If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out
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If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out
available for free now on Inkitt!!
“Hannah! Move your ass we’re going to be late!” I called down the hallway, then turned back to the bathroom mirror.
My heart pounded in my chest as I leaned in close to my reflection, trying to keep my hand steady as I swept light brown eyeshadow over one closed lid.
Perfect. Everything has to be perfect today. I started on the other lid.
“Holly, have you seen my black leather jacket?” came a jarring voice directly behind my ear. Startled, the makeup brush jolted upwards, painting a swatch of eyeshadow over my brow and up to my forehead.
“Dammit, Hannah,” I said with a sigh, reaching for a tissue. “Your leather jacket is in the front closet. Where I hung it last night after you threw it on the ground.”
My hands shook as I wiped off the errant makeup.
“Thanks, sis. You’re a dream,” Hannah said, coming up next to me and giving me a swift kiss on the cheek. I rolled my eyes and picked the makeup brush off the counter.
For a moment, I looked back at my own reflection, and its mirror image standing beside me. Hannah’s waist-length blonde hair was the same honey-gold shade of my own. She had the same blue-green eyes, the same slender physique.
We were carbon copies of one another, down to the identical spray of freckles across our noses, though Hannah’s were harder to spot under her deep brown tan. She’d recently returned from a semester studying abroad in Australia and, in addition to the tan, now sported a steel bar through the upper cartilage of her left ear.
Hannah’s numerous piercings, as well as the red-and-gold tattoo of a phoenix that spread across her shoulder blades, were the only way that people could really tell us apart.
My twin’s reflection in the mirror met my own. Hannah’s eyes traveled down my outfit, her brow raised in disapproval.
“You cannot wear that,” she said.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I cried in dismay. I looked down at my watch. We needed to be out the door in seven minutes if I was going to drop my sister off at her audition.
“You look like you’re going to an interview at a Catholic school, not one of the top advertising firms in Chicago.” Hannah said, her pink-stained lips pulled sideways into a smirk.
“It’s not…that bad,” I said, but my heart plummeted as I looked down at the brown tweed skirt and the loose jacket I was wearing over a collared white shirt.
Okay so it was a little conservative, but I needed to be taken seriously today. I needed to look like someone who was ready to be a junior copywriter at Fleischmann and Carter.
Hannah laughed. I took in her outfit, torn mesh leggings over a neon yellow skirt and a black t-shirt with a rainbow zebra on the front. Her eyes were rimmed with thick black eyeliner, and several hoops dangled from each of her ears.
“So you think I should dress like you, Ms. David Bowie?” I said.
Hannah was already crossing to her bedroom, so I was spared her sarcastic mumblings. I used the brief moment of peace to finish adding the final touches to my makeup.
I met my eyes in the mirror. You can do this, Holly.
You’ve already been there for four months. You’ve earned this.
I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself.
I’d spent the summer after graduating from the University of Illinois doing an unpaid internship at Fleischmann and Carter. For four months—sometimes for more than twelve hours a day—I’d run in heels through the corridors, fetching coffee, organizing files, and generally being the office gopher along with nine other recent college grads.
Now that the summer was over, the board of directors was prepared to offer full-time positions to only two of us. And I was determined that one of them would be me.
Hannah came stomping back into the bedroom, holding a creamy blush-rose dress over one arm and a black Neiman Marcus blazer in the other.
“Put these on,” she said, thrusting the clothes into my arms and crossing her own impatiently.
“Where did you even get these?” I said, taking a look at the designer labels on the clothes. “Dad said no more credit cards after that debacle in Sydney.”
“Yes—well—I bought these before that,” Hannah said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
Hannah had what our father wearily referred to as “champagne taste on a beer budget”.
Thankfully, she also had excellent taste in fashion, and I yanked off my jacket and skirt right there in the bathroom and pulled the dress over my head.
The slippery satin hugged my curves like a second skin. It had a deep, cowled neckline that hinted at cleavage without actually revealing any. I tugged on the blazer and fastened the middle button, noticing as I did how well it fit.
It helped to have a roommate with my exact dimensions.
Hannah ran off to locate her leather jacket, and I took one last appraising glance in the mirror. She was right, this dress looked classy and sophisticated. Like a woman ready to take on the world, not a nervous twenty-one year old woman with all her hopes on the line.
I fought the urge to fidget with my hair, which was smoothed back into a glossy high ponytail.
Okay Holly. Now or never.
“Are you sure it’s okay if you skip class today?” I said to Hannah as I turned down headed east towards Lake Michigan. The September sun felt more like mid-July; the city was practically baking with heat even early in the morning.
“I told you, I already cleared it with my professors. I only have two classes on Friday anyway. Stop worrying,” Hannah said, her nose buried in her phone.
“Someone has to worry about your future, it’s not like you’re going to,” I replied, prickling with irritation. The only reason my sister had two classes on Friday was because she had dropped all of the others when they threatened to interfere with her “auditions”
“I’m singing at Lymelyght!” she cried, finally looking up from her phone. “It’s one of the hottest nightclubs in the city and they want me to audition! Don’t tell me I’m not thinking about my future.”
I bit my tongue and said nothing. I was in no mood to provoke Hurricane Hannah this morning. “If it’s a nightclub, why is the audition so early in the morning?” I asked instead, searching for neutral ground.
“Because I’m auditioning for the opening act, at seven o’clock at night. I’m not important enough to get to sleep in,” she said dryly, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
I smiled at the familiar gesture. I fidgeted the same way when I was nervous, it was one of the reasons I’d pulled my hair back into a ponytail for my interview.
Benedict Carter couldn’t stand useless fidgeting–he’d told me once when I’d delivered his mail.
I turned off LaSalle and headed north. The streets were so jam-packed with other cars, bicycles, and hapless tourists that my Jeep Wrangler could only move forward a few inches at a time.
I checked my watch again. 9:15. I still had forty-five minutes until my interview.
“Are you okay to get back on the train?” I asked Hannah. “I probably won’t be back at the apartment until later tonight.” Normally we used the complex network of trains and buses to get downtown, but today I had made an exception, fearful of any public transit delay outside of my control.
“Yes, Mom,” Hannah replied, once again focused on her phone.
I pulled up in front of Lymelyght, fighting the urge not to roll my eyes at the deliberate misspelling.
“Text me the second it’s over. Break a leg, Banana,” I said, using my childhood nickname for her.
“You too, Jolly. Knock ’em dead,” Hannah said, leaning over the center console to give me a fierce hug.
A truck honked its horn loudly behind us. “Gotta go, sis!” she said, giving me one more hard squeeze before swinging open the door of the Jeep.
Words of caution rose to my lips, but I bit them back. Hannah wouldn’t appreciate my mother-henning. She never had.
I watched her walk towards the darkened nightclub, tall and confident in knee-high combat boots. She looked utterly fearless, which of course she was.
I was the twin with the pile of anxiety.
I met my own gaze in the rearview mirror.
I can’t worry about Hannah now. I’ve got my own date with destiny.
Two of my fellow interns were already waiting outside the boardroom of Fleischmann and Carter when I arrived. James had his dark brown hands clasped fervently together as if in prayer. Vivian eyed me with cool disdain, already mentally dismissing me as a rival.
I fought the urge to chew on my bottom lip and took a seat in one of the plush leather chairs next to James. “Who’s in there now?” I asked quietly.
“Tommy,” he grunted, not looking up.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Tommy Hawthorne was a lazy little bastard who thought his Daddy’s name could get him whatever he wanted in life. He’d spent the summer lounging in the break room, cracking jokes while the rest of us worked our asses off. If there was any justice in the world, he’d be in for an unpleasant surprise when he faced the board.
I leaned back in the comfortable leather chair and closed my eyes, mentally checking off the four people I would need to impress today.
David Fleischmann was the only remaining member of the original advertising team that had opened back in the 1960′s. Now nearing eighty-five, he was still as sharp-eyed and razor-tongued as ever. I’d managed to earn praise from him only once during my short time with the firm—for a piece of copywriting that had been chosen by one of their top clients—and desperately hoped he’d remember me.
Janet Choo would be tough, but she probably knew me best. The head marketing director, she had a no-nonsense personality and I knew she loathed privileged little toads like Tommy Hawthorne. I had worked directly under her for months, and I knew she saw how hard I worked by the way she didn’t dog my heels the way she did some of the other interns.
Evelyn Fleischmann, David’s daughter and sole heir, didn’t scare me too much. She had little interest in the day-to-day running of the business, preferring to spend her father’s millions jet-setting around the globe. When I’d learned she would be among the interviewers, I was secretly surprised she deigned to notice us lowly interns at all, let alone that she would care which of us was chosen to work there permanently.
It was more likely that she was in town because she had her eyes on Benedict Carter, the fourth member of the board and the one I was most worried about impressing. Mostly because every time I was in the same room as him, I had a strange tendency to drop whatever I was holding at the time.
The first time I met him was my second day at Fleischmann and Carter. I’d been shown a bulky metal pushcart bursting over with undelivered mail and told to discreetly place it in the inboxes of the various cubicles and executive offices. The cart had a broken caster, and kept veering to the left no matter how hard I tried to correct it. I bumped my way down the carpeted hall, too new and frightened to make eye contact with anyone.
When I got to the frosted glass door marked “Carter”, I paused nervously. My hair was in a long braid over my shoulder, and I found myself nervously fidgeting with the blonde tail of it, running the smooth strands between my fingers again and again as I tried to summon the courage to enter the Vice-President’s office.
I stayed there so long my eyes must have taken on a glazed, unfocused look when the door opened outward, banging into the corner of my pushcart. A scowling head popped over the door, glaring in my direction.
“Do you mind?” a cool voice asked. It belonged to the most gorgeous face I’d ever laid eyes on.
Benedict Carter had thick, wavy brown hair and a chiseled square jaw covered by a day-old’s growth of beard. His nose was straight and fine, framed by hazel eyes flecked with green. Right now, they were narrowed at me in annoyance.
“I seem to be trapped in my office,” he said with a raised brow. His voice contained a hint of a laugh.
My cheeks flamed scarlet. I tried to move the pushcart but the broken caster caught on the edge of a rug and wouldn’t budge. “I—sorry sir, I—”
With one powerful motion he slammed the door open, sending the pushcart flying backwards. I gaped at him, taking in the tailored charcoal suit that didn’t quite hide his powerful muscles.
Mr. Carter looked at me, his eyes trailing over my nondescript black pants and blue blouse.
I was mortified. “Sorry, sir. I was just about to—” I stammered, still nervously running my fingers through the loose end of my braid.
“Stop fidgeting,” he snapped. I froze, my hands falling from my hair. The vice-president of Fleischmann and Carter had the power to fire me at whim. My career in advertising could be over the moment it began if he decided I wasn’t worth keeping around.
Terrified, I flicked my eyes up to meet his. His face softened as he took in my rigid posture, my inflamed cheeks. He leaned forward, bending his tall form to whisper in my ear. “It betrays you, Never let them see your fear.”
Mr. Carter had straightened and walked off without another word. That was my only day delivering mail before I was assigned to Janet Choo’s copywriting team, and I barely saw him in the following weeks. When I did, he didn’t acknowledge me or show any sign that he recognized me at all. Not that I blamed him. I was just another grunt, entirely beneath his notice.
But that didn’t stop my eyes from drinking him in every time I saw him in the halls. Over the months I learned that he favored dark gray suits and had a tie in every color of the rainbow, though he seemed to favor red.
I also heard some scandalizing rumors about him from some of the other interns.
Apparently our vice-president was a total playboy, only interested in chasing the next piece of tail across Chicago. And once he’d claimed his prize, he was off in search of different prey.
Not that I cared. I only needed to get through this one interview without getting tripped up and tongue-tied every time I looked at his hazel-green eyes and full mouth.
Without imagining that mouth kissing the skin of my neck, his large hands trailing down my arms to caress my breasts before traveling south to my—
“Miss Mason? Are we disturbing your beauty sleep?”
My eyes snapped open. I’d been resting my hand against the back of the chair for so long it probably did look as though I’d fallen asleep.
Benedict Carter was standing in the doorway of the boardroom, looking down at me with a half-amused, half-annoyed expression on his face.
My jaw dropped open, and I shut it with an audible click. “No, not at all—I was just preparing—”
He knew my name.
My heart kicked up twelve notches in one second, leaving me slightly dizzy.
“I’m sure you were,” Mr. Carter said, one side of his mouth pulling upward into a smirk. “And while I’d hate to deprive you of your rest, it’s time for your interview.”
Blood rushed to my face. I glanced at James, whose jaw was clenched tightly. Then to Vivian, who looked like she wanted to dig my eyes out of my skull.
“They—they were waiting here first,” I stammered, desperately hoping for twenty minutes with which to compose my thoughts.
He quirked a dark brow. “I won’t ask again, Miss Mason,” he said, then turned and went back inside the boardroom.
I bolted out of my seat, cast a guilty—yet somewhat triumphant—look at James and Vivian, and followed Benedict Carter into the interview.
Fifteen minutes later, I exited the boardroom from the back door, casting a silent thank-you to the heavens that I was spared facing my fellow interns as tears welled in my eyes.
I brushed them away with one hand, straightening my shoulders as I made my way down the main hallway of Fleischmann and Carter towards the bathroom.
Never let them see your fear.
I held it together until I had locked the stall door behind me.
Only then did I allow the tears to fall.
The interview had been a disaster. I’d been flustered from the start, unable to organize my thoughts into a coherent thought pattern. When David Fleischmann asked me about where I saw myself in five years, I’d blinked dumbly at him before mumbling something about “higher positions” and blushing furiously.
Hannah never blushed. From our earliest years she was the twin who could lie with a straight face, who could put on that smooth stage mask and hide her true feelings from the world.
Right now, I hated her for it. Wished that my every emotion wasn’t broadcast across my forehead like a Las Vegas billboard.
Benedict Carter had asked only one question during the interview. It was in between Janet Choo’s praising of my dedicated work–for which I definitely owed her a box of her favorite macarons—and Evelyn Fleischmann’s off-hand compliment about my dress—for which I definitely owed my twin a box of her favorite truffled chocolates.
Mr. Carter had leaned forward from his place on the other side of the wide conference table. There was a predatory gleam in his eye. “Miss—Mason,” he’d said, pausing to look at my resume as if he needed help remembering my last name, “Most of the products you’ve worked on during your time here focus on products that cater towards women ages nineteen to twenty-five, correct?”
“Yes, I particularly enjoyed working with Ms. Choo on the Perkins soap campaign–” I stopped when he held up a hand.
“I see that. My question is in regards to your–adaptability. How would you change your marketing strategy to cater to say–men ages thirty to forty-five?”
My mind went completely, utterly blank. All I could think about was that he was about that age, maybe around thirty-five or so. My restless hands traveled towards my neck, but I clasped them firmly in my lap.
No fidgeting. It betrays you.
“I—I would try to—” I stammered uselessly. “I guess I would try to give them whatever they desired.”
The moment the words left my mouth I felt my cheeks grow hot. I hadn’t mentioned SEO, hadn’t given my rehearsed blurb about not being daunted by new challenges..
And Benedict Carter’s gaze was still piercing into me. I felt his eyes on the neckline of my dress and thanked Hannah that she had chosen something relatively modest.
I opened my mouth to continue, but a harsh cough from Evelyn Fleischmann cut me off. I couldn’t make out her exact expression through the Botox in her face, but her eyes were flinty. “Thank you, Miss Mason. We will make our decision by the end of next week and let you know.”
I saw the accusation in her eyes. I’d stared too long at the vice-president, when she’d already marked him for herself. Even though she had to be at least fifteen years older than him.
But there was nothing I could do except shake hands with the board and exit through the back door. Now I sat on the cool porcelain lid of the toilet, trying to rein in my tears.
My phone buzzed in my purse, and I fished it out.
HANNAH: How’d it go?
HANNAH: Are you a big time exec yet?
I chucked the phone back into my bag, resisting the urge to fling it across the bathroom floor. How could I face my sister after ruining my first real chance at getting my dream job?
My phone buzzed again but I ignored it, too deep in my misery to want to see Hannah’s encouraging texts. But when it buzzed again a split second later, I couldn’t resist digging my phone back out. Then I gawped, open-mouthed, at the screen.
I had two new texts, but they weren’t from Hannah.
They were from Janet Choo.
My fingers trembled as I unlocked the screen.
JANET: Unconfirmed, so don’t shout about it online just yet…but you’re in.
JANET: The board was very impressed by your work.
My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe as I typed back a reply.
HOLLY: ARE YOU SERIOUS??
HOLLY: Janet, I can’t even begin to thank you.
HOLLY: You stuck up for me in there.
JANET: Perhaps too much, it seems.
HOLLY: What do you mean?
JANET: Carter is pulling you off my projects.
HOLLY: He wants you on his personal team.
Click here for Chapter One
Lush green fields raced by in a blur as the dappled gray mare pounded down the path. Thick purple clouds, pregnant with rain, blanketed the sky, stretching beyond the verdant farmland all the way to the sea and its endless horizon. Thunder growled low in the distance.
The gray mare veered around a bend in the muddy country road, flinging clods of wet earth behind her. Her sides heaved with exertion, and her flanks were flecked with white lather. Seated on the mare’s bare back was a figure in a blue woolen cloak.
Ahead of the horse and cloaked rider, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high. The rider pressed soft leather boots into the mare’s sides, urging the animal on to greater speeds. The horse responded eagerly, surging into a full gallop as they barreled towards the border wall at the edge of Dunnhawke Castle.
A flock of sparrows took flight in agitation as the mare pounded towards the fence. Her rider leaned forward, digging thin fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane. A breathless gasp was lost to the wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered powerful muscles and launched over the wall.
She came down easily on the other side, barely breaking stride. The rider in the blue cloak came to a seated position, and the horse gradually slowed to a stop. For a moment, all was still except for the pair’s heavy breathing. Then a fierce cry of victory pierced the stillness of the countryside.
The hood of the blue cloak was thrown back to reveal a young woman with a wild mop of curly auburn hair. Her blue-gray eyes were alight with excitement and triumph.
Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke leaned forward, patting the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!” Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and the woman wiped them away with a careless hand.
She sat straighter on the horse’s back, taking in the rich, loamy smell of rain and freshly turned earth. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders. Triumph still glittered in moss-green eyes as she looked back at the crumbling stone wall they had cleared.
Let’s see Ronan take that jump, she thought with a smile.
A brilliant streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the swollen purple thunderheads that were rapidly gathering in the distance. The crash of thunder was immediate, booming overhead with a force that reverberated through her skull.
The horse shied, whinnying with fright. Tremors of fear rippled under the dark gray skin, and the woman leaned forward to lay a calming hand on her neck. “Shhh Aoife. You’re right. Let’s get home. This storm is coming in fast.”
With another gentle nudge of her knees, the horse started off at an uneasy trot that soon melted into a smooth canter. Raindrops began to fall, darkening Gwen’s bright red hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head. Within minutes, the pair rode through the open gates of Dunnhawke Castle and into the stables.
A tall, broad-shouldered youth of about sixteen was standing near the entrance, his arms crossed and one leg propped against a thick wooden pillar. He looked up and gave the woman a devilish grin when she trotted in.
“Ha! Gwen, there you are! Mother thinks you are at your music lessons but I saw you sneak away,” the boy said, his brown eyes twinkling with mischief.
The woman dismounted, handing her reins to a nearby stableboy. “I jumped the fence at the border of the Varne’s farm.” she replied, her grin a mirror of his.
“You did not! Not in this mud,” he challenged, looking past her to the pouring rain.
“Truly Ronan, I did. Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approving, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.
The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at Aoife. Only a year Gwen’s junior, her brother was quickly growing into a fierce warrior and there was a never-ending competition between them to see who could best the other.
“I still don’t see why Father gave her to you. I am the eldest son,” Ronan said with a mock sigh.
Gwen shook her head, casting droplets of water over both Aoife and Ronan. “But I am the eldest child. So for now, I get the first choice of the yearly foals.”
Her smile turned wry. “Who knows, perhaps the king will give Aoife to you once I am gone. I doubt that horses are welcome in the lands of the Fae.”
Her brother’s face twisted. He ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Gwen sighed. “I know, Ronan. I’m sorry. It’s just all this waiting has me unnerved.” She saw a groom hurrying with a hot bran mash for Aoife and nodded in satisfaction. Certain that the horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself.
“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her.
Gwen rolled her eyes. “What party? It’s more like a wake.”
They passed through the heavy oaken doors that stood nearly twenty feet tall at the main entrance to the central keep. As always, Gwen’s eyes went to the many chips and splinters that had been gouged into the wood.
My father’s war to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke left many scars upon the land, even so many years later.
I would know better than most.
Gwen remembered clearly the day her father, King Cormac, had come into the nursery with a grave face. It had been a week before her fifth birthday. She was playing with her baby sister, Kaleigh, then only a few months old.
“Gwendolyn, come and talk with me for a moment,” her father said, extending a roughened hand towards her.
Her red curls bouncing, four-year old Gwen ran to her father and placed her tiny palm in his. His presence was a rare occasion in the nursery and she drank in every ounce of his weathered face.
Despite his relatively young age, King Cormac’s gingery beard was streaked with gray, and there were deep shadows under his eyes. His nose was hooked, making a silhouette not unlike the hawk that flew on the flags above the castle. But his blue eyes were kindly, and if today they were tinged with sadness Gwen was too young to see.
She had never been alone with her father, and a shiver of apprehension went down her spine as he led her by the hand. They went into one of the many small courtyards that were spaced evenly inside the castle keep.
The afternoon sun streamed through the open space, and wildflowers blossomed in the sunnier patches, filling her nose with their sweet fragrance.
King Cormac led Gwen to a low stone bench. For a moment they sat there in silence, watching the colorful blooms of late spring bursting to life around them.
“Your mother does not wish for me to share the tale I am about to tell you,” he began.
“Is it a scary story, Papa?” Even then, Gwen had been fascinated rather than frightened by the grisly legends that the nursemaids often told to scare the children into staying in their beds.
Her father had grimaced. “Yes, daughter. I’m afraid it is quite a scary story.”
With that King Cormac had told his young daughter the events that had transpired on the night of her birth.
How he had saved her mother, secured the realm, and brought peace and prosperity to the people.
But at a terrible price.
How one day, a member of the Fae court would arrive to take her to their realm beyond the winds. What awaited her there, no one knew. None who had ventured into their lands had ever returned.
When Gwen first heard her fate she’d crumpled inwards, tears of fear and childish woe welling into her eyes, but her father gave her a sharp look and she immediately straightened her back, blinking away her tears.
From the time she could walk and talk, Gwendolyn was taught the proper decorum for a Princess of Dunnhawke. Even at the tender age of four she had learned to master her emotions.
She swallowed back the sob, her small hands pressed into the cold stone of the bench. “When will they come?” she finally managed to ask.
He sighed deeply, and she felt a strong arm hug her around the shoulders and pull her close. Despite her efforts, a tear slid down Gwen’s nose and onto her dress.
She did not dare to glance at her father as he began to speak.
“We do not know. This is why I have defied your mother’s wishes by telling you of the Fae and what they intend. So that you will know what is coming, and can look it in the eye.”
“Why?” her voice quavered as she spoke.
“So that you might survive.” had come his quiet response.
“And so that you might forgive me.”
Ten years later, Gwen had learned to view everything from a practical standpoint.
Her days had been numbered from the moment she was born. There was nothing anyone could do to change this. Everyone knew that they would die someday, but her fate lie down a far different path.
She might as well accept life as it was.
In the early years, her nurses had kept a constant vigil in the nursery, fearing that at any unguarded moment the Fae might whisk away their infant charge and replace her with a changeling, a vile doppelganger from the fairy realm.
But no emissary from the Fae had come to claim her as a child.
By the time Gwen grew older and learned what fate had in store for her, the story of King Cormac’s bargain had already spread beyond the walls of the castle and into the village of Dunnhawke. Whispers began circulating of the cursed princess and the king who bargained his firstborn daughter for the sake of his realm.
The villagers were initially been outraged at the idea of their king sacrificing his own flesh and blood, but as the rains fell and the crops grew rich and prosperous in their fields, any cries for justice died to a low murmur.
It was hard to be indignant when your children’s bellies were full after months of starvation.
When Gwen’s brother Ronan was born only eleven months after herself, the people had rejoiced at the healthy heir to the throne of Dunnhawke. Barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh gave birth to twin sons, Seamus and Sean, thus providing plenty of sons to provide a secure lineage.
Season after season, the rains arrived on time and lasted well into summer. The autumns were mild and dry, perfect for the farmers who reaped bountiful harvests of grain and wheat, more than enough to sustain the kingdom through the winter months. Under King Cormac’s rule, the village grew and thrived.
The royal nursery grew as well. Queen Bronnagh proved as fertile as the Fae had predicted, and Gwen’s brothers and sisters tumbled from every corner of the castle, forever followed by their despairing nursemaids.
By the time Gwen was ten, any whispers against the King’s bargain had died down, and instead the villagers eyes merely followed her whenever she rode her horse down the dusty road. The people of this land were a pragmatic folk, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to one doomed girl in return for the safety and security of their families.
But that is not to say that they felt grateful, or even comfortable around Gwen. Quite the opposite, her presence reminded them up the price they were willing to pay for prosperity. Over time, this evolved into a kind of superstition against the young princess. As a girl, whenever she had tried to play with the farmer’s children they had run from her, many of them hissing, or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against magic.
They all feared to get to close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.
At around twelve-years old, when her figure had begun to ripen, there had been a sudden burst of activity around the court. Rumours pervaded that the Fae intended to claim her on the night of her first bleeding, and the court of Dunnhawke held its breath for Princess Gwendolyn to flower into womanhood. Her chambermaids would hold their breath when they changed the sheets each morning, finally annoying Gwen so much that she had asked the castle’s cook for some duck’s blood and sprinkled it on the white linens to shock them.
Her mother had not enjoyed the joke. But when Gwen began her monthly courses two weeks later, no emissary from the Fae had come to take her away. Life had gone on as before.
Indeed, by that time, Gwen had decided that she simply didn’t care when the Fae would come for her. She couldn’t care, or it would consume her entire life. From her earliest memories she had been known as the fated princess, the doomed princess, the one whose destiny lay in a land that none had ever witnessed and spoke of only in whispers.
Fighting against it would do no good, nor would consulting the various fortune-tellers and soothsayers that occasionally traveled through the kingdom.
Her mother had tried that once, inviting a woman renowned for seeing the future to the castle. The wizened old hag took her coin and—after slaughtering a chicken and studying its entrails—gave the date of Gwen’s fourteenth birthday. The three months that followed were a nightmarish haze of anxiety, anticipation, fear, and excitement. Gwen had stopped eating, stopped playing with her siblings, stopped sleeping as she restlessly paced the echoing stone halls of the castle.
The eve of her fourteenth birthday arrived, and Gwen spent the entire day vomiting her panic into a chamberpot. That evening in the common room with her family, her mother clutched her hand so tightly Gwen thought her bones might crack beneath the heavy rings. Queen Bronnagh had been heavily pregnant at the time with her third set of twins, and Gwen feared that her departure for the land of the Fae might cause her mother to go into early labor.
The late summer evening was still and hot, the air lying thick and heavy around them. Dusk came early at that time of year, and watching the sun finally sink beneath the horizon of the cobalt sea seemed to take an eternity.
The evening passed in tense silence, her younger siblings escorted to bed by their nurses until it was just Gwen, her parents, and Prince Ronan, who at thirteen years of age was deemed old enough to keep vigil with them. Gwen drew comfort from her brother’s presence; they had been close since their earliest days and Ronan was the closest thing she had to a confidante.
The minutes and hours passed by endlessly, one bleeding into the other until the moon was bright against the velvety black sky. King Cormac spent the evening grinding his teeth, barely able to look at his teenage daughter. Ronan sat quietly on the floor by Gwen’s feet, staring into space.
Gwen had spent her time gazing into the fireplace, her gaze unfocused. She watched for so long that the flickering flames turned into dancing hearth sprites that whirled and twirled around one another in an endless waltz.
Eventually, dawn had broken across the land. The fortune-teller had been wrong. Fortunately for her sake, no trace of the woman was ever found. And fortunately for Gwen’s peace of mind, this was her mother’s last foray into the unsteady world of prophecy and predictions.
In the three years between that day and this, Gwen had been left very much to her own devices. The strict rules of formality that guarded the words and actions of her royal sisters simply did not apply to her, it was not as if she were being prepared for marriage to a foreign prince, or a high-born duke.
From that moment the sun had crested the horizon on her fourteenth birthday, Gwen had an opportunity to do something that few women in the kingdom of Dunnhawke experienced.
She was allowed to become her own person. While her sisters were bound to their dancing classes and music lessons, Gwen rode wild across the springtime meadows, thick with heather and honeysuckle.
She began showing up to the daily lessons between Prince Ronan and Lorcan, the king’s master swordsman.
Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger and dragged their pelts back into his village.
Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.
Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness quickly winning out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.
As Gwen grew older, her curves blossomed and bloomed into those of a woman while her muscles grew lean and toned behind the skirts she was still forced to wear. Her untameable red curls had lengthened until they reached her waist. But her blue-gray eyes took on a flinty, unapproachable look.
Last year, as Gwen neared her seventeenth birthday, a new rumor had come to her ears. She had been bringing Aoife—then just a yearling—into the stables when she passed by a group of three washerwomen who were so involved in their scrubbing and their gossip that they didn’t notice their hooded princess holding the reins of the dappled mare.
Gwen always strained her ears when she heard the castle staff speaking.
More often than not, it was the grooms and the gardeners who knew the true secrets of the realm.
Her instincts pricked when she heard her own name.
“Princess Gwen is out riding again. I swear that girl must be completely wild at this point, like a feral cat.” said one of the laundresses under her breath.
“Till the Fae come to claim what’s theirs.” said a second, a plump woman with a rosy face.
“Shhh Dara. They’ll have your head for whispering such things.” the first responded.
Gwen’s heart pounded. It was rare to overhear anyone discussing her at all, let alone in the same breath as the Fae. The first woman was entirely correct, King Cormac’s wrath would be truly fearsome if he found out that members of his staff were chattering openly about his daughter.
“All I’m saying is that the girl should enjoy the pleasures of the world before she is taken.” the plump woman replied, chafed knuckles submerged in a basin of soapy water.
“I do wonder how much pleasure of the world she has enjoyed, if you take my meaning.” the third woman, this one tall and thin as a broom handle, chimed in.
Gwen’s face heated. She twined her fingers into Aoife’s pewter-gray mane. At sixteen, she had some idea of what the washerwoman was referring to. Enough to know that her father would have all three of these women whipped if he learned they had dared question her chastity.
“If she has any sense at all, the princess will keep her virtue until the end of her days. Everyone knows the Fae cannot harm a virgin.”
At the old woman’s words, Gwen dug her fingers so hard into Aoife’s mane that the skittish young horse had stamped a foot, throwing up her head in objection.
All three of the laundresses looked up at the sound. In unison, the blood drained from their faces. They bounded to their feet, though only one still had enough presence of mind to curtsy.
A dark, bitter corner of Gwen’s mind told her to summon the castle guards and have them all thrown into a dungeon for a few days.
But she had no quarrel with these women. It wasn’t their fault that they lived in a castle with an accursed princess. Plus they had unwittingly given her a valuable piece of information.
The Fae could not harm a virgin. At least, that was the rumor.
She merely nodded politely at the washerwomen, and led her horse away. They collapsed, pale and stricken, back onto their low stools.
She handed Aoife over to Andlan, one of the castle grooms. As he took the reins, Gwen looked Andlan over from head to toe. He was perhaps a year or two older than her, with straw-blonde hair and a spray of freckles across his nose.
The Fae could not harm a virgin. Were they waiting to come for her until after she had surrendered her virtue? If she remained a virgin forever, might they never come?
That night, Gwen had tossed and turned, burning with her newfound knowledge. The tower room in the southern corner of the castle was tiny, but it was her own. She had been given it as a gift after the Fae neglected to show up on her fourteenth birthday. Another symbol of King Cormac’s guilty conscience.
Finally, when the stars were bright against the night sky and the rest of the castle was asleep, she crept out of bed and down the castle stairs. Long ago, she had borrowed a simple muslin gown from one of the chambermaids. She’d actually stolen the garment–but left behind a purse of silver heavy enough that she felt assured the maid would not weep overlong. She donned the scratchy gown and padded on silent feet into the stables.
Years of useless waiting, of neverending anticipation, made her impulsive, heedless of risk.
If the Fae would not take her as a virgin, perhaps she could speed fate along through her own devices.
Andlan had been dozing in a bed of hay when she pressed a finger to his lips. With her vibrant red hair tucked under a linen cap and her maid’s disguise, he did not recognize her as a princess of the realm. He’d never asked, too surprised and thrilled of his brilliant good luck to do more than whisper his affirmation to her insistent urgings.
A few kisses, a few pumps of the boy’s hips, and a stab of pain was all it took to make Gwen a woman.
Afterwards, she’d taken the scraps of bloody muslin from the stolen dress and thrown them into the fire.
“Well!” she’d screamed into the flames, watching the scarlet-stained fabric curl into cinders. “What are you waiting for!”
She fell to her knees in front of the carved fireplace. There was a deep, tearing ache within her center. Tears finally came to her eyes.
“I am a virgin no longer. You are free to do as you will. What are you waiting for!” she hissed to the fire, knowing that there was no one listening.
No one had come that night. Or the nights that followed. It had all been for nought.
If Andlan ever realized that he had actually bedded a princess, he gave no sign of it. Perhaps he understood the necessity of silence on the matter.
Castle life went on around her. She rode her horse. She sparred with her brother. Every day that passed, she felt a little less, became a little less involved in the world around her.
Eventually, the rumors began circulating that they would come for her on the eighteenth birthday. Like clockwork, the court had sprung into action, and a flurry of whispering preceded her every entrance and followed every exit.
Now, three days before that date, Gwen bid farewell to her brother and climbed the narrow stairs to her tower room.
A celebration had been ordered, not a quiet, fear-filled evening like that of four years ago, but a true party that included the entire court.
Surely, this would be it.
Surely they would come.
And her life could begin. Or be snuffed out, if the immortal Fae chose.
At least the waiting would finally be at an end.
Gwen strode up the stairs to her tower room and looked out over the kingdom of Dunnhawke. She both loved and loathed every inch of those fertile green fields.
For her entire life, Gwen’s fate had been out of her hands. As she looked out on the crops of wheat and barley for which she had been traded, she laid another brick around the wall she had slowly built around her heart.
The land was dying.
From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that were withering before his eyes on their usually fertile fields.
You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.
Not in Ireland.
The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms that were so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.
Now, weeks later, the late afternoon sun still shone a merciless blue, with not a cloud in the sky.
A distant scream echoed down the stone corridor, and Cormac turned suddenly, his stomach wrenched with fear.
His wife, Queen Bronnagh, was in labor with their first child.
It had been a hard pregnancy, and the delivery was taking longer than expected.
The royal midwives were in attendance. He had seen them exiting Bronnagh’s bedchamber with bowl filled with bloody cloth.
The screams persisted all day, until Cormac thought he would tear his own heart from his chest to make it cease.
He had fought many battles in the war to reclaim his kingdom. The cries of dying men were still echoed through his dreams.
None would haunt him like the cries of his beautiful new wife.
Never before had he felt so utterly helpless.
Cormac took a deep, wavering breath and deliberately turned back towards the unpaned window.
His kingdom, so newly won, was crumbling to pieces around him.
How could he expect the people to support his rule when their livelihood stood dying in the fields? In the one hundred days since his official coronation, it had not rained a drop.
All over the peasants were whispering.
They were displeased.
The people of the mounds.
Whatever name people chose to call them, they did so in hushed undertones and subtle gestures.
Cormac shook his head. He had ridden himself of such foolish fancies the moment he had been exiled at twelve-years of age to the lonely isle of Innismoor.
The brutal coup that had usurped his father, Ronan, had resulted in the death of the King had ended with the rule of Ronan’s younger brother, Odhran.
He had only just managed to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke, having solidified his claim to the throne with a marriage to the youngest daughter of _____.
In the year they had been married, Cormac had come to love his wife deeply, though his stoic reserve made it difficult for him to demonstrate his affection.
Another wrenching scream came from the open door of Queen Bronnagh’s bedchamber, making Cormac feel half-mad with worry and grief.
A few short months ago, everything he ever wanted had been in the palm of his hand.
Now, his kingdom was plagued by drought, there were rumors of plague in the nearby villages, and it seemed likely that his hard-won alliance with the kingdom of ____ would die alongside his wife and newborn child.
Maybe he was cursed.
Perhaps one of the Fae had put an evil curse upon his reign.
He had never paid much mind to the old-wives tales before, but desperation was high and tight in his chest.
A voice from behind caused King Cormac to start, and he turned to see the midwife, her face bone white in the failing light of the sun.
She looks like a omen of death. Cormac thought as a shudder ran up his back.
The plump older woman shook her hand, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done, sire. The babe is turned in the womb, and the cord is wrapped about it’s poor little neck.”
Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eighteen years ago, but now he felt a sob rising to his throat.
“And…and the Queen?” he choked, dreading the answer.
Again the midwife shook her head, and now Cormac’s knees threatened to buckle. He raised one hand to steady himself against the stone wall of the castle.
“I understand,” was all he was able to reply.
Everything. His beautiful, young wife.
His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.
All of it gone.
The peasants were already on the brink of revolt given the lack of food in the region. The whispers of curses reached his ears even here in the castle.
Odhran, who had escaped across the narrow channel to the Britannic Isles, would be ready and waiting to see upon any weakness.
Something had to be done.
Cormac slammed a futile fist against the wall, resting his head for a moment against the cool stones.
“My son, something must be done,” his mother said from his shoulder, having crept up his shoulder in that silent way that she had. She echoed his own thoughts, as she so often did.
Grainne Setterwind was a tiny, wizened woman with a face full of sagging wrinkles, but her posture was kept rigidly erect by the sturdy oaken cane she carried.
She had been old since Cormac could remember, having borne him late in life after the deaths of her two elder sons, both of whom had died in battle before he was ever born.
“There is nothing to be done, Mother. The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.
“There is always something to be done, if one knows who to ask,” his mother replied. Her blue woolen gown was closed high at the throat, but it did not hide the tremor that shook her frail bones.
Cormac’s own blood chilled at the thought. “We cannot go to them. They are not trustworthy. Mother you know this.”
“I know that if you do not ask for help from the Fae, you will lose your kingdom within the fortnight, and all your long years of struggle will have been for naught,” Grainne said in her measured voice.
Bronnagh cried out again in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased panic in her voice that they were both running out of time.
He had no choice. He would go to the Fae.
The winter sun had already set as King Cormac made his careful way out of the castle and through the grounds.
He took none of his usual guards and personal servants with him.
No one must know of this night.
He entered a copse of birch trees and continued, certain of his route due to his mother’s constant folk tales and his own youthful wanderings.
The stone circles of Dunnhawke were well known to everyone in the area as a place to be generally avoided for fear of disrespecting them.
The Fae did not take kindly to any perceived slight.
Even as he approached, Cormac could see thick gray clouds gathering on the darkened horizon.
An example of nature finally taking its course, or a portent that his steps led towards his destiny?
The dark, rough-hewn stones of the fairy circle loomed through the withered leaves of the forest. What was usually a lush undergrowth crackled drily beneath his leather boots.
The stones were arranged in three concentric rings, each smaller than the other. Despite the dry heat of the evening, an icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine.
He had no authority between those rings of stone.
This was the dominion of the Sidhe. The immortal Fae would had inhabited this land long before the rise of Man.
Now, controlled by the ancient power of the stones, the Sidhe were held within their ancient realm, only able to enter the human world through specific sites of offering and worship.
It was a peace that had lasted for more than ten generations. He must do nothing to alter the balance of that truce tonight.
With a shiver of misgiving, Cormac loosened the leather belt that held his sword in place, and let the steel blade fall with a dull thud onto the dry grass.
He hated to enter this place unarmed, but to bring a weapon was to court death.
As Cormac passed within the outermost ring he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet from a pocket of his cloak.
As he crossed the threshold of the furthermost stone, the King felt his heart began to thunder within his chest.
Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.
His mother’s parting words, said just as he mounted his black war horse and charged off into Dunnhawke Forest.
The Fae delighted in making contracts and agreements with mortals, then standing back and watching their hapless victims fall prey to one unforeseen problem or another.
It was their speciality.
Cormac felt the air grow still around him as he entered the innermost circle of stones. All the late night hooting of owls and chirping of cicadas had died off, leaving an almost palpable silence in their place.
The very atmosphere around him quivered with magic.
Before his courage could fail him, Cormac went to the center of the fairy circle, where a low stone table sat, its surface worn smooth from the weight of centuries of offerings.
He laid the silver bracelet upon it, then turned to face the silently watching eyes of the forest.
“I am Cormac Setterwind, King of DunnHawke. I offer precious goods in exchange for the peaceful continuation of my reign.”
He swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Sidhe, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation, “spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.”
Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his sandy-blonde hair.
“Please. Accept my valuable offering.”
“A far more priceless offering is required, my good King Cormac.”
A silky voice sounded, making Cormac startle.
“At least, if you seek to achieve all that you desire.” the voice continued. The king looked up to see a figure silhouetted by the light of a torch that had not been there a moment ago.
Cormac’s pulse jumped as he beheld a member of the Fae for the first time in his life.
It was a youthful male with jet-black hair that glinted softly under the rising moonlight.
“We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said. He was dressed in hunting clothes, a green leather tunic and brown pants. Like the king, he was unarmed.
The laws had to be obeyed if the uneasy peace was to continue.
“I — I have come with an offering,” the King stammered, gesturing towards the valuable bracelet that still lay upon the stone table. “Please accept it in exchange for sparing the life of my Queen, and for bringing the rains back to the Kingdom of Dunnhawke.
“You ask for much, King Cormac, but bring little with which to bargain,” the Fae male said, raising a quizzical brow. His voice was light, almost comical given the dire circumstances.
Despite his youthful appearance, the Fae’s amethyst eyes were filled with a centuries-old cynicism.
“What more could you ask for? I have already lost my wife…my child…” The heaviness his grief began to sink upon Cormac, and he felt his back bend beneath its weight.
“Your wife yet lives, as does your child. They are still between the world of the living and the dead.”
Cormac raised his head at the Fae’s words.
“I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”
The flesh on the king’s arms raised as he anticipated the man’s next words.
“For a price.”
Cormac’s shoulders sagged. A deep weariness settled over him. “What is your price?” he asked.
“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said. “But the baby–”
“Damn you to hell! You will not harm my child!” Cormac’s rage washed away his former despair.
The Fae quirked a dark eyebrow. “We have no intention of harming the girl.”
Cormac went weak at the knees. “A girl? You know this? I am to have a daughter?
The man nodded. “She will be the first of twelve children born to you and your wife. Eight of them boys.”
Cormac’s mouth went dry. Twelve children. Eight sons. A dynasty to carry on his name. An iron vise clamped around his heart and twisted violently. “What would happen to the girl?” he asked, casting a glance towards the Fae.
The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings. “She would spend her youth in the mortal world, until we came for her. Then, we would come to spend her days with us in the lands beyond the mist.”
~There is no other choice left to me.~ “What fate would await her in the fairy lands?” Cormac said, his heart pounding dully in his skull.
“ I neither know nor care. All I can promise is that she will live out her days unharmed in the realm of King Ronan. The king has expressed a certain…interest in her destiny. Now, mortal, the time comes to make your choice. I fear your wife will not last much longer.” the man stepped forward, his unnatural purple eyes gleaming in the moonlight.
“How long will she be permitted to stay with her family?” Cormac said, knowing his decision had already been made.
The Fae knew it as well. A wide grin came to his lips. “Who can say, King Cormac? We fairy folk have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps we will come for her in a year. Perhaps twenty. Perhaps she will be allowed to live out her entire life without anyone even remembering our bargain.”
His shark-like smile broadened. “Though, that is unlikely.”
“Why my daughter? Why would a ruler of the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unwilling to resign himself to what he was about to do.
“That is not your concern, mortal. Now, do you we have a deal?”
The Fae male spit into the palm of his silvery-white hand and extended it towards the king.
No. Tell this demon to crawl back into his hole.
Instead, King Cormac of Dunnhawke spat into his calloused palm, and shook hands with the Fae.
This is the final installment, so enjoy!
If you haven’t had the chance, make sure to read Chapters 1-4! Chapter 1 can be found here.
Lutz couldn’t tear his eyes away from the gruesome sight.
Bud McGuire’s face was frozen in a silent shriek, wide eyes fixed unblinking at the ceiling. His chest had been torn open crudely. The glinting white of ribs poked through the carnage.
Bud’s legs were bent at an impossible angle to his torso. He had been torn almost in two at the groin.
The first scream that passed Sheriff Lutz’ lips was quickly followed by a second. He fell backwards to the ground and landed hard on on his rear, using the heels of his feet to push himself away from the mutilated corpse. His back pressed against the rusted green bathtub, and he idly noticed that the calico dress lain across the edge had a faint pattern of purple violets.
Then Clarkson’s strong brown hands were wrapped around his own, and his deputy hauled Lutz to his feet. They exited the broken bathroom and its grisly contents and went into the corridor, where Billy Hudson was already halfway down the stairs leading to the first floor.
The ancient staircase creaked threatening beneath their boots as the two officers followed the younger man downstairs, desperate to get as fair away from Bud McGuire’s mutilated corpse as possible.
Lutz burst out still-open front door and stumbled down the porch steps. The humid summer air was like a soothing balm against his skin. His lungs heaved with the effort to draw in fresh breath and he sank to his knees, digging his fists into the hard gravel of the walkway. He could hear the footsteps of Deputy Clarkson and Billy sounding down the stairs and out onto the front lawn.
They remained mercifully silent as Lutz fought against the waves of heat and chills that kept alternating their way through his veins. Distantly, as if observing someone else from far above, Lutz understood that he was having a panic attack. With shaking arms he shifted his weight until he was sitting on the lawn bordering the front path. Dry grass crackled as he brought his knees up to his forehead and sat there, breathing in the night air. Somewhere nearby a cricket chirped, breaking the stillness.
Crickets were still chirping.
Somehow, this was an encouraging thought. Lutz raised his head and looked for a moment at the night sky. The sun was still hours away from rising and the sky was pitch black, except for the thousands of glittering stars.
Lutz took a deep breath and held it for a long moment before slowly exhaling. He repeated this steady breathing twice more then wearily got to his feet, wincing as both his knees cracked in protest. He brushed dry grass off the pants of his uniform and looked at his companions, both of whom had remained silently nearby this entire time.
Nodding once in silent gratitude, Lutz resumed his authority as sheriff. None of them would speak a word of his temporary breakdown, but they could all feel a sudden shift in the atmosphere, as if a sudden bond of kinship had just been forged. Lutz knew that the three of them would forever be bound by the events of this night.
Officer Clarkson looked to his senior officer. “Do you want to check the rest of the property? Look for the rest of the family?”
Lutz began shaking his head almost immediately. “No, we found what we were looking for. This is officially a crime scene. It’s also a forty acre farm with two barns and at least ten outbuildings. We need more men.”
“You want to call in Miller and Sanchez?” Clarkson asked.
Lutz nodded, but then shook his head, “Yeah, we’ll call them in when we get back to the station. No radio signal out here worth a damn anyway. Besides, I think we also need to get on the phone with the mayor’s office. We’re going to need the forensics people in Iowa City or Davenport or wherever the hell.”
At this, Sheriff Lutz turned and began walking back the way they had come. He glanced back once more at the darkened windows of the McGuire farmhouse, which now seemed like looming eyes in the receding light from their flashlights. His boots crunched under the rough gravel of the long driveway as the three men headed back towards the car.
The yellow, sickly looking corn blocked their view on either side, looming far taller than a man even in this unhealthy state. Lutz was struck again by the eerie silence of the place. The humid summer air was heavy and still, not a breath of wind rustled through the stalks. The near-complete absence of sound made him antsy and uncomfortable. The sooner they were back to the car the better.
Billy must have felt the same way; he trotted up alongside Lutz, his rifle loosely grasped in one hand now that they were out of the farmhouse. In a low voice he said, “What will happen now, Sheriff?”
Lutz shrugged, “First, we’re going to go back to the station. I have a bottle of Lagavulin 16 in a locked box in my office. Sheriff Bradley gave me that bottle the day I took office. Now, he told me this whisky was peaty enough and smoky enough to burn away the worst night of your life.Told me there would someday come the night when I would need it. It’s sat in it’s wooden box every night until I really started to think that day would never come. But come it did, and tonight I’m going to open that bottle and drink deep. And you’ll drink with me, if you like.”
Heartened by this prospect, the men picked up the pace and within a few minutes they emerged from the McGuire’s driveway back onto the smooth paved surface of Highway 99. Like an angel in the darkness, Lutz could see the police cruiser sitting on the edge of the road about three hundred yards down. He breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that some secret part of him had expected the black-and-white Chevy to be gone, leaving them stranded at the McGuire farm.
Lutz’ palms were sweating, and he wiped them furtively on the thighs of his trousers. He checked his watch, then checked it again in disbelief. They had barely been gone forty minutes.
When they reached the car, Lutz’ fumbled in his pocket for his keys, then unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat. His hands trembled on the steering wheel, and he wondered briefly if he was fit to drive.
Can’t exactly ask Clarkson or Billy to chauffeur me home. He thought resignedly. Lutz unlocked the passenger and back doors, and his companions slid silently into their seats. Clarkson was still holding the buck rifle, and the shotgun was in Billy’s lap, the mounted flashlight still beaming a bright circle on the car’s upholstery. As one, the men fastened their seatbelts. The familiar, everyday click of the metal sliding into place struck him as utterly absurd after the night’s events.
Lutz slid the key to the Chevy into the ignition. He had a horrible, crawling feeling in the bottom of his stomach that when he turned the key, the engine would simply refuse to start. This was ridiculous since the cruiser was barely three years old and had never done anything but purr like a kitten. But tonight, right now, the car wouldn’t start. Because it couldn’t be this easy to just drive away.
The key turned, and the motor roared to life, just as it always did. The front headlights came on, casting two wide beams of light into the darkness around them.
Reflecting back, impossibly high against the skeletal pines of the forest, were a pair of glowing red eyes.
Clarkson screamed first, throwing his hands over his face and crying out in terror.
Lutz couldn’t scream, his voice seemed to have completely locked itself away. His mouth gaped open in horror, but the only sound that came out was a strangled choke.
Billy was scrambling to get out of the police cruiser, but since he was in the back the doors only opened from the outside. He tried rolling down the window, and when that failed he began to panic and bashed at the glass with his fist again and again, but this was equally ineffective.
Billy raised the butt of the shotgun and drew back, preparing to ram it through the window of the car. “NO!” Lutz roared, never taking his eyes from the glowing red orbs watching them from the forest.
He jammed the clutch in, praying to anyone who might be listening that the car did not stall. He shifted into first, gave the engine some gas, and the car began slowly moving. This entire time he continued staring at the red eyes hovering twenty feet above them. They looked back unwaveringly, glittering with a malevolent intelligence. As the cruiser rolled past, the eyes followed their progress, but did not advance. Lutz fixed his gaze on the rearview mirror, waiting for some ravenous beast to come charging behind them.
But there was nothing. The darkness of the night took over, and the eyes receded into the trees.
Intent now on putting as much distance between himself and the McGuire farm as possible, Lutz laid one heavy boot on the gas. Only after ten miles, when he could see the lights of Harry Gibson’s fuel station, did he ease his boot off the accelerator and relax the hunched position of his shoulders. Ten minutes later they pulled up to the darkened windows of the sheriff’s station.
Lutz killed the engine of the cruiser and the three men sat in silence. After a long moment, Henry Clarkson opened his mouth, “What was that thing –” he began, but Lutz put up on hand and stopped him. Lutz shook his head, opened the door of the cruiser with a loud creak, and stepped outside.
Every muscle in his body was accusing him of gross misconduct, and Lutz knew he would feel the punishment the next day. He unlocked the door to the sheriff’s office and went in.
The comfortable surroundings of the dingy sheriff’s station almost brought him to tears. Weakly buzzing security fluorescents cast a dim, yellowish glow on the familiar disarray of desks and chairs. Without bothering to turn on the main lights, he crossed the bullpen to the corner office at the back of the station and went inside his office. On the bookcase against the far wall was a narrow wooden box, which Lutz now opened for the first time in ten years.
Nestled against dark silk was the bottle of Lagavulin 16, given to him by retiring Sheriff Bradley on his last day in office.
There will come a day when you need it.
Lutz motioned to Clarkson and Billy, who had followed him into the station and now stood silently behind him, framing the door to his office. Clarkson had fetched three glasses from the small kitchen, and he set them down carefully on the stained wood of Lutz’ desk.
Andrew Lutz sat heavily in his black office chair. He twisted the cap off the bottle of scotch and poured three fingers into each glass. The amber liquid glinted dully in the dim light. The powerful, peaty smell of the alcohol bit into his nose as he raised his glass and the two men in front of him raised theirs.
“Drink up,” he advised. In the one smooth motion all three of them drained their glasses.
The scotch blazed a fiery trail to his stomach.
To burn the nightmares away.
He reached to refill his glass.
Creative credit for this idea must be shared with my father Mark, who greatly enjoyed scaring the shit out of his children during long trips on dark country roads.
Deputy Clarkson had been a wonderfully good sport up until this point, but when presented with the prospect of crossing the threshold of this house, he balked. He released his death-grip on his rifle, lowering it to his side and exclaiming, “No offense, Sheriff, but fuck this. I’m not goin’ in there. Let’s go back to the car and call–
“Call who, Henry?” Lutz said flatly. “The state troopers can’t do anything except write tickets to out-of-towners. The town police call us when there is a violent death. So who exactly should we call? Animal control?”
Clarkson glowered back at him, “Then let’s go back to the car and come back in the goddamn daylight, “ he hissed between clenched teeth.
Personally, Lutz felt that Clarkson was speaking the most sense that anyone had all night. But as much as he privately agreed with his deputy’s plan to retreat far away from the McGuire house, they were there and there was a job to do. “Come on now, Henry. Billy’s been inside. Can’t let the kid show us up now, can we?” Lutz said with a forced lightheartedness that rang false in his ears.
He sighed, ran one hand along his forehead and through his salt-and-pepper hair, and tried again. “Yeah, this sucks. Doesn’t change facts. We have to find out what, if anything, occurred here tonight. So let’s just sack up and get it done, yeah?”
It wasn’t much of a pep talk but it seemed to do the trick. Billy gave a heavy shrug, scuffing his boots against the brown grass bordering the McGuire’s front porch. Clarkson closed his eyes for a moment as if offering up a silent prayer, then reshouldered his firearm and nodded at Lutz. “I’m taking a long weekend,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Gonna take my wife up to Iowa City. Gonna go to Red Lobster. It’s Crabfest.” He continued muttering to himself about his upcoming weekend, but brushed past Lutz and climbed the creaking steps onto the porch.
You can have the whole week off. Lutz mentally promised his deputy. Then he pulled his revolver out of its holster, thumbed the safety off, and followed the two men past the entrance and into Bud McGuire’s home.
A profound silence settled around the men as they crossed the threshold of the McGuire house. The footsteps made by the officer’s heavy boots were muffled by the layer of dust that lay upon the floor. In the beam of the flashlight, the wallpaper in the foyer may have been a sunny striped yellow at some point, but had been warped with water damage and was now the color of old urine.
Ahead of the men was a long corridor with a doorway on either side. On one side, Lutz could see the ubiquitous farmhouse “mudroom”, complete with rows of rubber Wellington boots and heavy winter parkas. The Wellies were dull and cracked with disuse, and the coats were moth-eaten and smelled of damp. A closed door led deeper into the house, probably into the kitchen.
On the left side of the corridor was a room Lutz’ wife would have referred to as a “parlour” when she was alive, with delicate furniture and assorted porcelain figurines. Here was the first evidence of human activity. The dainty tables were smashed to bits, and the rose-patterned loveseat was at a defined angle to a moth-eaten rug, as if someone had forcibly shifted the couch by standing with sudden force. A broken water jug lay in pieces on the floor.
Oddly enough, even these violent scene was gentled by a thick layer of dust. So far, the only sign that a living person had been in the house were the tracks he could see in the corridor that had clearly been made by Billy’s heavy workboots.
Where were the McGuire’s?
Lutz moved on a constant pivot, shining his high-powered flashlight into every corner and crevice. His senses felt electrified as he strained each one of his senses to determine whether or not a threat still lurked in this house. According to his eyes and ears, this was just a normal house, though terribly neglected. “Billy,” he whispered under his breath. “Why the fuck did you even come in here?”
Billy responded equally quietly, “Like I said, sir, I thought maybe someone was in trouble. But when I got here — it was like I just had to keep going. I had to see for myself.”
Lutz understood. He could feel it too. The panicky urge to head back for the car was drowned out by grim determination. He needed to find out what the hell had happened here.
Past the open doorways to the mudroom and the parlour was a flight of stairs that went from the first floor all the way to the attic in a long switchback. The stairs, like everything else in the McGuire house, seemed to be standing upright by sheer force of will alone.
Running along the right edge of the staircase, in a long unbroken line from top to bottom, was a wide swath of dried blood.
The first thought that ran through Sheriff Lutz’ mind in that moment was that he wished he lived in a larger city, with more resources. If they were farther north, near Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, the three men standing in the McGuire house could be surrounded by backup within an hour.
A small fleet of detectives, forensic experts, photographers, evidence baggers and rubberneckers could gather at the homestead. The living darkness of the August summer night would be be beaten back by high-powered flashbulbs and battery-powered spotlights. Under their harsh glare, and soothed by the shop talk of the gathered officials, whatever horrors had visited the McGuire family would be revealed as just another crime scene, still tragic but acceptable to the mind. A sane sequence of events. Unfortunately, his little pocket of eastern Iowa was small and underpopulated, the mechanics needed to properly investigate a potential crime were simply not in place.
As much as Lutz dreaded the idea, it would have to be him that ventured up those stairs, and it would have to be now. He would have to venture up there, and so would Clarkson, as department regulations forbade an officer from entering a potential crime scene alone. Plus, he wanted Clarkson’s steady presence beside him with the Winchester.
That didn’t mean they all had to go. “Billy,” Lutz said to the young man without turning, “if you don’t want to go up there a second time, now is your chance. Go wait for us on the porch. Stand guard.”
“With all due respect sir, there is no way I am staying down here by myself.” Billy squared his shoulders and gave Lutz a defiant look.
“Your choice, kid.” Lutz gave him a nod and turned back to the problem of the staircase. They would have to make sure they didn’t contaminate the crime scene with their boots. The blood was thick all the down the stairs, where it abruptly stopped on the second to last riser. Here, a slightly thicker pool of blood still shone with faint wetness under his flashlight.
Whatever had happened here, had happened recently.
“Slow and steady does it, now. Don’t step in it.” Squeezing his lanky frame to the far edge of the staircase, Lutz placed a heavy boot on the first riser. A puff up dust arose, and the stair gave an wheezing groan, but it did not buckle under his weight.
Lutz began slowly advancing his way up the stairs, pressing firmly on each stair first to test its stability. The staircase creaked and moaned but continued to hold firm, and he motioned for Clarkson to follow. Lutz could hear his usually taciturn deputy muttering various prayers and swear words under his breath.
The swath of blood continued up the stairs in an unbroken streak. Now it veered off to the right and disappeared into the darkness of a long corridor. The overwhelming odor was of dirt and mold, but the coppery smell of fresh blood was also thick in the air. A few framed photos hung at uneven intervals, their subjects almost completely obscured with dust. The dust on the floor was disturbed now, but there were no distinct tracks; it had been swept almost clean away in some places.
Resigned now to seeing this through, Lutz felt his earlier fear retreat to the back of his mind. The adrenaline pumping through his system was working for him now, sharpening his focus and steadying his pulse. The corridor opened twice to the right, and Lutz circled warily around the open entrance to the first room.
A cursory glance revealed a dingy bathroom. Or perhaps it had once been a bathroom. Now it was a heap of stained and cracked porcelain, with a rusted out pipe hanging loosely where a sink may have been. Torn linoleum covered parts of the floor, but most of it was the same weathered floorboards as the rest of the upstairs. The air was heavy with the smells of stale grime and mildew.
The path of blood, which had become thicker as they advanced along the corridor, continued down the hallway to the second room. Lutz signaled to Billy to cover the entrance of the bathroom, then he and Clarkson advanced, firearms cocked and ready. Lutz still carried the Maglite, held to the top of his service pistol, so he was the first to cautiously peer around the corner of the room at the end of the hall.
When Lutz first shone his flashlight into the darkened room, he actually breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected to find the strewn and dismembered bodies of April McGuire and her children in pieces about the floor.
Instead, the room appeared entirely empty on first glance. There were no severed limbs clad in footie pajamas. There was also no furniture, curtains, rugs or anything else to indicate that the space had ever been occupied by inhabitants other than mice. The bare wooden floor was littered with their droppings, but not much else. He began sweeping his flashlight from floor to ceiling. The walls had been painted a deep scarlet that looked almost wet by the light of the–
For a span of time that felt like an eternity but was in reality probably more like thirty seconds, Lutz stood stock still in the entrance to that room, his head cocked to one side like a man trying to figure out a really good riddle. One eyebrow was raised, and his mouth hung open in bewilderment.
The room had been drenched in great splashes of blood that reached all the way to the ceiling in some places. It was swirled in sporadic circles across the floor, and spattered against all four walls. The closest thing Lutz could compare it to
Behind him, Lutz could hear Clarkson’s sharp intake of breath as he also took in the scene before them. Then it was as if all the air went out of his lungs, and Sheriff Lutz suddenly deflated. He felt his knees give way, and had to lean one hand against the outside wall of the hallway for support as his vision blurred and his head spun.
He still held the flashlight in one hand and it was pointed into the room, shining onto the dripping walls. He felt more than saw Clarkson stumble backwards into the wall behind him.
Billy stood at the doorway to the demolished bathroom, studying the mud on his boots. Lutz realized that the younger man had already seen all of this. “Billy, did you see any bodies when you were here earlier?”
Billy met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “When I saw the blood on the stairs, I figured maybe someone was still alive up here. But when I got up here there was nothing. The batteries in my flashlight were starting to die, and then I saw that room, he gestured towards the room with the bloody walls, “I got the hell out of here quick as I could. I didn’t check any of the other rooms.”
“So then where the fuck are the bodies? It looks like Bud McGuire and his family in a Salad Spinner. There’s blood on the goddamned ceiling.” Clarkson queried, stepping closer to the open door of the empty room and glancing inside once more.
“Yeah, but that’s the problem. It’s blood. Just blood. No bones. No organs.” Lutz’ mind was still spinning as it frantically tried to bring a sense of logic into what it had just witnessed. “There should be pieces of the McGuire’s everywhere. But so far, the only evidence of an actual crime is that arm out on the road.” he turned to face the other two men, continuing to speak under his breath.
Clarkson faced him, his normally placid face a mask of tension and fear, “Yeah, how did that arm even get out there? Why does it look like no one has lived here in five years? Where the hell are the McGuires!” this last sentence he said in a whispered shout.
“Are they in the barn? The basement? Did Bud chop them up and carry them into the woods? Was it even Bud? What the hell were those claw marks on the door, Sheriff?” Clarkson continued his questioning in a voice that did not conceal his rising terror.
Lutz gripped his deputy tightly by the shoulders, his own fear gone in the face of his officer’s increasingly panic, “Of course it was Bud, Henry. We’ll find him. Don’t worry.” This idea, as nightmarish as it was, offered a kind of morbid comfort. Bud McGuire might be a deranged madman who had just killed his entire family, but he was a man.
A man bled when you shot him.
This whole time Billy Hudson had been silent, his eyes fixed on the open doorway to the dingy bathroom. Now Billy cleared his throat, and almost sheepishly said, “Sheriff? You might want to see this.”
Had there ever been less welcome word’s in human history? Lutz pinched his nose between two fingers and reluctantly asked, “What is it?”
Billy just gestured with the head of the shotgun, and in the bright glow from his Maglite Lutz could see a thin line of blood slowly making its way from behind the open bathroom door.
Immediately his heart, which had just begun to resume its regularly scheduled beat, started jackhammering wildly in his chest. Somehow, in that moment, Lutz knew.
Whatever they had come here to find was on the other side of that door.
On their first walkthrough of the corridor, all three men had been preoccupied by the path of blood that led to the room at the end of the hall. Now, upon closer inspection, Lutz realized that there was the faintest glimmer of light coming from the darkened bathroom.
His mouth was dry as a bone, and Lutz swallowed hard and then, pistol still at the ready, he eased around the doorway of the bathroom and put his back against the nearest wall. He checked the corner and, finding it empty, proceeded to circle slowly around the room. Clarkson covered him from behind, while Billy stood guard once more outside the room.
The light was coming from two flickering candles, the tall glass ones of the sort his grandmother used to burn on Sundays. The flames were sputtering their last breaths, and two more candles had already drowned in their own wax. How long do those candles burn? Lutz made a mental note to check and kept his eyes on a swivel, trying to observe as much as possible about the scene.
The candles had been arranged next to a chipped green bathtub. The formed a small circle, in the middle of which was a blackened circle, as someone had foolishly decided to build a fire in the middle of the floor.
On the edge of the bathtub was a draped a faded calico dress. Lutz approached the garment, which had been carefully arranged so as not to wrinkle against the sides of the tub. The tub itself was empty.
Lutz suddenly froze as he heard Clarkson swore a low oath behind him. Filled with sudden dread, he pivoted instinctively on his heel and prepared to fire.
For the first time that night, Andrew Lutz screamed at the top of his lungs.
Slumped in one corner of the trashed bathroom, in a slowly spreading pool of blood, was what remained of Bud McGuire.
Click here for the final chapter!
Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.
Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.
“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.
Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.
All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.
His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.
That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.
This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.
The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.
Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.
“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”
Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.
The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.
Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.
All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.
What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?
To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.
A sudden snap from the forest on his left.
Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.
Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?
He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.
Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.
But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.
Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”
Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”
Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”
Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.
Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.
At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.
The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.
The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.
As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.
It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.
As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.
Beyond the door lay only more blackness.
Click here for Chapter 4!
If you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out Chapter 1!
The twenty miles from the sheriff’s station to the McGuire farm passed in almost complete silence as the mostly darkened buildings of the small town gave way to the entirely darkened farmland that made up ninety percent of the area. Endless acres of corn and soybeans framed every small town in the county, with up to forty miles between communities. Lutz had spent his entire life in Richmond county, and for him the horizon would always be where the sky met the fields.
This limitless expanse of cultivated land was interrupted, rarely, by spotty patches of trees and scrub brush. Most of these “forests” were barely twenty acres wide, except the Iowa River Nature Preserve, which sprawled over nearly thirty miles of land on the western side of the highway. On the eastern side of the road was Bud McGuire’s farm.
Those woods had always given Andrew Lutz the creeps. It was an odd, silent place of skeletal pines and briar bushes, offering none of the secret trails and trickling streams of the patches of woods he had enjoyed as a boy. It was also unused by hunters, even in a region choked with hungry deer they had no desire to chew on the tough pine bark offered by the trees. Whatever “nature” the state government was intent on “preserving” was an open question.
The tiniest sliver of waxing moon shone in the sky, not providing enough illumination to make out anything beyond the orange beam of the cruiser’s headlights. Each man was lost in his thoughts. Sheriff Lutz had conveyed the broad strokes of the matter to his deputy as they had pulled out of the station. At least one casualty. Likely more. Reports of a large animal. Possibly a mountain lion.
“A mountain lion, sir?” Officer Clarkson had asked in complete bewilderment when Andrew had told him. “Have you looked around, Sheriff? You see any fucking mountains? If we are going out to the Bud McGuire’s house, sir, you know as well as I do what we’re going out there to find.”
Yes. Lutz thought as he pulled onto the pitted asphalt of Highway 99.
I know exactly what we’re likely to find.
His hands itched for a cigarette but he pushed the urge aside. He allowed his thoughts to drift to Bud McGuire and tried to ignore the sinking feeling of dread in his stomach.
Andrew Lutz had been in his mid-twenties when he had first encountered Buddy McGuire. He had been out on patrol one afternoon, driving down the quiet streets of the town when he had seen a young boy in an abandoned lot, squatting in the dust next to a dog. The dog was lying on its side. Concerned that a beloved pet had been struck by a car, Lutz had parked and approached the pair.
The dog, a brindle mutt with wide, sad eyes was convulsing in the dust, panting shallowly as the young boy watched. Buddy could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but he showed not a flicker of emotion as he watched the dying animal.
“Is this your dog, son?” Lutz had asked kindly.
Buddy hadn’t answered. Most kids were unfailingly polite to police officers, as least back in those days, but Buddy simply ignored Lutz and continued watching the dog as it’s breathing became slower.
“Do you know what happened to this animal?” Lutz tried again.
Still nothing. But then Lutz had noticed a sheet of butcher’s paper balled up at the boy’s feet. Looking closer, he could also see scraps of some kind of ground meat. A picture of what had occurred here was beginning to form in his mind.
“Did you give poisoned bait to this dog, boy!” Lutz demanded, raising his voice for the first time.
At his shout, the boy finally turned at met Lutz’ eyes. The blank, expressionless look on the face of the child caused the officer to take a step back in surprise. There was no fear, no hint of intimidation at being addressed by a stranger, a policeman at that. There was nothing reflecting back in Buddy McGuire’s eyes.
Shaken, Lutz had reported the incident to then-Sheriff Bradley. Bradley had hooked his thumbs into the sagging waistband of his trousers and pointed out that it had been a stray animal, not a cherished pet. It was a terrible death to be sure, but local farmers often shot or poisoned strays that wandered onto their properties. The mutts would occasionally kill chickens, ducks, or even begin menacing the farmer’s children as they played outside. It was a necessary evil; one the boy had probably learned from watching his own father.
Lutz had gone back to the abandoned lot later that evening and buried the animal himself.
Over the next ten years, Buddy McGuire made a name for himself as one of those boys who are just really good at hurting people. When he was in sixth grade, an upperclassman had teased Buddy about his dirty, unkempt hair. In full view of the students and teachers, Buddy had walked over to the older boy, grabbed his wrist, and twisted until bones crunched.
Bud McGuire had been expelled in tenth grade, and was just in time to be swept up by the Vietnam War two years later. No one quite knows what he got up to over there, but when he returned to the town in ’75, it was as if a blanket of rage had settled itself on Bud’s shoulders. His father had died of cancer while he had been deployed, and Bud took over his family’s hundred or so acres. This small farm was barely have been enough to keep food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, but it had been in the family for three generations.
The soil, that thick black Midwestern soil, failed Bud McGuire. Corn, beans, wheat, every crop he planted seemed to wither and die at his touch. His fellow farmers prospered, the rich soil of the land sprouting healthy rows of strong green corn seemingly overnight.
Despite all of this, Bud somehow managed to land himself a wife. In the fall of 1977, a mere fifteen months after Bud came back from the war, a pale slip of a girl was seen hanging laundry on the front lawn of the McGuire farm. She had long, mousy brown hair and wide blue eyes that were forever fixed on the ground. Who she was, where she came from, was anyone’s guess. This would have maddened the women of the community, all of whom were obsessed with lineage, but no information on the girl could be found. She was just there one day, silently feeding chickens or beating rugs. She never came into town. Never spoke to anyone.
The second time Andrew Lutz encountered Bud McGuire in a professional capacity had been about a year after the arrival of this mysterious woman. The locals had thrown their hands up in exasperation; all of their kind gestures and housewarming casseroles had been met with a closed door. The McGuire’s had never been seen attending any of the many churches in the community, nor had the young woman appeared at the supermarket where the wives could pounce on her.
The initial confusion had given way to righteous indignation. Who did they think they were, holed up all high-and-mighty on their plot of land? Did the McGuires’s think they were too good to associate with their peers?
But as the weeks dragged on and still there was no sight of the young woman in town. Winter set in, and she was no longer seen outside by the few people who drove on the old county road. The offended feelings of the townspeople began to shift into concern. Was she okay? After all, Buddy had always had quite the temper, even before his years in the jungles of Vietnam.
Finally, in the spring of ‘78 the wives nagged their husbands until the husbands had called the city police. The police in turn, called the sheriff’s department to tell them that someone needed to go check on that girl, to soothe the nerves of their worried neighbors. Lutz had been the junior deputy on duty at the time, and had set off up Highway 99 to the McGuire farm.
Barely three miles from the floodplains of the Mississippi River, the ground in March was a quagmire of mud that had sucked at Lutz’ boots as he stepped out of the police cruiser. The house was a traditional farmhouse, two stories with sweeping gables that rose to create a third story in the attic. A large, wraparound porch upheld by thick wooden beams led up to the entrance. Lutz had looked around warily before climbing the stairs to the porch. He had knocked twice. No answer. This had been expected, and Lutz turned away from the house and went instead around the back, where sure enough a petite young woman was sorting fresh spring herbs into an array of bowls.
She had bristled like a startled cat when she caught sight of him, and Lutz had held his hands in front of him to show he meant no harm. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Deputy Lutz, I’m with the sheriff’s department. Can I ask your name?” he spoke in a low, gentle voice, taking very slow steps towards the girl.
The girl’s eyes had been sky-blue as they looked into his with an unreadable expression.
The word had been little more than an exhale of breath, and Lutz had been about to ask her to repeat herself when the girl’s eyes had focused on something behind his shoulder and widened with alarm.
Lutz had turned to see Bud McGuire standing a few paces behind them. His black eyes had been just as blank and soulless as when he had gazed upon that dying dog. Leaning with casual menace on his shoulder, pointed at the sky, was a double-barreled shotgun with a long, sleek muzzle.
Lutz had thankfully resisted the urge to startle at the sight of the burly man. “Morning, Bud,” he said. With slow deliberate movements, Lutz had moved his hand to the pistol hoisted at his hip and thumbed open the clasp.
Bud had noticed, as he was meant to. His mouth twisted in a scowl, he had replied, “You’re not welcome here,” he had said in a flat, toneless voice, and Lutz had realized this was the first time he was hearing Bud speak.
“I’ll be leaving shortly,” Lutz had replied in an authoritative tone. “People have been wondering how you two have been getting on up here by yourselves all winter. Thought I’d come over and make sure everything was okay.”
“Fine. You’ve seen. Now go,” and with that, Bud had crossed the short distance between him and his new wife. Lutz had waited for him to hit her, if he did than the deputy could bring him into the station, but Bud just stood a few feet from the girl with a look of pure fury on his face.
April McGuire had been utterly silent during this encounter. Now she sprang from her table of herbs as if scalded. She knelt then, and Lutz saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Under the table was a large wicker basket lined with woolen blankets. Nestled sleeping in the blankets was a tiny, swaddled infant.
The girl snatched up the basket and fled into the house without another word. Bud had turned, the shotgun still balanced on his shoulder. “This is my property. Ain’t no crime been committed. You got no right to be here.” All of this was said in the same eerie, deadpan voice.
Bud’s words, spoken in the same eerie, deadpan voice, were all true. April McGuire had not accused Bud of anything. It wasn’t against the law to hold a firearm while standing on your own land. There was nothing more for Lutz to say, so he had retreated back to the cruiser and headed back to the station.
He hadn’t returned to the McGuire property since that day nearly eight years ago. The McGuire’s had been seen no more than a handful of times in those eight years, most often driving in Bud’s battered Dodge Ram as the family returned or drove away along Highway 99. At some point another child, a daughter, was added to their number. Neither child was ever seen at the local public school or the local Christian school.
Many times Lutz had driven slowly down the county road, hoping to see April McGuire or her children out in the yard. But the house had been shuttered and silent, and Lutz had been forced to keep driving. Over the years, most of the people in the community had long since stopped gossiping about the McGuires. Everyone sympathized with the lonely young woman isolated with her children and Bud’s anger. But these were also a conservative group who prized their right to privacy. As long as there was no apparent problem at the McGuire farm, everyone merely shook their heads and went about their lives, even though they all knew what the ultimate outcome was likely to be.
As Sheriff Andrew Lutz neared the McGuire homestead, he was cursing himself for not doing more, for not inventing some ridiculous reason to go check on April and her children.
He only hoped he wasn’t too late.
But it didn’t look as though that were the case.
“Uh, sir?” the voice of Billy Hudson suddenly snapped Andrew Lutz out of his guilt and grief. Consumed by his ghoulish thoughts, he was about to miss the blind curve in the road leading up to Bud’s farm. The heavy police cruiser was instead aimed directly at a large pine tree.
Be sure to check out Chapter 3!
If you haven’t read the first installment, you can find it here. Again, I welcome any constructive criticism and comments! Happy reading everyone!
by Ashley Schlueter
How long she lay prone on the deck, Nellie didn’t know. It could have been two minutes or two hours. She finally opened her eyes to an angry black sky above Kimberling Lake, and she shivered violently as rain lashed around her. She coughed hoarsely and tried to sit up, but her head spun and she sank back onto the wooden boards. Turning her head to the right, she could see the metal ladder where Jeanie had last stood. She managed to lift her head slightly to look for the bloodstain that had marked where her cousin fell, but the rain had washed it away. It was as if Jeanie had never been there.
Nellie was alone.
Bile rose in her throat. She rolled onto her side and vomited weakly onto the dock, shaking as her stomach heaved the contents of her breakfast onto the wooden slats. Her head pounded fiercely, and she was unbearably thirsty. Opening her mouth, she allowed rain to drip into her mouth and coat her swollen tongue. This helped clear her head, and Nellie slowly managed to rise, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the dock as far away from the lake as possible. She looked out across the choppy water to the beach. The picnic basket still sat on the rocks, next to Jeanie’s discarded clothes and shoes.
At the sight of her cousin’s shorts and T-shirt, Nellie was seized by a sudden rage. “Give her back!” Rising unsteadily to her feet, she screamed her frustration and helplessness over the water. Tears streamed alongside rain on her cheeks as she cursed the thing in the water. “Give her back! Give her back!” she howled over the lake. The lake, however; merely continued lapping at the buoys of the floating dock, deaf to the pain of one small girl child.
Nellie shouted wildly, “I’m going to kill you! You killed Jeanie and now I’m going to kill you!” Her voice hitched and her chest was tight with grief and pain. “I’m going to kill you!” she cried again. Looking around for something to throw and finding nothing, she resorted to stamping her small foot ineffectually.
Without warning the dock rose into the air, tilting violently to one side. Nellie was thrown off her feet. Scrambling for purchase, she grabbed for a gap between two of the wooden boards and dug her fingers in. Jagged splinters pierced her hands but Nellie gripped harder as the dock rose at a sharper angle out of the water. She screamed again, this time from terror.
Then, just as suddenly as it has begun, the tilting stopped and the dock settled back onto the surface of the lake. Water washed over the sides in waves. Nellie’s heart was hammering in her chest. She drew her knees up to her chest and rested her head against them, breathing raggedly.
It heard me. It’s under the dock right now, waiting and listening to the frightened girl alone on the lake. Nellie pictured the two malevolent red eyes watching her from the water, its slimy black claws curled for the chance to drag her into the drowning deep.
It’s there, and it wants to make sure I know it’s there. Wants to keep me scared. Maybe scared kids taste better. Or it’s just playing with me until it gets bored.
As if the monster could read her very thoughts a series of bubbles broke the surface of the lake, as if something under the water had released air very quickly. It’s laughing at me. Nellie’s head sank back onto her knees, and she struggled to calm her hammering heart, to ease her breathing.
Think. She commanded herself. Stop panicking and think.
How long had she been stuck out here on this rusty old dock? It felt like years ago that she and Jeanie had arrived at the lake. The girl in the yellow sundress who had flown to the edge of the lake with such joy felt like another person entirely. A completely different Nellie had dived down to the lakebed to grab some mud. That other Nellie’s biggest problem had been trying to earn the respect of her older cousin. Somewhere over the course of the morning, that girl had been replaced by a new Nellie. One who had seen her cousin dragged off the edge of a dock by a dripping black claw. A Nellie who was now trapped like a rabbit in a snare. Her chest began hitching and she squeezed her eyes tightly to stop the tears.
She and Jeanie had left the house early that morning, around 9:30. The events of the ill-fated lakebed dive had occurred perhaps thirty minutes later. It was difficult to judge the position of the sun due to the dark clouds blanketing the sky, but Nellie would guessed it was somewhere around noon. Lunchtime. On cue her stomach gave a faint grumble. She and Jeanie were usually expected back at Aunt Cynthia’s for lunch. Perhaps when they didn’t show up, Aunt Cynthia would come looking for them.
The picnic basket.
Nellie groaned into the space between her knees. Of course. She and Jeanie had packed a lunch to take down to the beach. Her parents had left this morning with Uncle Frank and Aunt Cynthia for a boat show in Branson. They were going to eat dinner in the city before driving back, and probably wouldn’t be home until past eleven. Why would they hurry? Jeanie was there to babysit. Even if they tried calling and Jeanie didn’t answer her phone, they would just blame the notoriously bad service of the Ozark hills.
What about the neighbors?
In the middle of a lightning storm, it seemed highly unlikely that she would encounter any fellow beachgoers. Besides, if her screams hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention by now it was doubtful that they were. Kimberling Lake was an isolated place, away from the raucous crowds of university students and families with speedboats that swarmed like sand flies over the larger lakes in the area. That was precisely the reason that her uncle had chosen to buy his particular property.
Shit! Nellie swore loudly in her head, and then rose her head, “Shit-damn-ass-sonofabitch!” she screamed at the top of her voice. For some reason, the taboo act of swearing lifted her spirits a little, and a fleeting grin crossed her face. “Damn-bastard-shithead-asshole-FUCK”. A tiny giggle escaped her lips. She had never dared to say the forbidden f-word before. But if any situation truly deserved the f-word, it was being trapped on a rusty dock by a lake monster. This new thought sobered her and she dropped her head back onto her knees, but her heart now pounded with defiance as well as fear.
Options. What are my options?
It was unlikely that she would last until her parents got home. The thing in the water would be picking her out of its teeth by then. It was equally unlikely that a neighbor would chance to come upon her. Nellie was on her own.
She needed to make a plan. She took a deep breath, held it as long as she could, and slowly exhaled. She had seen people do that on T.V. when they needed to come up with a good idea. No flashes of brilliance came into her mind. She breathed again.
Options. What are my options?
She couldn’t stay on the dock. Eventually the creature would tire of scaring her and come to finish her off. So that meant she had to get back to shore. Safety was beckoning from the rocky beach a mere fifty feet away. From where she sat it might as well have been fifty miles. The second she put a toe into the water, the thing would be there with its slashing claws and sharp teeth. It would drag her under the water down to where the sun couldn’t penetrate and it would sink its teeth—
Stop it, Nellie. Breathe. Think. What do you have?
What did she have? Nellie took inventory of the objects at her disposal.
One pink-and-white swimsuit. One blue elastic hair-tie. One woven friendship bracelet that she’d been wearing since Christmas. Two silver earrings in the shape of crescent moons. One skinny blonde girl who was woefully unprepared for monster-slaying. None of this inspired her with great confidence.
Nellie looked around. One floating dock with weathered wooden boards. The boards were warped by time and exposure, leaving large gaps in some places. Could she perhaps pull up one of the boards and use it to bash the monster over the head? Crouching down, she inspected the wooden slats that ran across the dock. After forty years the wood had swollen to almost completely cover the rusty old nails holding it together. She wiggled her fingers between two boards and tried peeling it up. The board creaked slightly but didn’t budge. Leverage, she needed some kind of leverage. Face wrinkled with concentration, Nellie looked once more around the dock. Her eyes settled on the rusty metal ladder descending into the water.
What do you have?
Nellie tilted her head to one side. The rain was beginning to ease and a faint ray of sunshine peaked out from behind a cloud. For the first time since she had seen the scarlett eyes on the bottom of Kimberling Lake, a smile crept over Nellie’s face. A plan was beginning to form carefully in her mind.
To be continued….