von Max Wilde
The night the four men came to rape Skye it wasn’t them she feared, it was the dark thing deep inside herself. As their big old car with its uneven, rumbling engine—headlights poking yellow fingers through the dust—chased her down the empty road and out into the desert, she ran fighting for air knowing all the while it was hopeless, even before she tripped and fell to the sand.
When they stood up out of the car the men threw long shadows on the dirt as they surrounded her and Skye knew what she had spent most of her seventeen years avoiding was here.
She tried to talk herself into a calm space: these are just men, no matter what they do to you. But her heart raced like a crazy thing, hammering at her breastbone, and she felt her muscles and her limbs expand with a half-remembered and unwanted strength. And her fear turned to terror as something stirred and twitched low in her gut.
It’s just your sympathetic nervous system kicking in, she told herself, sinking to her knees, flashing back to her tenth grade teacher, fat, fussy Mr. Andrews, squealing chalk across the blackboard, droning on about how the fight or flight mechanism had allowed humankind to survive when other species had disappeared.
How nerve terminals in the heart tissue spewed noradrenaline (honest-to-god remembering this as the men encircled her) how the heart raced, pumping more oxygen, glucose and energy—Mr. Andrews’s chalk striking the blackboard like a bird tapping at a window pane—saying this operation was centered in the oldest part of our brain, the reptilian brain, beyond our conscious control.
As they closed in, their man-stink of old sweat, cigarettes and something acrid and chemical filling her nostrils, The Other lurched and swelled, the twin that had lain sleeping for years, stirred and woken by this primitive self-protective reflex.
One man grabbed at her hair and when she crouched lower, wrapping herself with her arms, he laughed in the foolish belief it was he who terrified her, when she was vainly trying to push the thing down, to contain it inside herself. Knowing that this human threat must be endured, that she must keep The Other quiet, the way she had these last fifteen years since that last, terrible event, living a life of near invisibility and self-deprivation, insulating herself from anything that could rouse the darkness within.
She felt a rupture, a tearing, and a surge of power swept her fear away, swept away the timid, shy, wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose Skye too, and something else took control. Her racing heart slowed to a steady, rhythmic drumming and she felt her skeleton shapeshift, her bones hardening, her muscles and tendons cording and coiling with power, the seams of her clothes stretched to tearing.
When the short man, with his hair gelled and tousled like he was in a boy band, slapped Skye’s glasses from her face, her vision didn’t blur—it sharpened. The night was brighter and she could see the blackheads on his nose and the craters of acne scars under his cheekbones. Her other senses were more alert now, too, and when the man crushed her glasses under his pointy leather shoe, she heard each distinct crack of the plastic frame and crunch of broken glass and the whisper of the sand as it settled, like palms rubbed softly together.
She heard the hearts of the men, heard their blood rushing through their veins, and she smelled it, her nostrils dilating as she drew in the scent, rich and metallic, coursing through the raw, red heat of their flesh.
And then there was no more fear, just hunger as The Other rose from the sand, ready to feed.
When the beam of Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Martindale’s flashlight traced the loop of large intestine dangling like strange fruit from the cottonwood, he understood that he was dealing with something altogether darker than the usual procession of drunken wife beaters, scofflaws and minor drug offenders that filled his days.
Gene’s light skidded down the tree and across the sand, first overrunning, then backing up and finding the human head that lay in the red dirt near the ruins of the roadhouse. He probed the dark, revealing more body parts strewn across the gravel and the low brush: heads, arms, feet, viscera tumbled and uncontained. He did a quick tally and reckoned that reassembled these parts would constitute three men or more, trying to keep at bay a sudden dread that threatened to undo him.
Gene was a lean, spare man, looking older than thirty. Ascetic. No flesh on his bones. The grooved lines in his face a mirror of the knife-edge creases in the uniform he awoke before dawn each day to iron.
“You venture in any deeper than this?” he asked Deputy Bobby Heck, who had stumbled upon this unholy mess.
“Nossir.” Heck sounded like he’d lost his dinner and was working on losing his desert.
“Okay Bobby, tell it to me clear now.”
“I came on from a domestic situation at Double Heart, old man Pruitt taken a whip again to his woman, and I saw that vehicle parked in the sand.” He pointed at the dusty muscle car pinned in the beams of his cruiser, V8 still idling low and ragged, exhaust rattling, both doors gaping. “When I went lookin’ I found all this.”
“And you saw nobody on the road?”
“Nobody and nothin’.”
Gene walked over to the car. A Dodge Charger—’68 he reckoned—like the one that had chased Steve McQueen’s Mustang through San Francisco in that old movie.
“You search this vehicle?”
“Nossir. I thought I’d wait on you.”
Gene grunted and handed his flashlight to Heck while he drew a pair of surgical gloves from his uniform pocket and rolled them on, flexing his fingers. He reclaimed his light and shone it at the driver’s seat of the Charger that was tipped forward, kissing the steering wheel. Men in front and in the rear. Three men. At least.
“Okay, Bobby, get on back to your unit and call in the rest of the boys. I want the perimeter sealed until I can get the state police, the DEA and the whole goddam circus down here.”
“Reckon this here’s drug related?”
“What the hell else can it be?”
Heck nodded and sloped off toward his cruiser. Gene shone his beam on the steering column of the Dodge, a single key in the ignition, a plastic death’s head dangling from a chain looped through the eye of the key. He killed the engine, careful not to smudge prints on the metal.
He bent low and ran the light over the car interior. The ashtray filled to overflowing with cigarette butts. A half-empty bottle of Jack wedged between the front seats. A litter of junk food wrappers on the floor. Something in the rear winked in the beam, and he saw a meth pipe lying on the seat, a spill of ash on the leather.
Gene probed between the front and rear and found a sawed-off shotgun halfway under the passenger seat. He lifted it by the trigger guard and sniffed the barrel. It hadn’t been fired recently. He set it down where he found it and backed out of the car, took the key from the ignition and went round to the trunk.
Heck joined him. “The boys are comin’.”
Gene nodded and slid the key into the lock of the trunk. He handed his flashlight to Heck, unclipped his holster and drew his Glock. He could hear the wash of Heck’s breath as he turned the key, felt it click, and slowly lifted the lid with his left hand, pointing his automatic with his right. The trunk contained a spare wheel, a carjack and couple of tools, and a mess of empty booze bottles and food wrappers.
Nothing ready to fly at his throat. And no sweating bricks of heroin or powder cocaine.
It seemed unlikely that these men had been robbed of a cargo of narcotics, and when they’d stepped from the car they’d had no sense of peril, else they wouldn’t have left the sawed-off lying useless in the rear. So either they’d known their killers, or underestimated them.
“Wait here,” Gene said.
He walked a few paces, playing his flashlight over the litter of torn flesh strewn across the dirt and the brush and the agave. Atrocities like this may be commonplace in the lawless bi-national cities where the drug cartels enacted their dark bits of theater on both sides of the border, but it had no place here, in his remote and under-populated county.
So it was good and right that he call in the state police, since the county sheriff’s department had none of the resources that a crime like this demanded. But something nagged at him: from what he’d seen, through the blood and gore, the victims were white, not the tattooed brown men who were the frequent victims of warring cartels. And they had been dismembered with a savagery that was almost bestial, a severed leg lying close to him, femur jutting through the skin, showed signs of having been gnawed on.
Eugene Martindale had trained his mind away from wild imaginings—he’d had to—but the hell before him triggered unsought recollections.
These musings were ended by the roar and buck of a Ford Expedition driven hard across the desert, with little regard for its suspension or his crime scene. It slid to a halt in curtain of dust, its spotlights blinding Gene and turning the killing ground to day.
Gene stepped out of the path of the lights and watched Sheriff Dellbert Drum unfold himself from the Ford. A massive man, closer to seven foot than six, his uniform specially tailored to hold his frame.
“Chief Deputy,” Drum said.
“Got yourself one god-awful mess here, son.”
Gene didn’t answer, turning his back on the giant. In the hard light he saw another head and revisited his original estimation. Four men, then, dismembered.
“I’m right in saying it’s your mess, ain’t I? By the merest whisker?” Drum said, lighting a cheroot black as a stick of licorice.
Gene nodded. The invisible boundary that separated his county from Drum’s lay just beyond this butchery. It was his mess, okay, due to century-old tampering with the county line.
On a map it looked as if that line, traveling straight as a wire down from the north, had encountered an obstacle that sent it veering right where it corrected itself and looped back to continue its linear journey, and plumb in the middle of that little arc were the remains of the roadhouse built many years before the lines were drawn, and belonging by rights to the neighboring county—which sometime in the early twentieth century had fallen under the stewardship of men who favored the Bible over booze and loose women. No place, then, for the roadhouse, with its bathtub whiskey and dusky whores.
Gene’s county, in those far off days, had taken a more lenient view of life, its elders more interested in coin than enforcing the law. So money had changed hands, the line had been shifted, and the roadhouse had found itself safe from the temperance league across the way.
There had been a reversal over time and now it was Gene’s county, under the hand of Sheriff Milt Lavender—who had served more terms than many could remember and lay this moment on his death bed—that was a symbol of all that was righteous, while across the line, in his empire of dirt, Drum provided a haven for the venal and corrupt—but taxed them heavily for his indulgence.
Gene was not a man to shirk his duty, but right here and now he would have gladly handed this unholy mess over to Dellbert Drum and turned his cruiser back toward town and tried to forget this and the toxic memories it was stirring up.
“Reckon this here foot stumbled over the line,” Drum said, staring down into the dry creek that had once formed a natural boundary. He used his ostrich skin boot to edge a bare foot, severed above the ankle, across the imaginary line. “There now. It’ll be more content over here with its kin.”
His housekeeping done, Drum came and stood beside Gene. “This remind you of anything, son?”
“Only the news footage of the cartels.”
“I was thinking of something a little closer to home.”
Gene tilted his head and looked him in the eye, trying not to go back fifteen years to when he was just a boy, and Drum was a deputy in this county, working under Lavender, before he got ambitions. Tried not to see Drum and Lavender standing in the nightmare that was the living room of his parents’ house. His house now. Shut the memory down fast.
“No,” Gene said, his voice even.
Drum laughed, taking a long drag on his cheroot, blue smoke boiling around his head.
“That a fact?”
Gene walked away from Drum, his eyes on the crime scene, afraid that his face would betray him. He stood staring into the night, working hard at keeping his imagination from slipping its leash.
“Now you remember me to your little sister, you hear?” Drum said as he climbed up into the Expedition.
But Gene didn’t hear him, or hear the Ford grind into motion, or see the spotlights dim as the car swung back toward the road, he saw his foundling sister, or the thing that had possessed her, breaking open their father’s breastbone, her toddler’s face ancient and demonic as she fed on his heart.