do now? What’s the play?
I had no answers, but an overwhelming urge to get away from here as soon as possible.
The cell phone in my pocket began to ring. Roger was calling.
Do I answer? Does he know what happened? Can he help?
I let it ring while I weighed the options.
What options? There are no options. You leave this house, make sure there’s no DNA, no prints. Get the fuck out of dodge or you’ll go down as a cop killer.
Yeah, my choices were looking pretty limited.
I answered the phone.
“Finally. I was starting to think they got you.”
“Roger, listen to me. I’m in deep shit. Is this line secure?”
“Detective, this might be the only line in the whole town that isn’t being monitored, but I can guarantee you that it’s just the two of us.”
“I need to tell you two things. The sheriff is dead. I didn’t kill him.”
There was a lull in the conversation so long that I had to wonder if I’d been disconnected. And then Roger came back on the line with, “Oh. This is bad. Real bad. Should I assume you are with the late sheriff right now?”
“You can assume.”
“Then you need to get out of there yesterday, because the chatter on the radio is all about the shots fired at the sheriff’s house. And that call came in ten minutes ago.”
I made a break for the front door, but stopped at the window when I saw the flashing lights outside. I turned and ran to the back door, pushed it open, and took off towards the fence. But before I made it two steps I was surrounded. Every deputy was working that day, (actually, all but one) and there were more guns pointed at me then I could count. I dropped to my knees, threw up my hands, and closed my eyes, bracing for the inevitable.
They tackled me hard. Someone pushed his knee against my neck while they twisted my arms behind my back and put on the metal bracelets. A team of them dragged me out front and tossed me into the back of a squad car, and they left me there to cook for an hour. The whole time, the only thing I could think was “Why am I still alive?”
When they had finally sorted out the crime scene, I was taken to the sheriff’s station. I did my best to cooperate, but that didn’t stop them from slamming me into a few walls or taking turns sucker punching me in the back and kidneys. To them, I was a monster. I was lower than garbage. And they were taking me to be with the only other person as bad as me.
The holding room was small, dark, and windowless. Only big enough for two cells, and those cells were just simple metal cages. They threw me into the one closer to the door, then locked the cage behind me. Then they left us alone in there, shutting the door to the holding room and bolting the lock into place.
I looked at the man standing on the other side of the metal bars. The man trapped in the other cage. He smiled and laughed at me from his cot against the wall and said, “You look like shit, Riggin.”
“Yeah, I’ve been better.” I said.
Spencer Middleton stood up and walked over to the bars, leaning against them as he said, “I think you should know something. This is only going to get worse.”
I reflexively took a step back. He’d gotten the jump on me once before, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to stand close enough for him to grab me through the bars.
“I’m not sure it can get much worse.”
“I’ve been in this cell for a week now. Trust me, it’s going to get worse.” He smiled and scratched the scar on his neck.
“I suppose you don’t feel like taking this opportunity to tell me what the fuck is going on, do you?”
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. They’re going to spin a yarn, about you. Just like they did about me. They’ll sell some bullshit. The news will polish the bullshit. The people will eat the bullshit. And you, eventually you’ll start believing it too. They’re all going to lie to you, but not me. I’ll never lie to you. You wanna know why?”
“Because I know that the truth is so much worse.” He laughed another long, self-satisfied laugh and turned to go back to his cot. As he got comfortable he added, “You and me are gonna have a lot of fun, Riggin.”
I looked at the cot on my side of the cell. It wasn’t much. Not long enough for me to lay on without my feet and elbow hanging off the edges, but it was better than the floor. And right now, the idea of getting some real sleep was sounding pretty damned inviting.
I woke up to the sound of a loud Clang against the bars of my cell. The man standing on the other side next to the exit was the one I had left in handcuffs outside of the hardware store the day prior. The bruise over Franklin’s jaw was already a pronounced deep purple, and I have to admit I was a little proud of it.
I could see the thing he had used to wake me--a police baton in his right hand. No doubt this was going to be his turn for a little petty revenge.
Alright. Let’s get this over with.
“Howdy, deputy.” I said, standing to my feet and immediately remembering that my body was still beaten and bruised. If it had been an option, I might have just stayed in that cot until the judge threw the book at me and they put a needle in my arm.
“It’s time for your one phone call.” Franklin said unemotionally.
He led me down the hall and into another small room, where I was pretty sure I was about to get another round of beatings, but shockingly the only thing in there was a small table and a corded telephone which sat with the receiver off the hook next to it. Franklin locked the door and nodded at the table.
What’s going on?
I approached the table, anxiously awaiting some sort of trap, but none came. Once I was certain that Franklin wasn’t going to crack open my skull with his baton, I reached out, grabbed the telephone receiver, and put it to my ear.