John A. Karr
So much more than daylight was slipping from the grasp of Marcus Townsend — he just didn’t realize it yet. Unlike the waning sunshine through his car windows, there was no indication the sands of his final hour were draining fast. As with most people in the prime of their lives, the concept of death was an unpleasant but distant reality; the price of higher intelligence. The pending attack, however, would launch mortality to the forefront of his mind.
Right now Marcus just wanted to get home and hit the trail. He also wanted to hang with the family, but he could do that after dark. It was his turn for a solo jog and these late autumn weekdays were on time-lapse photography, passing too quickly and with little interaction, making it difficult to maximize the nature trail before night descended.
Marcus glared at the red traffic lights, defended his buffer zone from three aggressive
infiltrators and finally made it home. He tossed a greeting to a neighbor as the car engine clicked randomly on the driveway, pressed the code for the garage door and ran upstairs to swap business casual for athletic wear. A twinge of guilt came and went as his wife pulled into the garage with their young son, but it was his turn, so he gave them a quick kiss and hit the road running. The greenway for the nature trail was just around the corner. He took deep breaths and mentally pushed his lethargic body forward. Jogging involved a transition phase, and the tunes from the ipod were a huge boost. Often the hardest part of any workout was starting, and after ten minutes he was through the transition; out and moving after sitting on his ass most of the day and it felt good.
Had he known it would be his last jog — last anything — of course he would have remained with his wife and son. Had he realized he’d become a prey item after the first mile on the asphalt trail, he’d have sprinted home and called the cops.
With the beats pumping, Marcus couldn’t hear the whoops and high-pitched laughter that filtered through the darkening woods, or the crunch and crash of bodies running faster than himself, watching him with a ravenous hunger that went far beyond the need for physical sustenance.
He passed several other people, most headed in the other direction, back toward the road. Walkers, joggers, bikers, even an older guy shaped like a pear carrying a fishing pole and tackle box. That dude had better hurry and get to the ponds unless he wanted to fish in the dark. Or maybe that’s when they’d be biting, though the park was supposed to be closed after sunset unless you were camping in the cabins.
The sun’s rays were already compromised by the branches of the forest, and a mesh of silhouettes enveloped the greenway trail. The effect was lost on Marcus, however, as he ran through with gusto, bumping the ipod volume a notch.
Soon the darkness thickened beneath the trees and crept undeniably outward. His brow furrowed as he thought of his wife donning her jogging tights and getting Jared ready for the jogging stroller with the dog begging to go along. Mentally he shrugged. He’d meet up with them on the return trip and turn her around so they’d make it back before it got too dark. He’d take over the stroller and the leash then and she could run unfettered on the roads illuminated by area and porch lights.
Marcus pushed for more speed and distance. The last of the houses had dropped off some time ago, and trees enveloped the trail. He no longer passed anyone in either direction. He was alone.
Except for the deer silhouettes.
There were either a lot of them on this side of this side park … or they were following him. They were in motion. Galloping or loping or however the hell deer run. Parallel to his position, just beyond the grass and weeds on the sides of the trail. Something must have spooked them. Normally they just stared as you went by. It wasn’t like he had food on him or anything.
The things were close. Now and then a pet dog might give chase but deer had little reason to fear people. Weird how something set their eyes aglow. Eye shine, the television nature shows call it. But normally a light would be shining into their faces to create the effect, and the sun had been swallowed by the forest.
They ran ahead and circled back repeatedly, all the while tracking him with those glowing eyes. Closer now. Boldly closer.
And … they were changing. Their bodies were thickening. Torsos swelled. Necks lengthened and bulged with muscle better suited to elk rather than any deer around here. Skulls larger than his own bobbed up and down and then hovered over the ground in a posture like … stalking. The ears rounded and swivelled toward him. He squinted at the black around the parted mouths and fear stabbed him in the belly at the sight of jagged white teeth.
Was his mind playing games in the darkening twilight? No. He didn’t know what this was, but it wasn’t right. This was danger. He stopped and jerked the ear buds out, shouted for the animals to scatter. Waved his arms.
They slowed and stalked forward. Spread out. Tactically.
Whoops and maniacal laughter mixed with his shouts. They surrounded him with their thick bodies. Broad heads raised and lowered, teeth bared. One charged, jaws snapping air.
Marcus kicked at the unnatural beasts and raised his fists. Tried to maneuver one of them in front of the others, but they kept moving in and out. When one lunged for his leg, Marcus cursed, side-stepped and launched his heel squarely into its side. It was a powerful side kick, and should have propelled the beast backward. Instead, it merely thudded against a hard rib cage better suited for a —
He turned and turned, kicking out, shouting at them, shouting for help, and all of it seemed to excite them into a new series of whoops and mocking laughter.
One of the beasts — they were both strange and familiar but bore no resemblance to deer anymore — lunged with a cry, clamping down on his shin. He struck at the thick skull, but the snap of bone and flash of brilliant pain told him his efforts were woefully ineffective. He fought for balance, but it jerked him off his feet.
Flailing now. He cried out in pain and desperation and realized he wasn’t going to make it out of this.
One leaped for his throat. He caught it just beneath the jaws and bashed its snout. The others descended upon him in a rush of biting and tearing, blood and snapping bone.
* * *
Despite huffing breath and growing weariness after two miles of pushing the jogging stroller while quasi-controlling Buster on the leash, Layne smiled as they rounded the graceful curve of the trail. That her son misidentified the deer that raised their heads above the undergrowth was a lighter moment in her ongoing quest to stay in shape, made more challenging since it was hubby’s turn for a solo jog. Her smile faded as Buster spotted the herbivores on the gentle rise and lunged for what seemed the millionth time tonight.
Next time Marcus takes the dog, she decided, counter-tugging on the leash.
With so many factors vying for her attention, it was understandable that Layne Townsend could miss the red splatter leading off trail.
“Look, look, Mommy! Lionssss-ah!” Jared laughed in delight, pointing. To him, the stroller was an open-roofed Range Rover on safari through the African bush, just like in one of the preschool videos they watched over and over again. “One, two, three lions!”
“No, honey. Just deer. Girl deer are called does. About as far from lions as you can get, except maybe a bird or a fish.”
“Lion, lion, lion!” Jared pumped up and down with his little sneakers against the foot rod of the stroller.
He’s got too much energy … should let him run a bit on the grass, she mused.
Layne had been hoofing it pretty well so she slowed to a walk and hauled back on Buster’s leash. She was a strong young mommy, but not quite strong enough for both the stroller and a dog as muscled as Buster when he catches a whiff of game animal — and now his Boxer eyes were bugging from the peepshow of wildlife and he panted with renewed vigor. His leather collar creaked as he leaned into the effort, forepaws rising and muscled buttocks flexing.
“Mommy, those are lionnnnsss,” Jared said. “Good thing Buster ‘tects us, huh?”
She grunted and hauled back on Buster’s leash.
“Mommy did you, did you hear me? I said …” and with the irrepressible energy of youth, Jared repeated his assertion.
If she didn’t reply, he’d loop it. “Yep! Good thing Buster’s protecting us, Jared-honey! But deer are nice. It’s our dumb dog that wants to go chase them for fun.”
Jared giggled at the rocking motion and the look on Buster’s face.
“Buster, no!” was all Layne could manage right now.
“It’s not really funny, Mister.”
Jared leaned over the side and grinned back at her while humming. He clapped his hands. “Buster with a B. Buster with a B! Buster with a B-B-B!”
A fresh batch of giggling. It came at the same time as Jared’s performance, but from a different direction. Then a series of whoops.
Layne puzzled over this as she planted her feet and hauled back good on Buster’s leash. She peered nervously around and didn’t see anyone. Goosebumps came with a shudder. Was it the cool air rolling in with the twilight, or something else? She’d never felt threatened on this trail, even here at the furthest point from her home.
One of the deer lowered its head, masked now by the weeds. When it raised up, its face glistened red. A thick tongue licked away blood and flies.
Layne froze for a moment. “You don’t look hurt, girl. So what’s …”
She rolled Jared’s stroller to the far side of the trail and put the brake on, then smacked Buster’s rump but he still wouldn’t quiet down. Together they moved closer. A pit of unease opened in Layne’s stomach. Something unpleasant was among the deer. Most likely one of their own, dead. Coyote attack, maybe.
The deer remained. Their heads turned to one-eye her, lids slowly closing and opening as if winking. They knew she wouldn’t let the dog loose.
The bloodied doe didn’t act wounded. She bent again and came up with fresh blood on her muzzle. The thick tongue licked it off again.
Ugh, she likes it, Layne thought, blanching as she took small steps forward with Buster.
The does froze, tails flapping white. They glanced at one another.
“You guys are too tame in this city park,” Layne murmured. She turned her head slightly over her shoulder, never taking her eyes off the bloodied doe. “Just going over here a sec, Jare.”
“Okay, Mommy. Okay, okay. Okay Mommy.” He turned it into a song.
The animals finally took a few steps back as Layne approached with the huffing and growling and now whimpering dog. She glanced curiously at Buster, then slowly stepped again and peered over the last of the weeds.
Her scream tore through the evening quiet.
The deer gazed at her, in no hurry to leave until other voices sounded and grew louder. Finally one of them stamped the ground and they turned and melted into the woods. Whoops of maniacal laughter mocked her but went unnoticed as she sank to her knees beside the bloodied remains of a man torn to pieces. When she recognized the wedding ring on the dismembered hand, she could not stop screaming.
Behind her, Jared began what would be the first of many crying sessions.
* * *
A year after the demise of Marcus Townsend, the sun again began its descent over a north Raleigh neighborhood. Lars Kelsen rolled up to his rental house in a Jeep Wrangler still coated with sea salt. There was no ocean or intra coastal waterway here in the heart of North Carolina, but it at least had natural areas. This was suburbia; a fairly well-maintained subdivision technically inside city limits but well away from the concrete numbness of downtown. Here, mature trees jettisoned their leaves in earnest, and their dried remnants crunched beneath his tires as he pulled in.
The season of death approached.
He sighed at the darkening days and made a mental note for yard work this weekend. Or if it rained, he’d at least hike with Hooper so the grey wouldn’t own him. Winter at the beach was cold, but there were sunny days that reflected off the ocean and waters of the sound to make it a little more bearable.
This branch of the subdivision bordered the greenway trail. The house made him think of a rectangle flipped on its end. Tall and narrow. Three bedrooms when Kelsen really only needed one, maybe two if family visited. But the place had a fenced yard and a dog door that led into the single car garage, just like his home on the sound at Wrightsville Beach. The rent was about the same as what he’d pay for an apartment, and he didn’t feel so bad about leaving Hooper during the work day.
Beyond the picket fence out back was a fairly steep drop-off punctuated with trees. Less than a hundred yards away, the asphalt trail snaked back and forth over a meandering creek and served as the northern boundary Durant Nature Park.
The proximity to the park had clinched the rental agreement. It was perfect for himself and Hooper. Two hundred and thirty-seven acres of hardwood and pine forest with trails and two sizeable ponds, camping cabins, an on-site ranger dwelling and a few other amenities.
Some kids were playing around the neighbor’s house, and spilled into the road after he turned into the driveway. He didn’t want Hooper to come bolting out and bowl them over, so he didn’t press the garage door opener. Barks from the side yard made him smile for what felt like the first time that day. This contract gig in Raleigh was a ball-breaker, but computer programming had gone dry in Wilmington, the port city near his home in Wrightsville Beach. He could tolerate almost any work situation for six months, as long as he could return to the beach when it was over.
And as long as it pays, he amended.
He opened the front door to a darkening house, pulled off his shirt as he walked. His way of shedding the work day. Thuds sounded against the door leading to the garage.
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’.”
More barks now.
“Christ, gimme a sec, buddy.”
Kelsen turned the deadbolt and pulled. Good thing his hand was still on the knob as the door came for his face. A black shadow shot out, with a tail that slapped Kelsen’s legs, whining and circling back and forth before rising up for a hug. Kelsen squeezed, then told Hooper to get down. Didn’t need that to become a habit with strangers. Not that he wanted strangers coming to the abode unannounced, either. Hooper would bark, then try and play with them. Not much of a guard dog, but the barks were notice enough, and Kelsen was a firm believer in the Second Amendment.
He had enough time to get his shorts and jogging shoes on and pick up Hooper’s leash when the air grew tight. Hooper’s whine of excitement receded, along with the sounds of the kids outside. A chill spread throughout the kitchen.
“Man, we just settled in,” Kelsen protested, his voice thin and distant despite the six foot two frame it emanated from.
He sense of self diminished.
He held the dog leash near the metal clip, like the head of a viper. The rest of it dangled over the floor, and the hand loop swayed back and forth over the hard wood floor like a pendulum. It should have stopped after a moment. Instead it kept swaying back and forth.
And back and forth.
That’s different, Kelsen thought, sweeping the adjoining living room with his gaze.
This ghostly Visitor wasn’t as obvious as most. Typically they presented as they had appeared in their final moments of life. This one wasn’t visible just yet, so it probably hadn’t been standing or sitting or hanging. That pretty much left only one more option for its end-of-life position.
A little voice told him to walk away, and maybe it would leave him alone. Immediately a sharper voice called bullshit; after a dozen or so of these encounters, he knew damn well what to expect. It was here, now, this latest Visitor. Walking in the opposite direction would cause it to simply reposition itself into the next setting.
Kelsen swallowed and walked toward the living room, where the eerie pull was unmistakable. The back of the couch blocked less and less of the floor as Kelsen slowly approached. He could not hear Hooper’s nails on the floor.
The mute, nearly transparent image of a bloodied man in shorts, t-shirt and running shoes. He was on his back, head and shoulders elevated, lower legs torn and bleeding in visceral horror. One hand clutched at something at his throat, while the other formed a ramming fist, elbow high.
This one went down fighting.
Whoever murdered him might have been injured in the process.
No use talking to him. Visitors can’t speak. They just stare with white ovals for eyes. From experience, he knew the gaze was the only thing that deviated from the final repose. He could move about the room and it would track him, though he wouldn’t actually see the movement.
The man was dressed like Kelsen. Something with exercise, or at least comfort.
All at once, the image vanished. Not a gradual fade. Just gone.
The world rushed back. Hooper whimpered softly, shouldered his owner’s leg. Sounds of the kids playing outside came flooding back. The leash dangled straight down.
Kelsen took two big breaths before he bent for the dog’s collar.
“Let’s go, Hoop.”
On the jogging trails, the same Visitor appeared three more times. Enough to let Kelsen know he was stuck with it until he found the person or persons responsible for the man’s demise. From there it was about justice.
And not necessarily the legal kind.
That night, Kelsen scoured the internet for Raleigh area deaths. He started with the current date and worked backward. Pictures and stories of the victim from a year ago were in the cache history of the local news sites.
Animal attack was how they classified the cause of death. “Most likely dogs” was the initial theory, but in the DNA age, this was quickly disproved.
Not the favorite animal of zoos or sanctuaries. Tough and unrelenting predators in the wild, they often perish quickly in captivity.
In any event, this would be a first for Kelsen. Why would the ghost of Marcus Townsend seek justice on an animal?
Perhaps it, or they, still posed a threat. Most likely it hadn’t been a random attack, either.
He searched for the names of family and friends, got phone numbers and email addresses and started networking for leads.
* * *
“Here they come,” Carl Johnson said, waving a trembling arm.
Kelsen turned. The approaching mid-sized sedan was probably only a couple years old, and would have gleamed in the autumn light but for road grime clinging to it. The garage door lifted but the engine cut off before entering.
He gazed at the attractive widow. She was perhaps all of twenty-five — half his age. She unbuckled from behind the wheel, then he politely glanced away from her inquisitive expression. He noted how the shrubs were overgrown. The grass had been cut but not trimmed, so long stems poked up and out around the crawlspace, between the bushes, and around the trunk of the maple tree that dropped a few sporadic leaves every few moments.
Kelsen suspected it was no coincidence his rental house was just on the other side of the nature trail.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you,” the older man beside Kelsen’s Wrangler said. He moved to open the rear passenger door.
Her heels clacked on the driveway as she circled around the back of the vehicle to the rear passenger side door. Tall and athletic, she wore the blouse and skirt with confidence, but her expression held a weariness Kelsen had seen before on other victim family members. Including his wife. Including himself.
Layne hesitated at the sight of Kelsen then pulled the door open. She leaned in and pressed a button to free her child.
“I can get out by myself!” the boy told her, pushing the child harness overhead.
She backed away and turned. “Hi Dad,” she said, kissing the cheek of the man Kelsen had met at a coffee shop a few hours earlier.
“Hello, little girl. I want you to meet –”
“Grandpa!” The boy, free of his car seat, raised his arms overhead. “Grandpa!”
Carl Johnson bent and picked up the boy with a broad smile. “Hey there, young man!”
Jared shook his head. “I’m not … not a man, grandpa. Don’t you know that?”
“Sure you are! Look at ya, gettin’ all big. How was school?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“You guess? Aren’t there some fun things there?”
Layne said looked curiously at her father. “What’s going on, Dad? Who’s this?” She fixed a penetrating gaze on the stranger among them.
Kelsen leaned forward and held out a hand. Her ebony eyes were both alluring and wary. “Lars Kelsen.”
She ignored his outstretched hand. “Cop?”
“Any sort of law enforcement?”
“Then what good are you?”
Kelsen blinked. “I’ve investigated cold cases and identified murderers that would otherwise have gone free.”
“They categorized Marcus’ death as animal attack, not murder.”
Kelsen glanced at the boy, listening attentively in his grandfather’s arms. “I believe it was both.”
She frowned. “The only human tracks around the body were mine.”
“Let’s talk more in the house, honey.” Carl put Jared down.
Inside, they stood in a loose triangle in the kitchen. Ice clinked in their water cups.
“Maybe you can go over that again, Mister Kelsen?” Layne said. “Because I keep hearing the word ‘bullshit’ in my mind.”
“Now, Layne…” Carl said.
“Call me Lars. I don’t blame you. I’d have the same reaction.” Kelsen repeated his synopsis of his latest Visitor.
Layne eyes flashed at her father and then back at the tall man. “So the ghost of my Marcus ‘appears’ to you, but not in a dream, huh? Have you been crazy all your life, or is it a recent development?”
“I know it’s difficult to believe.”
“Mmm. Do you? How would my man know you? Here you live down in Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington. That’s two hours away, and my Marcus didn’t travel much without us.”
“I’m not sure. It could have started when I saw a cold case news story. All I know is that Visitors find me. Marcus found me.”
Her father took off his glasses and wiped the lenses with his shirt pinched between his fingers. “Lars was a crime reporter in Charlotte, honey. He’s not doing that anymore, though.”
“You pay him private investigator money?”
“It’s not a question of money,” Lars said.
“What is it, then? The story? Charity?” she laughed bitterly.
Kelsen looked at the waning daylight outside her family room window. “Peace.”
“From what, white guilt? Is the poor white man feeling sorry for black folk now?”
Kelsen stood dumfounded. He’d experienced victim anger several times before, but it didn’t make it any more palatable.
Carl Johnson frowned and donned his glasses. “Now Layne, your mother and I didn’t raise you like that. This man is trying to help.”
“Right.” She crossed her arms, tapped her glass repeatedly against her elbow. “And his Visitor was Marcus, is that what I’m supposed to believe? My husband on his back with his arms out, frozen in a fight with hyenas or whatever the hell killed him, just staring at this man as a ghost! Daddy, don’t you see how ridiculous –”
“Give him some time, honey. Maybe he can find some answers where the police haven’t.”
“The police don’t have shit but exotic animal DNA! Anybody seen hyenas running around? No! Anybody found someone who keeps hyenas around here? No! And here it’s a year later!”
Jared turned at her tone of voice, rose from the television and came to hug his mother’s legs. Tears streamed down Layne’s face. “It’s all right, honey. Go on back to your video. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Jared gave Kelsen a squint-eyed look. “I don’t like you.”
“Now Jared Townsend, that’s rude,” Carl said. “Mister Kelsen is trying to help.” He took the boy’s hand and walked him back to his chair, then returned.
Layne stared at Kelsen the entire time, one brow cocked high.
Lars made sure Jared was sufficiently absorbed in his animal video. “Have there been any more deaths in the park?”
Layne sighed. “One, a few months after Marcus. A woman. Same … mutilation. Same mix of animal tracks around her body. Same DNA on the wounds. Hyena, mixed with deer.”
“So, what we have are rare predators for this side of the world, and deer.”
“Yeah, those deer must be curious. Gawkers. Like people at the scene of a car wreck. Maybe they like the salt of blood or something.” Layne shrugged. “Cops staked out the area for weeks and found nothing. Deer turn up dead now and then. Dogs go missing. Our Buster got out one night. Got to barking and whining so I put him out back. He pushed a loose picket in the corner and we never saw him again.” Her eyes swelled with tears.
“Sorry. I’m a dog guy too.”
“Regardless of where the beasts are that did this, animals are not human murderers, Kelsen. I ask again … why would my Marcus appear to you?”
“I get Visits from victims of unresolved murders. If the animals were the weapons …”
Silence settled between the three of them.
“Mind if we all swap cell numbers?” Kelsen said. “I’ll also give you my address. The house I’m renting is close, just across the trail from here.”
“How often did you say you’ve done this?” Layne said, taking a few steps for the kitchen table and pulling her cell phone from her purse.
“A dozen or so. It isn’t for kicks. They haunt me until there’s resolution.”
Layne’s eyes went wide. “Don’t you mean conviction? I want the man, woman, or people who set these animals on Marcus in jail!”
“Resolution doesn’t always include the criminal justice system.”
She paused, then slowly nodded.
A few days later, Kelsen was at the job site when he got a text from Layne.
Campers dead at Durant Park. They’ve closed the park to the public again. Animal tracks like before.
Kelsen texted that he’d stop by after checking on Hooper. His fingers were large and he wasn’t the fastest texter. By the time he finished, voices and clicks and keyboard taps from the cube farm seemed a mile away. He looked up from the phone to the aisle. There was Marcus Townsend in his death pose, trying to keep an unseen hyena from his throat.
Off to the park again, he thought.
This time with some precautionary measures.
* * *
Kelsen pushed the Yamaha 125 two-stroke dirt bike beneath a large oak tree in the woods leading to the upper pond, then leaned branches and dried weeds against it. It was illegal to have motor bikes here, but so was murder. He stared for a moment at the image of Marcus Townsend sprawled across the main trail leading to the ponds. This wasn’t the same area where he’d been found. According to Layne, he’d been at the furthest point along the greenway trail, not in the center of the park at the ponds.
Kelsen moved out of the thin shade and his Visitor kept just before him, leading him toward the earthen dam of the upper pond. Baked and bleached white by the sun, a short dirt road stretched from side to side, with wild grass and weeds growing high on either slope and forest at both ends. The chirping of late season crickets resumed, slowly, in their last days or even hours before being snuffed by frost. The sun’s sloping rays barely lit the golden rod, and grey shadow from the woods stretched long thin fingers onto the end of the road.
This is the place, Kelsen thought, watching his Visitor fade from the idyllic scene of a lone man fishing the smooth water. And this … is probably the murderer.
After a reassuring press of his forearm against the holstered .45 beneath the flannel shirt worn tail-out, Kelsen moved toward the angler.
The man was tall and heavy in his overalls and threw a baleful glance at Kelsen’s approach. He had narrow shoulders, thick arms, and a gut bulging against a red t-shirt. Clean shaven, and no hair could been seen through the netting of his cap. Work boots ground against the pebbles and dirt after he spat. The end of a long grass stem protruded from thick lips.
“How they bitin’?” Kelsen asked, walking up to him and peering out at the pond, where fish swirls puckered an otherwise placid surface.
Kelsen asked again.
“Don’t fancy any company, Mister.”
“Can you spare just a few minutes?”
“More’n I care to share. So how ‘bout you get on your way.”
Kelsen gazed at the calm waters. “You look like you know this park pretty well.”
The narrow eyes squinted.
“Did you know it’s officially closed?” Kelsen asked.
“Ain’t closed to me. Ever.”
“Supposed to be closed to everyone.”
“You here, ain’t ya? Funny you don’t look like Ranger Dan squattin’ down in his little house, piss runin’ down his leg from bein’ scared outta his little mind.”
“Just my understanding.”
“This land ain’t ever closed to me.”
Kelsen nodded. “Do you know who Marcus Townsend was? What about Janice Keane? The Spradley family? All were murdered here in the park. The Spradley’s just a few days ago.”
“Damn shame.” The man raised his rod tip and pulled the bobber a little, then let it settle. He reeled a few clicks, his gut pushing against his suspenders. “You still here?”
“Kinda strange you’re not worried about hyena attack.”
“Hyenas! Here in No’th Kackalacki?”
“… and how you hang out like you own the place.”
“Who the hell’re you ta ask me questions? You ain’t no one, boy.”
“Lars Kelsen. You?”
“None o’ your damn business. Now go on, I’m fishin’.”
Kelsen smiled, shook his head. “Just being friendly, Mister.”
“I got pets. All the friendly a man needs.”
“Yeah, where do you keep them?”
The man spat tobacco for an answer and grinned. “For a nosy son of a bitch you did get it right. This is my land, son. ALL my land! Now I suggest you tail it on out while you still can.”
“Or what? You’re kinda old to be starting a fight,” Kelsen said, watching him for a moment before scanning the woods and weeds.
Gleaming eyes squinted at Kelsen. “Tell you one last time … get the hell off my land.”
“Ain’t your land, Mister.”
“Shit it ain’t! This here’s been owned by generation afta generation of the Turrell family. My goddamn family. Harland Turrell owns this now, got that?”
“Maybe before, but it’s a public park now. Pay taxes and you get to use it. Unless you’re some kind of criminal.” Kelsen turned, ready to strike if necessary.
“This ‘park’ been in my family since before the War of Independence. See them stumps leading out into the pond? That was our last grist mill. Weren’t no pond then but a wide stream, nice an’ steady as she goes. Stream kept the wheels churning. Kept the stones grinding.”
“All that written down somewhere?”
The man let out a long whoop. Then laughed and let out another whoop.
Kelsen pressed his arm against the holstered gun but didn’t draw.
“Nah it ain’t written down, son!” The overall man said. “Us Turrells had to walk away from it in the eighties after Raleigh started growing big and pushed them taxes too damn high on us. Ain’t like we had free labor like in the slave days.” He broke into more laughter.
“Turrells were slave owners, then?”
“We was crackers, all right. Not many, just a few at a time. Had slaves like Winnie Odjadey’s grand mommas. Winnie was old when I first knowed her. She usedta hang around the mill when I was a boy, sweepin’ and stackin’ when she needed some extra money. I learnt a lot from ol’ Winnie. She come from a long line o’ shamans, straight from Africa. Great-great-grannie didn’t take to being slaved by whitey so she killed a few plantation owners with her tricks and they got real suspicious an’ burnt her all up for a witch. The other grandmommas was more careful so they lived longer.”
Distant laughter merged with the man’s. From the woods. Three bodies dashed out and pulled up. Just deer. But they watched Kelsen too intently.
Kelsen drew the .45 and no sooner did he have it leveled when the animals blurred for the span of a few heartbeats. When their images cleared once more, the deer had morphed into something more. Now they had thick bodies, long necks slabbed with muscle, spotted fur, parted mouths of white teeth against black muzzles. The appeared as spotted hyenas, almost natural but for their white glowing eyes.
“We gotta go, Mister,” Kelsen said.
“Ain’t no ‘we’ about it, son. You’re fixin’ to be a meal here.”
And he laughed like a goddamn maniac.
The beasts responded in kind and charged toward them, three relentless predators at a hundred pounds each, kicking up divots on the dirt road.
Kelsen stepped well away from Turrell and aimed. The .45 rang out, blast after blast, bullets slamming into furred breasts and faces. The beasts screeched and went down.
And got back up.
Wounds vanished. The first one recovered first and charged Kelsen, who pivoted like his life depended on it, because it did. He clubbed the side of its head with the gun, made solid contact with the eye socket but not before the teeth tore through the sleeve of his left arm and drew blood that flowed hot and wet to the back of his hand. Kelsen clubbed it twice more then kicked it squarely in the ribs. The beast flew back a yard and the light in the hyena’s left eye weakened. It landed on its side, stunned, but Kelsen knew it wouldn’t last.
The paws of the others drummed on the road and they laughed and whooped as they came.
“Uh oh! Now what?” The angler mocked, laughing, high-pitched like the beasts.
Sirens sounded in the distance.
Turrell pursed his fleshy lips. “Cops won’t get here in time to save ya, boy. And I’ll just melt out a thousand other ways.”
Kelsen considered bolting for the motorcycle in the woods at the other end of the road. Short as it was, he’d never make it against beasts built for running down prey. He swapped out the magazine, clicked in another and snapped the slide to chamber the round. Briefly he noticed the gun was now two-toned, black and red with his own blood.
“That gun don’t make no never mind to my pets, boy!”
“Maybe not, but it’s plenty to blast your brains out.” Kelsen raised it to the man’s forehead. “Tell ‘em to back off!”
Kelsen sighted two inches to the right and shot off an ear lobe.
The man reeled, cursed and clutched his bleeding ear. Kelsen rapid-fired into the hyenas again to buy time, then wrapped his bleeding arm around Turrell’s thick neck and shoved the muzzle to his temple. Kelsen yelled into his good ear. “Back ‘em off!”
Blood flowed beneath the palm of Turrell’s clamped hand. He waved his free hand and gave short, mournful whoops now. The beasts gnashed their teeth and drooled, glared at Kelsen with slitted glowing eyes.
But did not advance.
Kelsen pressed the gun the back of Turrell’s head, just below the cap line. “Back ‘em off!”
“Som bitch, ya shot my ear off!”
“Just the dangle part, Van Gogh style. Next one’s for your brain unless they get back!”
“Cain’t do it. Only know how to bring ‘em.”
“Try harder.” Kelsen fired between the man’s feet.
Turrell made whining and giggling noises.
The beasts broke into movement, running a ring around the duo, jaws snapping. They kept a steady press of incessant laughter, but did not attack.
Kelsen and Turrell did a slow dance back to Kelsen’s motorcycle. Kelsen fired it up with the bleeding man sprawled on the ground, revved it high to drown out the hyena noise, then spun so dirt and rock sprayed into their eyes. Teeth found the side of his lower leg as he tore through them. The bike wobbled but remained upright. They followed, white jaws bobbing up and down in the darkening air, then more dust kicked up and veiled their faces.
The beasts followed, then vanished somewhere behind Kelsen as he geared the cycle higher and higher and tore through the roads. He didn’t go straight to the rental house in case they were following with some unnatural sense, but after twenty minutes his vision began to swim and he had to speed home.
* * *
Kelsen rode the trail bike up to the garage, punched the code on the external pad and cut the engine inside. A quick verbal greeting to the excited Hooper was all he could manage as he hit the button for the garage door to close. His jeans beneath the left knee were wet and red but the leg took his weight. Gingerly he pulled up his sleeve. A network of blood trails formed on his forearm and it throbbed like a mother but at least his wrist and fingers responded. His vision wavered as he abandoned the shirt and pants and limped to the kitchen sink, cranking the faucet arm all the way left while he gathered soap and antibiotics and bandages. The floor dotted red with his movements.
The gashes in the arm were ugly but not too severe. He used the spray handle to flush out the wounds with the powerful mini-streams then scrubbed with soap. The sting made him groan and hiss through his teeth. Even worse came with the rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide. Neosporin didn’t hurt, but the gauze bandages went red too quickly. Three beers took the edge off. He had to repeat the entire process two more times, finally used butterfly bandages to close the skin.
The leg bite was more precise. Four blood-oozing punctures instead of gashes, but deeper than the arm wounds. He cleaned the leg up in similar fashion.
Probably should see a doctor and get stitches, but he didn’t want to draw attention. Besides, he was exhausted. All he wanted right now was enough ibuprofen to cut the pain and his bed.
Kelsen slept uneasily, the shotgun on one side and Hooper on the other. Nightmares came. Each started with a mist enveloping him. Then came appearances of strange beasts, temples writhing with serpents, listless humans shuffling through vague and misty lands. They saw him and moved closer. Half-whispers came and went just beyond comprehension, and a pervasive sense of dread weighed upon his senses. Even as he slept he realized these visions were more than mere bad dreams. Some portal to a nether realm had found him, and the faces of ghosts came and went with disturbing rapidity.
He awoke with a start, glad to find the portal gone. He stared, wide-eyed, not answering phone calls and texts from Layne and Carl, who wrote that there’d been reports of shooting and blood signs at the park last night. He let Hooper out and went back to bed, wondering what else to expect from the bite of a bestial shape-shifter.
His doorbell rang and Hooper barked until he could ignore it no longer. Layne, worried about him. She said her father was with Jared. She took him to an urgent care center.
“Says here, ‘dog attack,’” the doctor ventured, looking from the wounds to the computer screen.
“Out walking the trail,” Kelsen said. “It came fast. Didn’t see a collar. Might be feral.”
“Well, it used you for some human taste tests. You did a pretty good job cleaning up the wounds, but the saliva has been introduced to your bloodstream and you should have gone to the hospital. Along with the antibiotics, we’ll have to give you a rabies shot.”
* * *
A month passed without further events. The park remained closed indefinitely. Kelsen had a feeling that’s just how Harland Turrell wanted it.
Kelsen’s wounds healed into scars. He had no biological side-effects, thank God, but something had changed on the mental side. He now possessed access to a strange nether world of shadow and mist and misshapen forms that appeared and disappeared and made him doubt his sanity more than once. He caught long glimpses inside the portal; when sleeping and awake. Each event came with the appearance of a low-lying mist, from which an oddly slanted rectangle rose, and tendrils of it curled and beckoned. He spent a few minutes inside, then bailed.
The Visits from the ghost of Marcus Townsend continued, at least one daily, until today. There’d been one per hour today. That meant one thing.
Something was going down soon.
Fortunately he’d been preparing, as evidenced by the guns spread out on his kitchen island.
The doorbell rang and he grabbed one of the .45’s. Hooper barked but he told him it was okay, and petted him. Kelsen waited. Another chime sounded, followed by a text message.
I know you’re home, Lars.
She shouldn’t be here. The deer that occasionally wandered off the trail and into the yards might be Turrell’s hyena-deer, waiting for their chance to attack.
Kelsen opened the main door and almost unlocked the screen door to a hot woman in jeans and a sweatshirt and a six pack of beer. Normally this would be a good thing, but not now. Not for what he needed to do. “Now’s not good, Layne.”
“They could be aware of me since they had a taste. This is not a safe place for you.”
“Just checking up …”
“Thanks, but we’ve been emailing and texting,” he said. “Not much going on.”
“You look a little tense for nothing going on.”
“I’m … working right now,” he said. “And distractions are … dangerous.”
“Careful, some girls might take that as a compliment.” Her brows raised but he didn’t offer more. “So are you just going to let me stand out here? Bugs are getting in. What’s your landlord going think when he has to fumigate?”
“She. And the screen is closed. Besides, the bugs are dead or dormant in this cold.”
“Well, then you’re lettin’ out the heat.”
“Go home, Layne. I’ve got this.” Beside him, Hooper whined and wagged his tail.
“Hooper’s glad to see me,” she said. “That’s a sign, and you’re a big believer in signs.”
“Hooper’s glad to see almost everyone.”
“The guy at the park is gonna have his killers with him. You could use the help, Lars.”
“I’ll camp out here,” she warned.
“True enough. Admittance for one, please.”
Kelsen unlocked and opened the screen door. Hooper rushed in for pats and she pushed the six pack Kelsen’s way. He eyed the front yard before closing and locking after her.
“Whoa,” she said, at the sight of a shotgun, twin semi-automatic .45’s and a medium sized brown box next to them on the kitchen island. Her gaze then found the open laptop nearby, with the monitor segmented into eight boxes. The upper row showed a garage and darkened front yards lit by porch and street lights around Kelsen’s driveway, and the house directly across the street. Four lower rows showed two human figures and dog in red inside Kelsen’s house, and other red figures in other houses, most lying down.
“Creeping on the neighbors?” Layne said.
“Two cameras, normal and infrared, for each side of the jeep,” Kelsen said. “It would be good to have a little warning.”
“Definitely.” She found a bottle opener on the refrigerator and opened two beers. Kelsen accepted her offering, his hand trembling a bit as he took a deep pull.
She put her hand on his and looked up into his eyes. “I want to thank you –”
He gently pulled away. “Thanks, but nothing’s changed yet.”
“Yes, it has.”
“There’s a lot to do.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“This guy Turrell is proud, and thinks Durant Park is his little kingdom. He’s lorded over it long enough and won’t take to anyone encroaching on his land. I’m gonna set up some cameras and offer some bait.”
“Bait. Like steaks?”
“I’m beefy enough.”
Her mouth opened and shut. She just shook her head.
“I want to go with you,” Layne said.
“Come on, you’ve got enough weapons right here.”
“Something out there took my man, Lars,” she said, her mouth grim. “And I’m going get some payback.”
“You’ve got Jared,” Kelsen said.
“He’s with his other grandparents for a week,” she said. “Plus my dad will check up on him.”
“Why risk his losing both parents?”
She looked up into his eyes. “I want to do something.”
He nodded at his computer, divided into eight blocks for each camera. “You can monitor the image feeds. Let me know if you see red when they come for me.”
“But they almost killed you last time, even with your gun!”
Kelsen removed a smaller package from the bigger one and opened it to reveal a tray of fifty rounds of new .45 caliber ammo. He thumbed out the rounds in the magazines and held the first of the new batch up, so the tip gleamed in the light.
“Lead points don’t shine like that,” Layne said.
“But that’s werewolf mythology.”
“From the digging I’ve been doing on the internet, it seems silver is a common bane to all shape-shifters.”
“Okay, so … were-hyenas?”
He shrugged. “New to me, too. I pumped enough lead into all three of them and they should have stayed down. No natural beast would have gotten back up like nothing happened. Silver slugs are the best I’ve got to go on.”
She swallowed. “Got one for me?”
“How good a shot are you?”
“Good as anyone who’s never fired a gun.”
He handed her the shotgun. “Silver shot inside the cartridges. Holds ten in the feeder. There’s twenty more in the box … take them too.” He unloaded and re-loaded, showed her how to pump it. “Point, hold tight and squeeze the trigger.”
“Thanks. Cost some money for all this.”
“A small price for sanity, and staying alive.” Kelsen finished his beer, tapped the bottle on the granite top a few times then stopped. “Anyway, this leads to a vital question.”
He snapped the slides back on the .45’s and holstered them, one on each hip, then gazed through the window to the darkness beyond.
“Will that pear-shaped redneck be out tonight with his pets?”
In the moments that followed, the humming refrigerator and Layne’s inquisitive voice withdrew, and the ghost of the man she had loved appeared behind her on the kitchen floor. Kelsen blinked and the image did not waver. She followed Kelsen’s gaze. She couldn’t see the ghost of her husband, but she knew he was there and started crying.
Kelsen had his answer.
“Don’t stay here,” he said to Layne, walking her out to her car. “There’s some weird connection going on since they bit me. They don’t know you, yet. You’ve got the shotgun and laptop. Go home, okay?”
“Okay. Watch it out there.”
The forms of six deer crossed the road in the darkness.
“What about them?” Layne said, raising the shotgun.
“Don’t think ours would hang with the regulars. Take the long way home, though. And here, take Hooper. He’ll bark as a warning.”
At midnight Kelsen killed his headlights and pulled the Wrangler to the park entrance and around the wooden arm. He dodged a chain stretched across the broad trail in similar fashion, then straight up to the white road that spanned the gap between the woods and served as the earthen dam to the pond. He fired up all the cameras fixed to every side of the vehicle and waited behind the wheel — lights on and engine running — speaking into the bluetooth from time to time with Layne acknowledging.
Thirty minutes passed. He pulled the guns and walked around. Nothing. And not a clue from Marcus’s ghost.
And after so many Visits earlier today, there should have been.
Hooper barked at the other end of the phone.
“Layne?” Kelsen said.
“Gotta check something,” she said.
The call dropped.
Possibilities wormed into his consciousness. Ones that made him uncomfortable. Maybe he hadn’t been careful enough shielding her. He called Carl, who hadn’t heard from Layne for the last hour, but that wasn’t unusual given the hour.
Kelsen holstered the guns and peeled out. The Wrangler shattered the wooden arm at the entrance. His phone rang.
“Where ya been, ear-shooter? Took a while for that bad boy to heal up. I’m with the little woman. She sure is a fine thang! And feisty! Too bad she shot one o’ my pets and she didn’t get back up. Lead wouldn’t do that, so it looks like you figured a thing or two out since our last meet-up! One of mine got to that hound o’ yours and now it’s the little lady’s turn to — whoa, flashing lights and sirens! I gotta get movin’ on.” Harland Turrell’s laughter, more distant now. “Get them pigs!”
“Almost there, Layne!”
“Shut up, bitch!”
Kelsen heard a groan.
Shots. Shouts. Glass shattered.
“Cain’t kill ‘em … but they can kill you!”
Layne’s house was close enough now for Kelsen to hear gun fire. Two turns and the Wrangler screeched to a halt before a flashing cop car. Two cops were in the car, bloodied, firing at the hyenas that stood on their rear legs, heads thrusting through the shattered windows.
On the run, Lars fired the .45 in his right hand. Four silver slugs tore into the first beast, spraying blood with each hit. Kelsen circled for the other. It dropped from the window and leaped as Kelsen came around. He crooked his arm and fired point blank, illuminating the ribcage and head with each shot. The beast’s jaws clamped on his forearm as it knocked him from his feet. Kelsen emptied the magazine into it and the heavy body finally relented. He threw it to the side, dropped the gun and pulled the other.
A couple neighbors approached.
“We got it all on video,” one said, the light from his cell phone in Kelsen’s eye.
“Your arm’s bleeding pretty bad, man,” another said.
“Getting used to it,” Kelsen said, sucking air between his teeth. “Call an ambulance and help the cops. The guy who owns these monsters has Layne.”
Kelsen ran into the house, shouting her name.
Hooper whined on the entrance floor, a bleeding mess. Kelsen choked and kneeled. “Hoop! I’ll be back, boy. Hang on, hang on!”
He shouted again for Layne.
She didn’t respond, but he caught a glimpse out the back window of the large man carrying something into the night. The guy was stronger and faster than he looked but Kelsen, though wounded, was motivated. It was darker here. A bunch of shots could hit Layne. Turrell evidently knew it too, as he turned on the trail, illuminated in the glow of the half-moon.
“Better think about it,” Turrell laughed, his round face gleaming. “You that good a shot, boy?”
“Put her down.”
Layne groaned and her eyelids fluttered open as he put her on her feet. His beefy arm was tight around her upper chest, palm covering her mouth. His other hand pressed a filet knife against her throat, drawing a red line and a muffled scream. He whispered a threat into her ear and spoke louder to Kelsen.
“Okay, boy. This look familiar?” He giggled and whooped.
“Let her go.”
“First you gonna toss that gun.”
“I got more pets.”
“If you did they’d be here. Maybe you can make more but not now. Let her go, unharmed, and I’ll throw the gun into the woods.”
“Pull out the mag and thumb out them rounds.”
Kelsen hesitated. Layne half-screamed as a fresh wave of blood cascaded down her throat. She clutched at the wrist of Turrell’s knife hand.
Bullets dropped on the asphalt trail, tips glowing in the moonlight.
“Send her,” Kelsen said.
“Send her to hell!”
The .45 flashed, and the blast tore through the night. Turrell’s head snapped backward with the silver slug exiting out the back of his skull in a geyser of blood and brains.
Layne’s hand shoved the knife away and she stumbled forward. Kelsen caught her as she sobbed. She took a deep breath.
“I’m okay, I’m okay! H-how did you … the gun was empty.”
“Always assume there’s a round in the chamber of a semi-automatic. Come on, let’s get you checked out by the paramedics. And see about Hooper.”