Song of the Siren: Chapter One

MALCOLM: AWAKE AT MIDNIGHT

Malcolm MacGregor awoke with a start in the middle of the night, and for a long moment he had no idea where he was. 

The room was pitch black; the only illumination coming from a pale strip of light under the door. 

He fumbled blindly in the dark until his seeking fingers found the switch to a bedside lamp and clicked it on. 

The melody of a dream still rang in his ears. Malcolm shook his head, trying to shake away the last echoes. He looked around, blinking rapidly in the sudden harsh light.

The room was tiny–designed to maximize efficiency. The bed was narrow and far too short to comfortably fit his lanky frame. A small wooden desk was bolted to one wall. A small, circular window stared out onto an inky darkness. 

The entire room seemed to be gently rocking. Malcolm’s disorientation lifted as he realized that he was in his quarters on board the scientific research vessel Surveyor, which was currently anchored ninety off the coast of Samoa. The view from outside his window was black because, as a lowly grad student, his bunk was in the lowest deck of cabins. 

The only reason he had a private room in the first place was because he was the only male grad student chosen for this internship. The three female graduate students shared a larger room on one of the upper decks.

Not that he minded. He preferred his privacy, and he had an amazing view of the colorful schools of fish outside his porthole window. 

Sleep faded from his mind, but Malcolm’s heart still hammered in his chest. What had woken him? The past three nights of the expedition he’d slept like a rock, lulled away by the faint hum of the ship’s engines and the peaceful rocking as it moved with the calmly lapping water.

Malcolm sleepily pulled on his glasses and checked the time on his phone.

3:45. Ugh. No point in going back to sleep; he had to be up and dressed in barely more than an hour to begin prepping the day’s saltwater samples. The sun would be up soon anyway; the summertime days in the Pacific began early.

Malcolm crept out of his cabin and down the silent hallway before making his way up the metal stairs at the end of the corridor and up to Surveyor’s top deck. It was eerily still and silent up here; no one else was stirring at this early hour and Malcolm felt like he had the ship to himself. 

Finally away from the low ceilings and cramped belowdecks of the research vessel, Malcolm stretched to his full height and uttered a quiet sigh of contentment. Then he raised his arms above his hand, continuing the stretch and raising his head towards the night sky.

His breath caught in his throat as he beheld the blanket of twinkling stars that stretched from horizon to horizon. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the stars shone in their hundreds of millions. The constellations were new and strange to Malcolm’s eyes.

Of course. They’re completely different stars than San Diego.  

 

A tiny splash from the starboard deck snapped Malcolm out of his stargazing, and he peered over bulging walls of Surveyor.

If possible, the water was even blacker than the sky. 

The ship was anchored just off the northern tip of the Tonga trench, a fifteen hundred mile-long gash that ran from New Zealand all the way up to Samoa. Beneath his feet, the ocean floor descended more than thirty-five thousand feet into an abyss.

As always, when Malcolm pictured the six miles of crushing pressure between him and solid ground, an involuntary shiver of apprehension ran down his spine. 

Thirty thousand feet of blackness.

Feeling suddenly unbalanced, he backed from the metal railing. 

Splash.

There it was again.

Probably just a sea turtle. They adored the shade provided by Surveyor’s broad belly, and were constantly bumping into the research equipment.

Malcolm stared out into the expanse, willing his night vision to be sharper than it was. Hovering at the edge of his vision, he thought he could see a shadow. A shape bobbing–almost indistinguishable against the darkness–low in the waters to the west.

CRASH!

Malcolm jerked in surprise, as one of the metal doors leading downstairs was thrown open and a bright light temporarily blinded him. 

“What the hell!” he shouted angrily as the intruder clomped up the stairs in heavy boots. He looked back at the water quickly but the dark shape–if it had been there at all–was gone. 

With a sigh, Malcolm turned back to see who had interrupted his peaceful pre-dawn quiet. 

It was Claude, one of the ship’s navigational crew. A burly man with thick, meaty biceps covered in tattoos, he gave Malcolm a long, measured glance when he saw him.

Fishing a lighter out of his pocket, Claude crossed to the deck railing and lit a cigarette, drawing deep and blowing the smoke out of his nostrils. 

“The fuck are ya doing up here, kid? Top decks supposed to be off limits to students after dark.” He spat the word as if it were a vulgarity.

Malcolm flushed under the man’s accusatory gaze. “Sorry, sir. I had no idea. I woke up early and thought I’d get some fresh air.” He immediately began backing towards the still-open door.

“You kids need to be careful. Maybe you especially,” Claude said, turning his back to Malcolm and leaning heavily on the railing.

“Why me especially?” Malcolm asked in confusion. He was getting fed up with being referred to as “kid”.

Claude shrugged his broad shoulders. “Just keep to your bunk, kid. And we won’t have a problem, now will we?” 

Now Claude did turn his head to give Malcolm a conspiratorial wink.

“I–guess not,” Malcolm replied uncertainly. He headed back down the narrow metal stairs to his room. He swore he heard Claude give a soft chuckle behind him.

 

***

 

One hundred feet from the gleaming red hull of the ship, two dark pairs of eyes watched from the water as the young man was replaced by another, this one larger and uglier than the first. 

The figures turned in the water, and with a few powerful thrusts of their muscular tails, they descended into the sea.

The nighttime blackness of the shallow coral seas quickly gave way to the true, infinite darkness of the ocean depths. As the two strange creatures swam down and down, the raised ridges along their spines began flickering bioluminescent reds and greens, sending a very clear message to the hungry ocean life that shared their world.

Danger. Stay away.

The flashing lights allowed the figures to see one another in short bursts. Long, thin fingers began moving rapidly, combined with a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles. A message was being communicated between the creatures.

Alert the High Priestess. An offering has been found.

***

The hunt is on in Chapter Two! Click here to continue reading Song of the Siren.

Microfiction: “Filthy. Rich.” by Ashley Schlueter

Twelve women eyed one another, not bothering to hide their disdain.

Tonight, cameras would roll, broadcasting live to millions around the world in the fifth season of the runaway hit reality show, What Would You Do to Marry a Filthy Rich Man?

All but one would be eliminated.

Her prize? A ring on her finger, and a rich husband to go with it.

The winner would then debut on the popular spinoff show, Bored Rich Wives of Filthy Rich Men.

Immediate fame. Poof. Like magic.  

Bobbie-Lynn chewed on her fingernail, watching as another woman with legs like a gazelle uncorked a bottle of wine.

Idiot. She’s gonna show up drunk for the Swan Ceremony!

But then Bobbie-Lynn noticed the gazelle discreetly tuck the sharp, chromed corkscrew into the bodice of her couture gown.

One to watch out for…

A producer with a clipboard under one arm clapped his hands. “Okay, ladies! We’re on in five! Now, is everyone ready to prove just how much they love this year’s rich guy!?”

As one, the women shouted, “WOOOO!”

“Are you ready to show the world how much he means to you!?”

“WOOOOO!” came their frenzied screams.

“Then get out there and give us some good TV!”

Bobbie-Lynn “wooed” along with the rest, then reached down and pulled off her stiletto. With a twist, the heel broke off to reveal a slim, glittering dagger.

The producer saw her, and nodded approvingly. 

“I feel like this is going to be our best season yet.”

 

My Story is Now Available as a Free Novella!

If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out

The Midnight Road!

available for free now on Inkitt!!

Mirror Image: Chapter One: The Interview

 

“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: …

HOLLY: What do you mean?

JANET: Carter is pulling you off my projects.

HOLLY: He wants you on his personal team.

Help Me Choose a Title!

Anyone who is awake at 2:30 am: what’s a good title for a romance story about twins that doesn’t immediately suggest incest?
Everything that I can think of (Twin Desire, etc) hints at either creepy threesomes or worse.
I need something sexy yet innocuous. Winner gets their title on my latest story 😉

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Two: The Sealed Bargain

Click here for Chapter One

KING CORMAC

Cormac took none of his usual guards 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.

After half a mile, the stately trunks gave way to a thick tangle of scrub pine and briar bushes.

Cormac was forced to walk his horse, and eventually, when the thorny bushes coated the ground like a carpet, to leave the animal tied to a low branch and make his way on foot.

Unlike the thick heat of Dunnhawke Castle, a thick, cold mist was ettled on the forest, giving a damp chill to the air.

Out of the fog, Cormac began to make out looming shapes. Weathered gray stones, more than twice the height of a man, formed a rough circle in the small forest meadow. 

An icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine. The faith of the priests had no power in this place. 

These stones had stood for aeons before the gods of the outsiders came to this land.

Before the Fae, his crown meant nothing. He was just nothing but a pile of flesh and bone that decayed in a blink of their ageless eyes.

He had no authority between those rings of stone. The immortals had inhabited this land long before the rise of man.

The power of the ancient stones held them within their shadow realm. If a man wanted to converse with the Fae, he must enter their circle.

And he must do it unarmed. To do otherwise was to court death.

With a shudder, Cormac loosened the scabbard across his back that held his axe in place.

 The two-sided blade fell with a dull thud onto the dry grass.

I am a king. I cower before no one.

Cormac kept his shoulders straight, his chin held high, as he passed within the outermost ring.

A tingle, electric as lightning, ran all the way down his spine. It passed as quickly as it had come, but it still left him shaking.

From the pocket of his cloak, he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet of such superb craftsmanship that its worth could have fed a peasant family for a year.

An offering.

Cormac’s heart thundered within the chest.

He crossed the threshold of the innermost stones.

Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.

His mother’s parting words, said as he mounted his horse and charged off into Hawkthorne Forest.

The atmosphere around him quivered with magic.

Before his courage could fail him, Cormac said the words, the ancient words tripping on an unfamiliar tongue.

Hear my name and answer my plea.”

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.”

His words came slowly, haltingly. He’d learned the old language at his mother’s knee, but hadn’t spoken it aloud since long before his father’s death.

Cormac swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Ones, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation.

 “Spare them. Spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.” A tear drifted down his cheek.

He slipped back into the modern tongue, but he was far too consumed in his panic to notice.

A king does not beg.

Nevertheless, Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his hands. 

“Please. Accept my offering.” 

“And do you think it a worthy offering, King Cormac, for the mighty gift that you ask?”

A silky voice sounded, and Cormac’s pulse jumped as he spun around.

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 moon.

He looks so human.

 “We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said. 

He was dressed in simple hunting garb, a green leather tunic and brown pants. 

Like the king, he appeared to be unarmed.

To the casual observer, the Fae could have passed as a rather beautiful young man.

But there was nothing human whatsoever in the Fae male’s eyes.

They gleamed in the moonlight, an unnatural, emotionless violet that froze the blood in Cormac’s veins.

The Fae knelt down and picked up the silver bracelet, examining it carefully from all sides. 

“Its value is great, I assure you. It was part of my wife’s dowry.”

“Ah yes. The little queen from Peralorne. Tell me, Cormac Settermind, do you think if we listen hard enough, we will hear her dying scream?”

The Fae put a hand to his ear mockingly, as if trying to make out a distant sound.

Even though the creature’s words were meant to be taunting, they gave Cormac a fierce burst of hope.

His queen yet lived. At least for now.

“Will you accept the offering?” Cormac asked. The words were nearly squeezed out by the fear in his throat.

“You ask much, King of Dunnhawke. Life and life and life again.”

The Fae’s face barely moved as he spoke. It was as if his immortal features had been carved from marble.

 “And yet you offer only metal. Pretty, to be sure. And yet dull. Lifeless.”

He clucked under his tongue, as if in disappointment. “I think that this is not enough. Not for all that you ask.”

“But you can do it!” Cormac insisted.

The Fae scoffed. “Of course I can. I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”

Run. While you can.

“What do you ask?” Cormac’s voice shook when he asked. 

“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said. 

His kingdom. 

His queen.

His…

“What of the child?”

The Fae lips curled ever so slightly. “She would be given to us.”

Hot, violent rage washed away Cormac’s fear and despair. “Get back to hell you demon. You will not harm my child!” 

“We have no intention of harming the girl, the Fae said, his smile growing.

“A girl,” Cormac shuddered. “You know this for certain?”

Not a son, but a daughter.

Useless when it comes to inheriting the throne.

Perhaps if Bronnagh could live–we could try again.

As if reading his churning thoughts, the Fae quirked a dark brow. “Your wife is of fertile stock, Setterwind. If she lives, the child will be the first of twelve born to you.”

“Twelve?” Cormac felt weak in the knees at this prediction from the future.

The Fae nodded. “Seven of them boys.”

Seven sons. 

A dynasty to carry on my name. 

Cormac felt sick. His stomach clenched and roiled. 

“What would happen to the girl?” he asked, hating himself for asking.

The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings.

“She would no longer be of your concern.”

“She is my blood!”

“Setterwind blood.” the Fae’s eyes gleamed with sudden hunger. “Yes, King Cormac I know. It is an ancient and noble bloodline. I assure you, your daughter would be treated with all the respect due her rank.”

Cormac’s heart wrenched with guilt. How could he ever know that were true?

“If you agree,” the Fae continued, “once the girl was ready she would be escorted to Erilea, to live out the rest of her days in the realm of the Fae.”

~Erilea.~ Cormac’s skin crawled at the word. The land beyond the winds. A place of desolation and death from which no mortal had ever returned.

It was spoken of only in children’s stories, meant to frighten young ones into bed on a cold winter’s night. 

The Fae stepped forward. “The time has come to make your choice, Cormac Setterwind. Your young wife will not last much longer.”

“When will you come for the child?” 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? The people of the winds have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps it will be a year. Maybe twenty? Perhaps she live out her entire life without anyone in Erilea even remembering she exists. Immortals have such a poor concept of human lives, after all.”

“Why my daughter? Why are the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unable to resign himself to what he was about to do.

“That is not your concern,” the Fae said. His eyes narrowed. “And your time is up. What is your answer, Cormac Setterwind?”

Cormac closed his eyes, begged his unborn daughter for forgiveness, then opened them again. “Yes,” he said, feeling his soul shrink with the small, cowardly word.

The Fae’s mocking smile slid away. From within his tunic he drew out a shining silver dagger and used it to cut a line down his palm.

Ancient blood dripped onto ancient stones.

His face inscrutable, the Fae held the blade towards King Cormac. He held a shaking hand out, and the Fae ran the blade along his palm, cutting a thin ribbon.

Blood welled from the cut and fell to the ground.

It gleamed crimson on the weathered stones of the fairy circle.

“I sweat it,” Cormac said again.

“So be it, Cormac Setterwind,” the Fae said, his eyes gleaming triumphantly.

END OF CHAPTER TWO

KEEP READING

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter One – The Wartorn King

KING CORMAC

The land was dying.

From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that seemed to wither before his eyes in their dry and dusty fields.

The crashing waves of the nearby sea mocked him with their constant pounding. So much water at his fingertips and yet it would not save him.

You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.

The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms, so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.

Now, weeks into August, 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 still echoed through his dreams. But 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 hidden ones.

The people of the hills. 

The Fae.

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 a crumbling manor home on the isle of Soorninoor.

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.

Then followed year after long, lonely year. Soorninoor was a desolate rock in the middle of the sea, constantly on the verge of being swept into oblivion by a severe winter storm. During this time young Cormac had shed no tears for his murdered father, nor did his mother who had escaped into exile with him.

Instead he had begun training with sword and shield and bow. Over time, he had grown broad and tall, a bear of a man with a barrel chest and a gingery-red beard. Support for his cause grew, as did his armies waiting on the mainland.

When he’d come of age at sixteen, Cormac had begun his war. Carrying an enormous two-sided axe, he led his forces against those of his Uncle Odhran. The violence had raged on both sides for more than four years. His armies depleted, his support waning, Cormac had thought his cause lost.

Deliverance had come to him in the strangest of places. A gleaming wooden carriage had arrived at his war camp on one afternoon more than a year ago. Out of this magnificent vessel had climbed a young woman with laughing blue eyes.

Princess Bronnagh captured his heart the moment Cormac had laid eyes on her. Tiny, bird-like in proportion, her chestnut-brown head barely reached his shoulder and yet he found himself utterly within her power.

She had been sent as an emissary, her father the King of Peralorne being unusual in giving important royal positions to his daughters as well as his son. At seventeen years old, Bronnagh was the youngest of eleven children. Her elder siblings had ensured that she was fluent in four languages as well as science and mathematics. 

But above all of that, Bronnagh’s royal lineage stretched back more than five generations, offering a second layer of legitimacy to his claim to the throne of Dunnhawke.

His armies joined together with the legions of Peralorne to crush Odhran’s forces in a great battle near the River Nuile. It’s generally muddy brown waters had flown crimson with blood as men died along the banks. More on battle, wading through shit and mud, he found him on the field, the pike boys stopped to watch their kings fight.

Finally, with one sure stroke of his axe, Cormac had severed the head from his Uncle Odhran’s shoulders and reclaimed the throne of Dunnhawke after eight years in exile.

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 Peralorne 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.

“Your Grace?”

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 an 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 its wee little neck.”

Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eight 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. 

His beautiful, young wife.

The babe in her womb.

His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.

All of it lost.

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.

I have to do something!

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 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.

“Mother, what else can we do? The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.

I am frightened. He wanted to say, but a king must never betray any faintness of heart.

Even when he stood on the brink of ruin.

“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 in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased weakness in her voice that they were both running out of time.

“Be wary, my son. Make no bargain that you are unable to keep.”

Cormac didn’t respond. He knew the risk of what he meant to do this night.

But he had no choice. 

He must go to the Fae.

***

PRINCE CILLIAN

The barrier separating the mortal realm from the world of the Fae was simultaneously as vast as an ocean and as close as a lover’s breath.

On one side of this distance, King Cormac saddled his mighty black stallion and galloped into the woods.

On the other, Prince Cillian of the Fae observed all of this with bated breath. His military bearing was straight and erect, his slim shoulders belied not a shred of emotion.

Likewise, his youthful face was utterly impassive, every muscle schooled carefully into place.

But nothing could disguise the hungry gleam in the Fae Prince’s eyes.

Their plan was finally coming to fruition.

The prophecy would be fulfilled.

The wartorn king was on his way.

His is the blood we need.

The blood of the Setterwind.

For years, Prince Cillian had watched.

Waited.

For the opportune moment, when the Setterwind king was at his most desperate.

Cillian gazed into the waters of the Looking Pool. 

The king had entered the thickest part of the forest. He’d been forced to bring his horse to a walk, and was now slowly picking his way through the tangled trees.

The trees that had been planted as a warning to the mortal realm.

Go back. Stay away.

Beyond lies the realm of the Fae.

Cillian waved his hand over the floating image in the water, and the image vanished.

His reflection stared back, his skin silvery white. 

The pointed, predatory teeth.

Summoning his magic to the surface, Cillian enveloped himself in his usual glamour.

The only thing left unchanged were his eyes.

His new, full mouth parted in a triumphant smile.

Tonight, he would strike a bargain with the Setterwind king.

For the future of the Fae.

The Midnight Road: Chapter 5

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.

 

Chapter Five

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.

THE END

 

***

Acknowledgements

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.

The Midnight Road: Chapter 4

Check out Chapters 1, 2, and 3!

 

Chapter Four

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–

Oh.

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!

 

The Midnight Road: Chapter 3

Be sure to check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

 

 

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!