Book: Black Wings

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Norman Partridge

 

Norman Partridge is the author of the short story collections Mr.Fox and Other Feral Tales (Roadkill Press, 1992), Bad Intentions (Subterranean Press, 1996), The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists (Night Shade Books, 2001), and the horror novels Slippin' into Darkness (Cemetery Dance, 1994), Wildest Dreams (Subterranean Press, 1998), Wicked Prayer (HarperPrism, 2000), and Dark Harvest (Tor, 2007). He has also written the hard-boiled detective novels Saguaro Riptide (Berkley, 1997) and The Ten Ounce Siesta (Berkley, 1998) and has edited the horror anthology It Came from the Drive-In! (I Books, 2004).

 
 
own in the cemetary, the children were laughing.

  They had another box open.

  They had their axes out. Their knives, too.

  I sat in the sheriff's department pickup, parked beneath a willow tree. Ropes of leaves hung before me like green curtains, but those curtains didn't stop the laughter. It climbed the ridge from the hollow below, carrying other noises—shovels biting hard-packed earth, axe blades splitting coffinwood, knives scraping flesh from bone. But the laughter was the worst of it. It spilled over teeth sharpened with files, chewed its way up the ridge, and did its best to strip the hard bark off my spine.

  I didn't sit still. I grabbed a gas can from the back of the pickup. I jacked a full clip into my dead deputy's .45, slipped a couple spares into one of the leather pockets on my gun belt, and buttoned it down. Then I fed shells into my shotgun and pumped one into the chamber.

  I went for a little walk.

 
 
Five months before, I stood with my deputy, Roy Barnes, out on County Road 14. We weren't alone. There were others present. Most of them were dead, or something close to it.

  I held that same shotgun in my hand. The barrel was hot. The deputy clutched his .45, a ribbon of bitter smoke coiling from the business end. It wasn't a stink you'd breathe if you had a choice, but we didn't have one.

  Barnes reloaded, and so did I. The June sun was dropping behind the trees, but the shafts of late-afternoon light slanting through the gaps were as bright as high noon. The light played through black smoke rising from a Chrysler sedan's smoldering engine, and white smoke simmering from the hot asphalt piled in the road gang's dump truck.

  My gaze settled on the wrecked Chrysler. The deal must have started there. Fifteen or twenty minutes before, the big black car had piled into an old oak at a fork in the county road. Maybe the driver had nodded off, waking just in time to miss a flagman from the work gang. Over-corrected and hit the brakes too late. Said: Hello tree, goodbye heartbeat.

  Maybe that was the way it happened. Maybe not. Barnes tried to piece it together later on, but in the end it really didn't matter much. What mattered was that the sedan was driven by a man who looked like something dredged up from the bottom of a stagnant pond. What mattered was that something exploded from the Chrysler's trunk after the accident. That thing was the size of a grizzly, but it wasn't a bear. It didn't look like a bear at all. Not unless you'd ever seen one turned inside out, it didn't.

  Whatever it was, that skinned monster could move. It unhinged its sizable jaws and swallowed a man who weighed two-hundred-and-change in one long ratcheting gulp, choking arms and legs and torso down a gullet lined with razor teeth. Sucked the guy into a blue-veined belly that hung from its ribs like a grave-robber's sack and then dragged that belly along fresh asphalt as it chased down the other men, slapping them onto the scorching roadbed and spitting bloody hunks of dead flesh in their faces. Some it let go, slaughtering others like so many chickens tossed live and squawking onto a hot skillet.

  It killed four men before we showed up, fresh from handling a fender-bender on the detour route a couple miles up the road. Thanks to my shotgun and Roy Barnes's .45, all that remained of the thing was a red mess with a corpse spilling out of its gutshot belly. As for the men from the work crew, there wasn't much you could say. They were either as dead as that poor bastard who'd ended his life in a monster's stomach, or they were whimpering with blood on their faces, or they were running like hell and halfway back to town. But whatever they were doing didn't make too much difference to me just then.

  "What was it, Sheriff?" Barnes asked.

  "I don't know."

  "You sure it's dead?"

  "I don't know that, either. All I know is we'd better stay away from it."

  We backed off. The only things that lingered were the afternoon light slanting through the trees, and the smoke from that hot asphalt, and the smoke from the wrecked Chrysler. The light cut swirls through that smoke as it pooled around the dead thing, settling low and misty, as if the something beneath it were trying to swallow a chunk of the world, roadbed and all.

  "I feel kind of dizzy," Barnes said.

  "Hold on, Roy. You have to."

  I grabbed my deputy by the shoulder and spun him around. He was just a kid, really—before this deal, he'd never even had his gun out of its holster while on duty. I'd been doing the job for fifteen years, but I could have clocked a hundred and never seen anything like this. Still, we both knew it wasn't over. We'd seen what we'd seen, we'd done what we'd done, and the only thing left to do was deal with whatever was coming next.

  That meant checking out the Chrysler. I brought the shotgun barrel even with it, aiming at the driver's side door as we advanced. The driver's skull had slammed the steering wheel at the point of impact. Black blood smeared across his face, and filed teeth had slashed through his pale lips so that they hung from his gums like leavings you'd bury after gutting a fish. On top of that, words were carved on his face. Some were purpled over with scar tissue and others were still fresh scabs. None of them were words I'd seen before. I didn't know what to make of them.

  "Jesus," Barnes said. "Will you look at that."

  "Check the back seat, Roy."

  Barnes did. There was other stuff there. Torn clothes. Several pairs of handcuffs. Ropes woven with fishhooks. A wrought-iron trident. And in the middle of all that was a cardboard box filled with books.

  The deputy pulled one out. It was old. Leathery. As he opened it, the book started to come apart in his hands. Brittle pages fluttered across the road—

  Something rustled in the open trunk. I pushed past Roy and fired point-blank before I even looked. The spare tire exploded. On the other side of the trunk, a clawed hand scrabbled up through a pile of shotgunned clothes. I fired again. Those claws clacked together, and the thing beneath them didn't move again.

  Using the shotgun barrel, I shifted the clothes to one side, uncovering a couple of dead kids in a nest of rags and blood. Both of them were handcuffed. The thing I'd killed had chewed its way out of one of their bellies. It had a grinning, wolfish muzzle and a tail like a dozen braided snakes. I slammed the trunk and cham bered another shell. I stared down at the trunk, waiting for something else to happen, but nothing did.

  Behind me . . . well, that was another story.

  The men from the road gang were on the move.

  Their boots scuffed over hot asphalt.

  They gripped crow bars, and sledge hammers, and one of them even had a machete.

  They came toward us with blood on their faces, laughing like children.

 
 
The children in the cemetery weren't laughing anymore.

  They were gathered around an open grave, eating.

  As always, a couple seconds passed before they noticed me. Then their brains sparked their bodies into motion, and the first one started for me with an axe. I pulled the trigger, and the shotgun turned his spine to jelly, and he went down in sections. The next one I took at longer range, so the blast chewed her over some. Dark blood from a hundred small wounds peppered her dress. Shrieking, she turned tail and ran.

  Which gave the third bloodface a chance to charge me. He was faster than I expected, dodging the first blast, quickly closing the distance. There was barely enough room between the two of us for me to get off another shot, but I managed the job. The blast took off his head. That was that.

  Or at least I thought it was. Behind me, something whispered through long grass that hadn't been cut in five months. I whirled, but the barefoot girl's knife was already coming at me. The blade ripped through my coat in a silver blur, slashing my right forearm. A twist of her wrist and she tried to come back for another piece, but I was faster and bashed her forehead with the shotgun butt. Her skull split like a popped blister and she went down hard, cracking the back of her head on a tombstone.

  That double-punched her ticket. I sucked a deep breath and held it. Blood reddened the sleeve of my coat as the knife-wound began to pump. A couple seconds later I began to think straight, and I got the idea going in my head that I should put down the shotgun and get my belt around my arm. I did that and tightened it good. Wounded, I'd have a walk to get back to the pickup. Then I'd have to find somewhere safe where I could take care of my arm. The pickup wasn't far distance-wise, but it was a steep climb up to the ridgeline. My heart would be pounding double-time the whole way. If I didn't watch it, I'd lose a lot of blood.

  But first I had a job to finish. I grabbed the shotgun and moved toward the rifled grave. Even in the bright afternoon sun, the long grass was still damp with morning dew. I noticed that my boots were wet as I stepped over the dead girl. That bothered me, but the girl's corpse didn't. She couldn't bother me now that she was dead.

  I left her behind me in the long grass, her body a home for the scarred words she'd carved on her face with the same knife she'd used to butcher the dead and butcher me. All that remained of her was a barbed rictus grin and a pair of dead eyes staring up into the afternoon sun, as if staring at nothing at all. And that's what she was to me—that's what they all were now that they were dead. They were nothing, no matter what they'd done to themselves with knives and files, no matter what they'd done to the living they'd murdered or the dead they'd pried out of burying boxes. They were nothing at all, and I didn't spare them another thought.

  Because there were other things to worry about—things like the one that had infected the children with a mouthful of spit-up blood. Sometimes those things came out of graves. Other times they came out of car trunks or meat lockers or off slabs in a morgue. But wherever they came from they were always born of a corpse, and there were corpses here aplenty.

  I didn't see anything worrisome down in the open grave. Just stripped bones and tatters of red meat, but it was meat that wasn't moving. That was good. So I took care of things. I rolled the dead bloodfaces into the grave. I walked back to the cottonwood thicket at the ridge side of the cemetery and grabbed the gas can I'd brought from the pickup. I emptied it into the hole, then tossed the can in, too. I wasn't carrying it back to the truck with a slicedup arm.

  I lit a match and let it fall.

  The gas thupped alive and the hole growled fire.

  Fat sizzled as I turned my back on the grave. Already, other sounds were rising in the hollow. Thick, rasping roars. Branches breaking somewhere in the treeline behind the old funeral home. The sound of something big moving through the timber—something that heard my shotgun bark three times and wasn't afraid of the sound.

  Whatever that thing was, I didn't want to see it just now.

  I disappeared into the cottonwood thicket before it saw me.

 
 
Barnes had lived in a converted hunting lodge on the far side of the lake. There weren't any other houses around it, and I hadn't been near the place in months. I'd left some stuff there, including medical supplies we'd scavenged from the local emergency room. If I was lucky, they would still be there.

  Thick weeds bristled over the dirt road that led down to Roy's place. That meant no one had been around for a while. Of course, driving down the road would leave a trail, but I didn't have much choice. I'd been cut and needed to do something about it fast. You take chances. Some are large and some are small. Usually, the worries attached to the small ones amount to nothing.

  I turned off the pavement. The dirt road was rutted, and I took it easy. My arm ached every time the truck hit a pothole. Finally, I parked under the carport on the east side of the old lodge. Porch steps groaned as I made my way to the door, and I entered behind the squared-off barrel of Barnes's .45.

  Inside, nothing was much different than it had been a couple of months before. Barnes's blood-spattered coat hung on a hook by the door. His reading glasses rested on the coffee table. Next to it, a layer of mold floated on top of a cup of coffee he'd never finished. But I didn't care about any of that. I cared about the cabinet we'd stowed in the bathroom down the hall.

  Good news. Nothing in the cabinet had been touched. I stripped to the waist, cleaned the knife wound with saline solution from an IV bag, then stopped the bleeding as best I could. The gash wasn't as deep as it might have been. I sewed it up with a hooked surgical needle, bandaged it, and gobbled down twice as many antibiotics as any doctor would have prescribed. That done, I remembered my wet boots. Sitting there on the toilet, I laughed at myself a little bit, because given the circumstances it seemed like a silly thing to worry about. Still, I went to the first-floor bedroom I'd used during the summer and changed into a dry pair of Wolverines I'd left behind.

  Next I went to the kitchen. I popped the top on a can of chili, found a spoon, and started toward the old dock down by the lake. There was a rusty swing set behind the lodge that had been put up by a previous owner; it shadowed a kid's sandbox. Barnes hadn't had use for either—he wasn't even married—but he'd never bothered to change things around. Why would he? It would have been a lot of work for no good reason.

  I stopped and stared at the shadows beneath the swing set, but I didn't stare long. The dock was narrow and more than a little rickety, with a small boathouse bordering one side. I walked past the boathouse and sat on the end of the dock for a while. I ate cold chili. Cattails whispered beneath a rising breeze. A flock of geese passed overhead, heading south. The sun set, and twilight settled in.

  It was quiet. I liked it that way. With Barnes, it was seldom quiet. I guess you'd say he had a curious mind. The deputy liked to talk about things, especially things he didn't understand, like those monsters that crawled out of corpses. Barnes called them lesser demons. He'd read about them in one of those books we found in the wreck. He had ideas about them, too. Barnes talked about those ideas a lot over the summer, but I didn't want to talk about any of it. Talking just made me edgy. So did Barnes's ideas and explanations . . . all those maybe's and what if's. Barnes was big on those; he'd go on and on about them.

  Me, I cared about simpler things. Things anyone could understand. Things you didn't need to discuss, or debate. Like waking up before a razor-throated monster had a chance to swallow me whole. Or not running out of shotgun shells. Or making sure one of those things never spit a dead man's blood in my face, so I wouldn't take a file to my teeth or go digging in a graveyard for food. That's what I'd cared about that summer, and I cared about the same things in the hours after a bloodfaced lunatic carved me up with a dirty knife.

  I finished the chili. It was getting dark. Getting cold, too, because winter was coming on. I tossed the empty can in the lake and turned back toward the house. The last purple smear of twilight silhouetted the place, and a pair of birds darted into the chimney as I walked up the dock. I wouldn't have seen them if I hadn't looked at that exact moment, and I shook my head. Birds building nests in October? It was just another sign of a world gone nuts.

  Inside, I settled on the couch and thought about lighting a fire. I didn't care about the birds—nesting in that chimney was their own bad luck. I'd got myself a chill out at the dock, and there was a cord of oak stacked under the carport. Twenty minutes and I could have a good blaze going. But I was tired, and my arm throbbed like it had grown its own heartbeat. I didn't want to tear the stitches toting a bunch of wood. I just wanted to sleep.

  I took some painkillers—more than I should have—and washed them down with Jack Daniel's. After a while, the darkness pulled in close. The bedroom I'd used the summer before was on the ground floor. But I didn't want to be downstairs in case anything came around during the night, especially with a cool liquid fog pumping through my veins. I knew I'd be safer upstairs.

  There was only one room upstairs—a big room, kind of like a loft.

  It was Barnes's bedroom, and his blood was still on the wall.

  I didn't care. I grabbed my shotgun. I climbed the stairs.

  Like I said: I was tired.

  Besides, I couldn't see Barnes's blood in the dark.

 
 
At first, Roy and I stuck to the sheriff's office, which was new enough to have pretty good security. When communication stopped and the whole world took a header, we decided that wasn't a good idea anymore. We started moving around.

  My place wasn't an option. It was smack dab in the middle of town. You didn't want to be in town. There were too many blind corners, and too many fences you couldn't see over. Dig in there, and you'd never feel safe no how many bullets you had in your clip. So I burned down the house. It never meant much to me, anyway. It was just a house, and I burned it down mostly because it was mine and I didn't want anyone else rooting around in the stuff I kept there. I never went back after that.

  Barnes's place was off the beaten path. Like I said, that made it a good choice. I knew I could get some sleep there. Not too much, if you know what I mean. Every board in the old lodge seemed to creak, and the brush was heavy around the property. If you were a light sleeper—like me—you'd most likely hear anything that was coming your way long before it had a chance to get you.

  And I heard every noise that night in Barnes's bedroom. I didn't sleep well at all. Maybe it was my sliced-up arm or those painkillers mixing with the whiskey and antibiotics—but I tossed and turned for hours. The window was open a crack, and cold air cut through the gap like that barefooted girl's knife. And it seemed I heard another knife scraping somewhere deep in the house, but it must have been those birds in the chimney, scrabbling around in their nest.

  Outside, the chained seats on the swing set squealed and squeaked in the wind. Empty, they swung back and forth, back and forth, over cool white sand.

 
 
After a couple months, Barnes wasn't doing so well. We'd scavenged a few of the larger summer houses on the other side of the lake—places that belonged to rich couples from down south. We'd even made a few trips into town when things seemed especially quiet. We'd gotten things to the point where we had everything we needed at the lodge. If something came around that needed killing, we killed it. Otherwise, we steered clear of the world.

  But Barnes couldn't stop talking about those books he'd snatched from the wrecked Chrysler. He read the damned things every day. Somehow, he thought they had all the answers. I didn't know about that. If there were answers in those books, you'd have one hell of a time pronouncing them. I knew that much.

  That wasn't a problem for Barnes. He read those books cover to cover, making notes about those lesser demons, consulting dictionaries and reference books he'd swiped from the library. When he finished, he read them again. After a while, I couldn't stand to look at him sitting there with those reading glasses on his face. I even got sick of the smell of his coffee. So I tried to keep busy. I'd do little things around the lodge, but none of them amounted to much. I chainsawed several oak trees and split the wood. Stacking it near the edge of the property to season would also give us some cover if we ever needed to defend the perimeter, so I did that, too. I even set some traps on the other side of the lodge, but after a while I got sloppy and began to forget where they were. Usually, that happened when I was thinking about something else while I was trying to work. Like Barnes' maybe's and what if's.

  Sometimes I'd get jumpy. I'd hear noises while I was working. Or I'd think I did. I'd start looking for things that weren't there. Sometimes I'd even imagine something so clearly I could almost see it. I knew that was dangerous . . . and maybe a little crazy. So I found something else to do—something that would keep my mind from wandering.

  I started going out alone during the day. Sometimes I'd run across a pack of bloodfaces. Sometimes one of those demons . . . or maybe two. You never saw more than two at a time. They never traveled in packs, and that was lucky for me. I doubted I could have handled more than a couple, and even handling two . . . well, that could be dicey.

  But I did it on my own. And I didn't learn about the damn things by reading a book. I learned by reading them. Watching them operate when they didn't know I was there, hunting them down with the shotgun, blowing them apart. That's how I learned— reading tales written in muscle and blood, or told by a wind that carried bitter scent and shadows that fell where they shouldn't.

  And you know what? I found out that those demons weren't so different. Not really. I didn't have to think it through much, because when you scratched off the paint and primer and got down to it those things had a spot in the food chain just like you and me. They took what they needed when they needed it, and they did their best to make sure anything below them didn't buck the line.

  If there was anything above them—well, I hadn't seen it.

  I hoped I never would.

  I wouldn't waste time worrying about it until I did.

 
 
Come August, there were fewer of those things around. Maybe that meant the world was sorting itself out. Or maybe it just meant that in my little corner I was bucking that food chain hard enough to hacksaw a couple of links.

  By that time I'd probably killed fifteen of them. Maybe twenty. During a late summer thunderstorm, I tracked a hooved minotaur with centipede dreadlocks to an abandoned barn deep in the hollow. The damn thing surprised me, nearly ripping open my belly with its black horns before I managed to jam a pitchfork through its throat. There was a gigantic worm with a dozen sucking maws; I burned it down to cinders in the water-treatment plant. Beneath the high school football stadium, a couple ratfaced spiders with a web strung across a cement tunnel nearly caught me in their trap, but I left them dying there, gore oozing from their fat bellies drop by thick drop. The bugs had a halfdozen cocooned bloodfaces for company, all of them nearly sucked dry but still squirming in that web. They screamed like tortured prisoners when I turned my back and left them alive in the darkness.

  Yeah. I did my part, all right.

  I did my part, and then some.

  Certain situations were harder to handle. Like when you ran into other survivors. They'd see you with a gun, and a pickup truck, and a full belly, and they'd want to know how you were pulling it off. They'd push you. Sometimes with questions, sometimes with pleas that were on the far side of desperate. I didn't like that. To tell you the truth, it made me feel kind of sick. As soon as they spit their words my way, I'd want to snatch them out of the air and jam them back in their mouths.

  Sometimes they'd get the idea, and shut up, and move on. Sometimes they wouldn't. When that happened I had to do something about it. Choice didn't enter in to it. When someone pushed you, you had to push back. That was just the way the world worked—before demons and after.

 

...

 

ne day in late September, Barnes climbed out of his easy chair and made a field trip to the wrecked Chrysler. He took those books with him. I was so shocked when he walked out the door that I didn't say a word.

  I was kind of surprised when he made it back to the lodge at nightfall. He brought those damn books back with him, too. Then he worked on me for a whole week, trying to get me to go out there. He said he wanted to try something and he needed some backup. I felt like telling him I could have used some backup myself on the days I'd been out dealing with those things while he'd been sitting on his ass reading, but I didn't say it. Finally I gave in. I don't know why—maybe I figured going back to the beginning would help Barnes get straight with the way things really were.

  There was no sun the day we made the trip, if you judged by what you could see. No sky either. Fog hung low over the lake, following the roads running through the hollow like they were dry rivers that needed filling. The pickup burrowed through the fog, tires whispering over wet asphalt, halogen beams cutting through all that dull white and filling pockets of darkness that waited in the trees.

  I didn't see anything worrisome in those pockets, but the quiet that hung in the cab was another story. Barnes and I didn't talk. Usually that would have suited me just fine, but not that day. The silence threw me off, and my hands were sweaty on the steering wheel. I can't say why. I only know they stayed that way when we climbed out of the truck on County Road 14.

  Nothing much had changed on that patch of road. Corpses still lay on the asphalt—the road gang, and the bear-thing that had swallowed one of them whole before we blew it apart. They'd been chewed over by buzzards and rats and other miserable creatures, and they'd baked guts-and-all onto the road during the summer heat. You would have had a hell of a time scraping them off the asphalt, because nothing that mattered had bothered with them once they were dead.

  Barnes didn't care about them, either. He went straight to the old Chrysler and hauled the dead driver from behind the steering wheel. The corpse hit the road like a sack of kindling ready for the flame. It was a sight. Crows must have been at the driver's face, because his fishgut lips were gone. Those scarred words carved on his skin still rode his jerky flesh like wormy bits of gristle, but now they were chiseled with little holes, as if those crows had pecked punctuation.

  Barnes grabbed Mr. Fishguts by his necktie and dragged him to the spot in the road where the white line should have been but wasn't.

  "You ready?" he asked.

  "For what?"

  "If I've got it figured right, in a few minutes the universe is going to squat down and have itself a bite. It'll be one big chunk of the apple—starting with this thing, finishing with all those others."

  "Those books say so?"

  "Oh, yeah," Barnes said, "and a whole lot more."

  That wasn't any kind of answer, but it put a cork in me. So I did what I was told. I stood guard. Mr. Fishguts lay curled up in that busted-up fetal position. Barnes drew a skinning knife from a leather scabbard on his belt and started cutting off the corpse's clothes. I couldn't imagine what the hell he was doing. A minute later, the driver's corpse was naked, razored teeth grinning up at us through his lipless mouth.

  Barnes knelt down on that unmarked road. He started to read.

  First from the book. Then from Mr. Fishguts's skin.

  The words sounded like a garbage disposal running backward. I couldn't understand any of them. Barnes's voice started off quiet, just a whisper buried in the fog. Then it grew louder, and louder still. Finally he was barking words, and screaming them, and spitting like a hellfire preacher. You could have heard him a quarter mile away.

  That got my heart pounding. I squinted into the fog, which was getting heavier. I couldn't see a damn thing. I couldn't even see those corpses glued to the road anymore. Just me and Barnes and Mr. Fishguts, there in a tight circle in the middle of County Road 14.

  My heart went trip-hammer, those words thumping in time, the syllables pumping. I tried to calm down, tried to tell myself that the only thing throwing me off was the damn fog. I didn't know what was out there. One of those inside-out grizzlies could have been twenty feet away and I wouldn't have known it. A rat-faced spider could have been stilting along on eight legs, and I wouldn't have seen it until the damn thing was chewing off my face. That minotaur thing with the centipede dreadlocks could have charged me at a dead gallop and I wouldn't have heard its hooves on pavement . . . not with Barnes roaring. That was all I heard. His voice filled up the hollow with words written in books and words carved on a dead man's flesh, and standing there blind in that fog I felt like those words were the only things in a very small world, and for a split second I think I understood just how those cocooned bloodfaces felt while trapped in that rat-spider's web.

  And then it was quiet. Barnes had finished reading.

  "Wait a minute," he said. "Wait right here."

  I did. The deputy walked over to the Chrysler, and I lost sight of him as he rummaged around in the car. His boots whispered over pavement and he was back again. Quickly, he knelt down, rearing back with both hands wrapped around the hilt of that wroughtiron trident we'd found in the car that very first day, burying it in the center of Mr. Fishguts's chest.

  Scarred words shredded, and brittle bones caved in, and an awful stink escaped the corpse. I waited for something to happen. The corpse didn't move. I didn't know about anything else. There could have been anything out there, wrapped up in that fog. Anything, coming straight at us. Anything, right on top of us. We wouldn't have seen it all. I was standing there with a shotgun in my hands with no idea where to point it. I could have pointed it anywhere and it wouldn't have made me feel any better. I could have pulled the trigger a hundred times and it wouldn't have mattered. I might as well have tried to shotgun the fog, or the sky, or the whole damn universe.

  It had to be the strangest moment of my life.

  It lasted a good long time.

  Twenty minutes later, the fog began to clear a little. A half hour later, it wasn't any worse than when we left the lodge. But nothing had happened in the meantime. That was the worst part. I couldn't stop waiting for it. I stood there, staring down at Mr. Fishguts's barbed grin, at the trident, at those words carved on the corpse's jerky flesh. I was still standing there when Barnes slammed the driver's door of the pickup. I hadn't even seen him move. I walked over and slipped in beside him, and he started back towards the lodge.

  "Relax," he said finally. "It's all over."

 
 
That night it was quieter than it had been in a long time, but I couldn't sleep and neither could Barnes. We sat by the fire, waiting for something . . . or nothing. We barely talked at all. About four or five, we finally drifted off.

  Around seven, a racket outside jarred me awake. Then there was a scream. I was up in a second. Shotgun in hand, I charged out of the house.

  The fog had cleared overnight. I shielded my eyes and stared into the rising sun. A monster hovered over the beach—leathery wings laid over a jutting bone framework, skin clinging to its muscular body in a thin blistery layer, black veins slithering beneath that skin like stitches meant to mate a devil's muscle and flesh. The thing had a girl, her wrist trapped in one clawed talon. She screamed for help when she saw me coming, but the beast understood me better than she did. It grinned through a mouthful of teeth that jutted from its narrow jaws like nails driven by a drunken carpenter, and its gaze tracked the barrel of my gun, which was already swinging up in my grasp, the stock nestling tight against my shoulder as I took aim.

  A sound like snapping sheets. A blast of downdraft from those red wings as the monster climbed a hunk of sky, wings spreading wider and driving down once more.

  The motion sent the creature five feet higher in the air. The shotgun barrel followed, but not fast enough. Blistered lips stretched wide, and the creature screeched laughter at me like I was some kind of idiot. Quickly, I corrected my aim and fired.

  The first shot was low and peppered the girl's naked legs. She screamed as I fired again, aiming higher this time. The thing's left wing wrenched in the socket as the shot found its mark, opening a pocket of holes large enough to strain sunlight. One more reflexive flap and that wing sent a message to the monster's brain. It screeched pain through its hammered mouth and let the girl go, bloody legs and all.

  She fell fast. Her anguished scream told me she understood she was already dead, the same way she understood exactly who'd killed her.

  She hit the beach hard. I barely heard the sound because the shotgun was louder. I fired twice more, and that monster fell out of the sky like a kite battered by a hurricane, and it twitched some when it hit, but not too much because I moved in fast and finished it from point-blank range.

  Barnes came down to the water. He didn't say anything about the dead monster. He wanted to bury the girl, but I knew that wasn't a good idea. She might have one of those things inside her, or a pack of bloodfaces might catch her scent and come digging for her with a shovel. So we soaked her with gasoline instead, and we soaked the winged demon, too, and we tossed a match and burned down the both of them together.

  After that, Barnes went back to the house. He did the same thing to those books.

 
 
A few days later, I decided to check out the town. Things had been pretty quiet . . . so quiet that I was getting jumpy again.

  They could have rolled up the streets, and it wouldn't have mattered. To tell the truth, there hadn't been too many folks in town to begin with, and now most of them were either dead or gone. I caught sight of a couple bloodfaces when I cruised the main street, but they vanished into a manhole before I got close.

  I hit a market and grabbed some canned goods and other supplies, but my mind was wandering. I kept thinking about that day in the fog, and that winged harpy on the beach, and my deputy. Since burning those books, he'd barely left his room. I was beginning to think that the whole deal had done him some good. Maybe it was just taking some time for him to get used to the way things were. Mostly, I hoped he'd finally figured out what I'd known all along—that we'd learned everything we really needed to know about the way this world worked the day we blew apart the inside-out grizzly on County Road 14.

  I figured that was the way it was, until I drove back to the house.

  Until I heard screams down by the lake.

  Barnes had one of the bloodfaces locked up in the boathouse. A woman no more than twenty. He'd stripped her and cuffed her wrists behind a support post. She jerked against the rough wood as Barnes slid the skinning knife across her ribs.

  He peeled away a scarred patch of flesh that gleamed in the dusky light, but I didn't say a word. There were enough words in this room already. They were the same words I'd seen in those books, and they rode the crazy woman's skin. A couple dozen of them had been stripped from her body with Roy Barnes's skinning knife. With her own blood, he'd pasted each one to the boathouse wall.

  I bit my tongue. I jacked a shell into the shotgun.

  Barnes waved me off. "Not now, boss."

  Planting the knife high in the post, he got closer to the girl. Close enough to whisper in her ear. With a red finger, he pointed at the bloody inscription he'd pasted to the wall. "Read it," he said, but the woman only growled at him, snapping sharpened teeth so wildly that she shredded her own lips. But she didn't care about spilling her own blood. She probably didn't know she was doing it. She just licked her tattered lips and snapped some more, convinced she could take a hunk out of Barnes.

  He didn't like that. He did some things to her, and her growls became screams.

  "She'll come around," Barnes said.

  "I don't think so, Roy."

  "Yeah, she will—this time I figured things out."

  "You said that when you read those books."

  "But she's a book with a pulse. That's the difference. She's alive. That means she's got a connection—to those lesser demons, and to the things that lord it over them, too. Every one of them's some kind of key. But you can't unlock a gate with a bent-up key, even if it's the one that's supposed to fit. That's why things didn't work with the driver. After he piled up that Chrysler, he was a bent-up key. He lost his pulse. She's still got hers. If she reads the words instead of me—the words she wrote with a knife of her own—it'll all be different."

  He'd approached me while he was talking, but I didn't look at him. I couldn't stand to. I looked at the bloodface instead. She screamed and spit. She wasn't even a woman anymore. She was just a naked, writhing thing that was going to end her days cuffed to a pole out here in the middle of nowhere. To think that she could spit a few words through tattered lips and change a world was crazy, as crazy as thinking that dead thing out on County Road 14 could do the job, as crazy as—

  "Don't you understand, boss?"

  "She digs up graves, Roy. She eats what she finds buried in them. That's all I need to understand."

  "You're wrong. She knows—"

  I raised the shotgun and blew off the bloodface's head, and then I put another load in the her, and another. I blew everything off her skeleton that might have been a nest where a demon could grow. And when I was done with that little job I put a load in that wall, too, and all those scarred words went to hell in a spray of flesh and wood, and when they were gone they left a jagged window on the world outside.

  Barnes stood there, the girl's blood all over his coat, the skinning knife gripped in his shaking hand.

  I jacked another shell into the shotgun.

  "I don't want to have this conversation again," I said.

 
 
After Barnes had gone, I unlocked the cuffs and got the bloodface down. I grabbed her by her hair and rolled her into the boat. Once the boathouse doors were opened, I yanked the outboard motor cord and was on my way.

  I piloted the boat to the boggy section of the lake. Black trees rooted in the water, and Spanish moss hung in tatters from the branches. It was as good a place as any for a grave. I rolled the girl into the water, and she went under with a splash. I thought about Barnes, and the things he said, and those words on the wall. And I wished he could have seen the girl there, sinking in the murk. Yeah, I wished he could have seen that straight-on. Because this was the way the world worked, and the only change coming from this deal was that some catfish were going to eat good tonight.

  The afternoon waned, and the evening light came on and faded. I sat there in the boat. I might have stayed until dark, but rain began to fall—at first gently, then hard enough to patter little divots in the calm surface of the lake. That was enough for me. I revved the outboard and headed back to the lodge.

  Nothing bothered me along the way, and Roy didn't bother me once I came through the front door. He was upstairs in his room, and he was quiet . . . or trying to be.

  But I heard him.

  I heard him just fine.

  Up there in his room, whispering those garbage-disposal words while he worked them into his own flesh with the skinning knife. That's what he was doing. I was sure of it. I heard his blood pattering on the floorboards the same way that rat-spiders' blood had pattered the cement floor in the football stadium. Sure it was raining outside, but I'd heard rain and I'd heard blood and I knew the difference.

  Floorboards squealed as he shifted his weight, and it didn't take much figuring to decide that he was standing in front of his dresser mirror. It went on for an hour and then two, and I listened as the rain poured down. And when Deputy Barnes set his knife on the dresser and tried to sleep, I heard his little mewling complaints. They were much softer than the screams of those cocooned bloodfaces, but I heard them just the same.

  Stairs creaked as I climbed to the second floor in the middle of the night. Barnes came awake when I slapped open the door. A black circle opened on his bloody face where his mouth must have been, but I didn't give him a chance to say a single word.

  "I warned you," I said, and then I pulled the trigger.

 
 
When it was done, I rolled the deputy in a sheet and dragged him down the stairs. I buried him under the swing set. By then the rain was falling harder. It wasn't until I got Barnes in the hole that I discovered I didn't have much gas in the can I'd gotten from the boathouse. I drenched his body with what there was, but the rain was too much. I couldn't even light a match. So I tossed a road flare in the hole, and it caught for a few minutes and sent up sputters of blue flame, but it didn't do the job the way it needed to be done.

  I tried a couple more flares with the same result. By then, Roy was disappearing in the downpour like a hunk of singed meat in a muddy soup. Large river rocks bordered the flowerbeds that surrounded the lodge, and I figured they might do the trick. One by one I tossed them on top of Roy. I did that for an hour, until the rocks were gone. Then I shoveled sand over the whole mess, wet and heavy as fresh cement.

  It was hard work.

  I wasn't afraid of it.

  I did what needed to be done, and later on I slept like the dead.

 
 
And now, a month later, I tossed and turned in Barnes's bed, listening to that old swing set squeak and squeal in the wind and in my dreams.

  The brittle sound of gunfire wiped all that away. I came off the bed quickly, grabbing Barnes's .45 from the nightstand as I hurried to the window. Morning sunlight streamed through the trees and painted reflections on the glass, but I squinted through them and spotted shadows stretching across the beach below.

  Bloodfaces. One with a machete and two with knives, all three of them moving like rabbits flushed by one mean predator.

  Two headed for the woods near the edge of the property. A rattling burst of automatic gunfire greeted them, and the bloodfaces went to meat and gristle in a cloud of red vapor.

  More gunfire, and this time I spotted muzzle flash in the treeline, just past the place where I'd stacked a cord of wood the summer before. The bloodface with the machete saw it, too. He put on the brakes, but there was no place for him to run but the water or the house.

  He wasn't stupid. He picked the house, sprinting with everything he had. I grabbed the bottom rail of the window and tossed it up as he passed the swing set, but by the time I got the .45 through the gap he was already on the porch.

  I headed for the door, trading the .45 for my shotgun on the way. A quick glance through the side window in the hallway, and I spotted a couple soldiers armed with M4 carbines breaking from the treeline. I didn't have time to worry about them. Turning quickly, I started down the stairs.

  What I should have done was take another look through that front window. If I'd done that, I might have noticed the burrowedup tunnel in the sand over Roy Barnes's grave.

 
 
It was hard to move slowly, but I knew I had to keep my head. The staircase was long, and the walls were so tight the shotgun could easily cover the narrow gap below. If you wanted a definition of dangerous ground, that would be the bottom of the staircase. If the bloodface was close—his back against the near wall, or standing directly beside the stairwell—he'd have a chance to grab the shotgun barrel before I entered the room.

  A sharp clatter on the hardwood floor below. Metallic . . . like a machete. I judged the distance and moved quickly, following the shotgun into the room. And there was the bloodface . . . over by the front door. He'd made it that far, but no further. And it wasn't gunfire that had brought him down. No. Nothing so simple as a bullet had killed him.

  I saw the thing that had done the job, instantly remembering the sounds I'd heard during the night—the scrapes and scrabbles I'd mistaken for nesting birds scratching in the chimney. The far wall of the room was plastered with bits of carved skin, each one of them scarred over with words, and each of those words had been skinned from the thing that had burrowed out of Roy Barnes's corpse.

  That thing crouched in a patch of sunlight by the open door, naked and raw, exposed muscles alive with fresh slashes that wept red as it leaned over the dead bloodface. A clawed hand with long nails like skinning knives danced across a throat slashed to the bone. The demon didn't look up from its work as it carved the corpse's flesh with quick, precise strokes. It didn't seem to notice me at all. It wrote one word on the dead kid's throat . . . and then another on his face . . . and then it slashed open the bloodface's shirt and started a third.

  I fired the shotgun and the monster bucked backwards. Its skinning knife nails rasped across the doorframe and dug into the wood. The thing's head snapped up, and it stared at me with a headful of eyes. Thirty eyes, and every one of them was the color of muddy water. They blinked, and their gaze fell everywhere at once—on the dead bloodface and on me, and on the words pasted to the wall.

  Red lids blinked again as the thing heaved itself away from the door and started toward me.

  Another lid snapped opened on its chin, revealing a black hole.

  One suck of air and I knew it was a mouth.

  I fired at the first syllable. The thing was blasted back, barking and screaming as it caught the door frame again, all thirty eyes trained on me now, its splattered chest expanding as it drew another breath through that lidded mouth just as the soldiers outside opened fire with their M4s.

  Bullets chopped through flesh. The thing's lungs collapsed and a single word died on its tongue. Its heart exploded. An instant later, it wasn't anything more than a corpse spread across a puddle on the living room floor.

 
 
"Hey, Old School," the private said. "Have a drink."

  He tossed me a bottle, and I tipped it back. He was looking over my shotgun. "It's mean," he said, "but I don't know. I like some rock 'n' roll when I pull a trigger. All you got with this thing is rock."

  "You use it right, it does the job."

  The kid laughed. "Yeah. That's all that matters, right? Man, you should hear how people talk about this shit back in the Safe Zone. They actually made us watch some lame-ass stuff on the TV before they choppered us out here to the sticks. Scientists talking, ministers talking . . . like we was going to talk these things to death while they was trying to chew on our asses."

  "I met a scientist once," the sergeant said. "He had some guy's guts stuck to his face, and he was down on his knees in a lab chewing on a dead janitor's leg. I put a bullet in his head."

  Laughter went around the circle. I took one last drink and passed the bottle along with it.

  "But, you know what?" the private said. "Who gives a shit, anyway? I mean, really?"

  "Well," another kid said. "Some people say you can't fight something you can't understand. And maybe it's that way with these things. I mean, we don't know where they came from. Not really. We don't even know what they are."

  "Shit, Mendez. Whatever they are, I've cleaned their guts off my boots. That's all I need to know."

  "That works today, Q, but I'm talking long term. As in: what about tomorrow, when we go nose-to-nose with their daddy?"

  None of the soldiers said anything for a minute. They were too busy trading uncertain glances.

  Then the sergeant smiled and shook his head. "You want to be a philosopher, Private Mendez, you can take the point. You'll have lots of time to figure out the answers to any questions you might have while you're up there, and you can share them with the rest of the class if you don't get eaten before nightfall."

  The men laughed, rummaging in their gear for MRE's. The private handed over my shotgun, then shook my hand. "Jamal Quinlan," he said. "I'm from Detroit."

  "John Dalton. I'm the sheriff around here."

  It was the first time I'd said my own name in five months.

  It gave me a funny feeling. I wasn't sure what it felt like.

  Maybe it felt like turning a page.

 

...

 

The sergeant and his men did some mop-up. Mendez took pictures of the lodge, and the bloody words pasted to the living room wall, and that dead thing on the floor. Another private set up some communication equipment and they bounced everything off a satellite so some lieutenant in DC could look at it. I slipped on a headset and talked to him. He wanted to know if I remembered any strangers coming through town back in May, or anything out of the ordinary they might have had with them. Saying yes would mean more questions, so I said, "No, sir. I don't."

  The soldiers moved north that afternoon. When they were gone, I boxed up food from the pantry and some medical supplies. Then I got a gas can out of the boathouse and dumped it in the living room. I sparked a road flare and tossed it through the doorway on my way out.

  The place went up quicker than my house in town. It was older. I carried the box over to the truck, then grabbed that bottle the soldiers had passed around. There were a few swallows left. I carried it down to the dock and looked back just in time to see those birds dart from their nest in the chimney, but I didn't pay them any mind.

  I took the boat out on the lake, and I finished the whiskey, and after a while I came back.

 
 
Things are getting better now. It's quieter than ever around here since the soldiers came through, and I've got some time to myself. Sometimes I sit and think about the things that might have happened instead of the things that did. Like that very first day, when I spotted that monster in the Chrysler's trunk out on County Road 14 and blasted it with the shotgun—the gas tank might have exploded and splattered me all over the road. Or that day down in the dark under the high school football stadium— those rat-spiders could have trapped me in their web and spent a couple months sucking me dry. Or with Roy Barnes—if he'd never seen those books in the backseat of that old sedan, and if he'd never read a word about lesser demons, where would he be right now?

  But there's no sense wondering about things like that, any more than looking for explanations about what happened to Barnes, or me, or anyone else. I might as well ask myself why the thing that crawled out of Barnes looked the way it did or knew what it knew. I could do that and drive myself crazy chasing my own tail, the same way Barnes did with all those maybe's and what if's.

  So I try to look forward. The rules are changing. Soon they'll be back to the way they used to be. Take that soldier. Private Quinlan. A year from now he'll be somewhere else, in a place where he won't do the things he's doing now. He might even have a hard time believing he ever did them. It won't be much different with me.

  Maybe I'll have a new house by then. Maybe I'll take off work early on Friday and push around a shopping cart, toss steaks and a couple of six packs into it. Maybe I'll even do the things I used to do. Wear a badge. Find a new deputy. Sort things out and take care of trouble. People always need someone who can do that.

  To tell the truth, that would be okay with me.

  That would be just fine.

 
 

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