Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dusk, PI; Terminal Ward

So, there’s this feeling I get sometimes.  It happens when I’m going somewhere and there’s something evil, something fundamentally wrong about what’s in the area.  I didn’t realize what it was for the longest time.  It could be pretty light, like a tingling pressure on my skin.  I run into that regularly enough.  I don’t know, but I guess that if someone’s around it, it kind of brushes off on them and then fades as it gets further away from the source.  It’s sort of like walking by a bad smell, only metaphysical or something, I don’t even know if that’s the right word.
But then, there are times when it’s… really bad.  It’s like there’s dark, tingling oil on my skin, covering me in this dark, greasy feeling.  It makes everything seem visually darker, too, like a cheap pair of sunglasses.  Those are the ones that really scare me.  It’s a marker of something very, very wrong.  I always run into it when I’m tangling with a demon, but it also comes up in the area of something very wrong happening, like a stain on the place.  It can also come out of human cruelty.
I think those are the worst.  People who forget, or don’t care, that what they’re doing is to other people, and they just want to exert their will, whether it’s pain, it’s fear, it’s coercion.  It’s the kind of thing that tries to make a self-sustaining type of thing.  Enough of this comes together and it pushes people into making dark decisions, which feeds itself.  A person who would never cheat on their spouse finds him or herself going back to the same place to do it regularly, for example.  The guilt, the shame and the disgust stack up, and then drive them to do it again.  I know, you think it sounds like some weird aura sensing thing, but it’s real.  Not only that, but there are occasions it fills me with such revulsion and disgust that I really want nothing more than to pull my gun and just start unloading.
The worst part about all this?  It can sneak up on you, growing by small degrees until you look around and suddenly everything is cast in sepia tone.  That’s when the shock of realization hits you.  Well, except I lied to you; that’s not the worst.  The worst is when it hits you out of nowhere, like a skunk spraying, and suddenly, it’s just everywhere.
Today was a skunk kind of day.
I had gotten a call because a family had suffered a loss.  Now, this isn’t necessarily the strangest thing.  People want answers and they want to make sense of things that have happened.  I’ve worked these before, and a grieving family searching for answers oftentimes just come up with one of those unfortunate things that happened.  But, they pay me to come in and check, and I do.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that something could have happened that could have been prevented, or there’s something fishy going on.
I had pulled up at a hospital and didn’t notice anything at first.  It was a dreary, overcast day.  It threatened time and again to rain, but only spit a bit here and there.  I got out of my old Crown Victoria surplus cruiser and walked to the trunk.  I pulled a few items out of my travel case, a big silver metal box that fit into the brackets in the trunk.  With a quiet sigh, I put my pistol into its case and left the case in the box.  I didn’t like leaving my FN Five-Seven when there was the possibility of supernatural chicanery, but hospitals get really twitchy about firearms on the premises, even with a personal carry permit.  So, I left it behind.  I loaded up the several pockets of my field jacket with other various little items that might be useful, stuck a notepad and pen in with them, and pulled on my patrol cap before heading in.

Hospitals are a strange place for me.  I don’t know the statistics, but people go there to get well, and they go there to die.  I wish I knew what the split was, but I don’t.  Instead, they’re these strangely antiseptic places with bright lighting and muted voices.  Everything seems to be in contrast.  People sit in waiting rooms waiting for news, good and bad.  They come in sick, hoping to get well, or come in sick and end up passing away.  The whole thing makes my skin tingle with the mix of emotions from patients and their families and the quiet, professional detachment of the staff.

I had a room number, so I made my way down the hallways to the elevators, following one of those helpful little lines they put in the floor.  I like the idea, so you know where you’re going, but everyone walks with their head down avoiding eye contact.  The precursor to the smartphone, I guess.  I got into an empty elevator and thought about what I knew from the call.

At first, nothing had seemed out of the ordinary.  Sure, the hospital had lost more patients than usual, but the law of averages would dictate you’d have good months and bad months and everything would meet in the middle.  But, the strange thing was, apparently there had been a spike in the SIDS cases as well.  Healthy babies that were getting ready to go home didn’t make it through that last night before they left.  Put all of that together, and, well, I wasn’t happy about the possibilities.  There was a chance of having a human doing all of this, but usually people who operate this way have a specific pattern.  The infants were one pattern, but they weren’t the only one, and they weren’t the first pattern.  The spike in patient deaths before that was the first pattern.  I just didn’t know what that pattern was yet.  

The Kellers were a nice couple.  They lived just outside of town.  They had a four bedroom house and had gotten the nursery all set up.  They had done everything right.  Well, that’s what Mr. Keller’s brother had told me.  The other Mr. Keller, the father’s brother, had called me on their behalf, which is something that gets me looking sideways at something, but it was probably because they couldn’t bear to do it themselves.  I’d suspect Uncle Keller if he didn’t live in the next state and only called me because he knew the right people to reach me.

I knocked on the door and a soft reply was all the answer I got.  I opened the door and stepped into a dark room.  They were both sitting on the bed, holding some printed pictures and a phone, looking at pictures of their little one.  I felt terrible.  These people were obviously grieving, and I was intruding.  But then again, I’d been asked in.  They looked up at me, and I could see the pain on their faces.  Their eyes were sunken, faces tear-stained and all the energy just seemed gone out of them.  I talked to them for a few minutes and left them alone.  I needed to know a few things, and didn’t want to make it harder on them.  I’d tell you more about it, but honestly, as short and terse as it was, it’d be uncomfortable for both us.

This left me some time to walk the halls with my thoughts.  And that’s when I noticed it.  It had snuck up on me.  The bright lights of a hospital were dull and shadows seemed to cast every direction.  My skin seemed to tingle and it was like I could almost taste some sort of grease hanging in the air.


I needed to find out something very specific.  Was this a case of the atmosphere growing like some sort of psychic mold, or was it being directed?  There was only one way to find out, so I headed for the hospital chapel.

Here’s the thing about sanctuaries and holy ground.  It isn’t that dark creatures can’t enter them.  It’s that they don’t want to.  Holy ground of some form or another is uncomfortable for most of them, because it reminds them of goodness that they’ve forsaken.  For as much as dark entities revel in their darkness, reminding them of goodness they’ve given up is something they’d rather not face.  It’s like that ex you have that there was nothing wrong with.  You don’t know why you broke up, you don’t know what caused it, but now, you feel guilty about it because in hindsight, there was absolutely nothing wrong with them.  So you avoid them, at all costs, because of it what it makes you feel.  That’s the best analogy I’ve got.  If you don’t like it, you come up with one.

This hospital was not a nonprofit entity, like a baptist or catholic hospital or anything like that, but they did have a chapel.  So, I made my way there, following the little gold stripe.  When I hit the door, I walked in and there were two people inside.  One had her head down and hands clasped, and another was staring blankly at the stain glass behind the pulpit.  The window was lit from behind by one of those soft, sunlight-imitating bulbs, which lit this image of Jesus standing at a door a knocking.  

“Oh,” I muttered after barging in.  “Sorry about that, I’ll try to be quiet.”

The woman praying looked at me and nodded to me while the man in the room just kept staring.  I made my way to one of the short little pews and sat down.  I took some deep breaths and closed my eyes.  “Lord,” I said to myself, “please, show me what I need to see here.  Let me help your children.”  I opened my eyes and took another deep breath.  Then I started paying attention to all the little things.  

In here, the tingling on my skin, the oily taste in my mouth began to ebb away.  It was like they were being washed away with a damp washcloth.  Things were starting to even out, and the colors were brighter.  Especially the stain glass window.  It seemed vibrantly alive.  I understood why the man was staring at it.

That thought turned my head.  He was still sitting there, eyes forward, barely blinking.  His hands were on his lap, and he had a crushed little prayer manual in one hand.  They were in a rack by the door, and it looked like he’d grabbed one and crushed it.  Now his hands were loose.  I felt a very definite need to go talk to him.  I’ve learned not to ignore those urgings.  So, I moved over to the pew he was sitting in and made myself comfortable on the opposite end.

“It’s kind of nice, isn’t it?” I asked him, looking at the window myself.  I turned my eyes to him for a second.

His head shook briefly and he blinked very quickly, then rubbed his eyes.  “What?”

“The window.  It’s nice.  I prefer real sunlight on things like that, but the light behind it seems to do a pretty good job.”  I had returned my gaze to the window.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said.  “I just…  Never mind.”

“You sound like you have something you need to get off your chest,” I said, turning to look at him.  

“Yeah, well,” he started.

“It’s okay if you want to talk it out,” I told him quietly.  “You don’t know me, I don’t know you, no judgement, just someone willing to listen.”

“Yeah,” he said again.  He was young, maybe mid twenties.  He had a buzz haircut and his eyes looked deep set, like he hadn’t slept.  He was clean shaven, seemed to be pretty fit.  I put some pieces together and decided to take a gamble.

“You military?” I asked him.

“Army,” he said.  “Infantry.  Just got back from doing a tour in the sandbox.”

I nodded.  “I’m going to make a guess then.  Got home and someone close to you got sick or hurt?”

“Yeah.”  He wasn’t being rude, he was just trying to sort through what was probably a mountain of feelings.  “I came home last month, and my sister got really sick.  She was in here for some sort of infection.  She was getting better, too, until this morning.  They were going to discharge her, and she started getting bad again.  Really fast.”  I just sat there and listened.  He was verbally processing a lot, and I wasn’t going to stop him.  “I just… I came in here because I needed to go somewhere else.  But I don’t feel like I ought to be here.”

“I think this place is here for that reason,” I replied softly.  “So, I guess you kinda should be here, right?”

He turned to me, his face hardening as he spoke.  “I don’t know.  I mean, I was deployed for more than a year.  I saw friends of mine go down to IED’s, get shot, all that.  I come home and my sister, she’s one of the sweetest people on the planet, she’s so sick she can’t stand up and they don’t think she’s going to make it to tomorrow.”  I nodded slowly, thinking I knew where he was going.  “I’m here, trying to figure it out, because if there is a God, why would this happen?  She’s one of the best people I know.  My buddies were good guys.  She’s dying, they’re gone.  And… and…” he trailed off as he tried to get a handle on his feelings again.

“And there are terrible people out there that are fine,” I finished.  “Charles Manson is still alive in prison, and your sister might die.”  I had heard variations of this before.  “How could a good and loving God let that happen?  That’s what you’re wondering, right?  Not in those words, exactly, but am I close?”  He’d closed his eyes, but he nodded to me.  “Yeah, I know.  I know.  I’ve seen terrible things, too.  I’m a private investigator, and I’ve seen some terrible things.  But I realized something years ago; I don’t know if it will help, but I’ll share it with you if you’d like.”

He took a few deep breaths himself, shuddering as he did, before he looked up at me.  “Go on.”

“This world isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” I said.  “It’s a result of free will.  God created it one way, and gave us free will, so we broke it.  We have the free will to be bad people, or good people or whatever, and so, that’s where so much evil in the world comes from.  Bad things happen to good people because the world is broken and doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.”  I put a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know if that will help, but…”

Wait a second.  Oh, good Lord, I’m dense, sometimes.  “Hang on, your sister… what room is she in?”

“Uh,” he looked at me, clearly confused.  Let’s be honest, some stranger starts talking theology with you and then suddenly goes wide-eyed and asking specific questions about your family member, I’d be confused myself.  “Room 204,” he said.

I got up and dashed out of the room.  

204 was two floors down, so I went for the stairs.  I cleared them two and a time while pawing through my pockets.  If I could get there…  The fact that the atmosphere wasn’t in the chapel meant that this wasn’t just an atmosphere thing.  This was being directed by something that didn’t go into the chapel.  This was something thinking.  I burst through the doors at a dead sprint and around the corner.  Everyone looked at me like I was a madman, but no one tried to stop me.  I turned, opened room 204 and went in, shutting the door behind me.

The woman was laying on the bed, eyes closed, breathing labored.  The machines next to her had red lines and numbers I didn’t pay attention to.  I took her hand and gently placed a little globe of glass in her hand.  Inside was suspended a mustard seed.  “Dear God,” I prayed, closing my hands around hers, “please watch this child.  She’s under attack.  May Your mighty hands protect her while I do Your work and find the cause.”  I closed her fingers around the little globe and looked up.  It was dark in here, and the lights were on and the windows were open.  

“What do you think you’re doing?” came a question from behind me.  I turned and a middle aged man with thinning hair, scrubs and a white doctor’s coat was glaring at me over the clipboard in his hands.  “Get out of here, she’s got an infection!”

I started to leave when one thought hit me: I had closed the door.  The room had been empty.  I hadn’t heard the door open.  I did a quick draw, pulling a little LED flashlight out of my pocket and pointing it at the man.  “Lord, show me the truth,” I intoned.  A friend of mine had etched the words “Luke 1:79” into the steel around the lense.  To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.  Instead of illuminating the man standing there, the pure white beam instead showed his features cast in shadows, with tendrils of darkness leading off of him into the air around him.  


The thing turned and went out the door.  Well, through the door.  I hate that.  So, I burst back out of the room and down the hallway, looking even more like a crazy man, running after a doctor-looking guy in a field coat with a flashlight in my hand.  The thing took corners entirely too well, but didn’t start just running through walls.  If it was incorporeal, then it could just drop through the floor and be done, but it wasn’t.  It was running up and down hallways.  It came to an elevator and stopped, looked at the lights, and as I closed on it, it took off again, going for the stairs.  

Why did it stop at the elevator?  Why was it running down hallways when it went through a door?

It went through that door, too, and I busted through like a madman.  It was going down the stairs, not running, but instead kind of like it was floating straight down an inclined plane.  So, I opted to try and outdo it.  I leapt, trying to clear the flights in one go and gain ground.  The first flight, I nearly put my head into the concrete wall, just barely catching myself.  So, the next flight, I leaned down, grabbed the handrails and slung my legs forward.  I landed better that way, and kept doing it to catch up.  We hit the ground floor and the chase was back on, only I was much closer.  

This time, it took some angled turns that went screaming past the cafeteria.  This was fun, because I had to dodge through people, again, looking like a crazy person chasing a doctor.  I figured I only had a couple of minutes before security got involved.  The thing turned another corner and I saw the sign overhead indicating it was the loading dock.  If this thing got outside, it would be able to jump to a new location and do this whole mess over again.  But I couldn’t think of a way to stop it.

Until it hit the double doors at the end of the hall with the bright exit sign over head and those big, flat panels on the doors that show the alarm will go off if you go through.  This long stretch of hallway didn’t have other doors, not near the end of the hall.  One side was the exterior wall and the other was the cafeteria kitchen.  It came to those doors and stopped dead in its tracks.  And then I got it.

This thing wasn’t a demon, not really.  It was a sentient growth of the despair in the hospital.  The despair came out of not just the people passing away, but from the people who worked here, too.  It was basically a baby despair spirit, but it was smart enough to mimic doctors and nurses because it grew from them, too.  It knew that it had to go through doorways, up and down steps, wait on elevators, but it didn’t know that it didn’t have to.  And it was confined in the hospital because it didn’t know how to leave.  The despair was here, in this place, and since it was anchored to the place, so was this thing.

So, what to do?  I couldn’t banish it back to where it came from.  This was where it came from.  If I tried to obliterate it, it would just come back, or a new one would grow in its place.  Typically, though, if a place had developed something like this, it wouldn’t develop a new one if one already existed…

From one pocket, I pulled out a long, slender chain with a little cross-inscribed padlock on it.  “In the name of the Lord God Almighty,” I almost growled, “I cast you out.  I cast you away from here, to be bound away to the dark places until the the last day.”  

I took a few long steps forward and the thing came at me.  One of those tendrils of darkness lashed out and hit me and I felt a crushing weakness flow through my body.  I felt nausea, I felt pain and I felt anguish flood through me in a cascade of directed malice.  I stumbled forward, trying to keep my feet.  I had the chain in my hand, but almost felt too weak to even keep my grip.  I could feel the darkness flow through me, ebbing away at me, trying to kill me.  I looked up and saw the evil glee in the things eyes.  “Good bye,” it whispered out in a raspy, almost giggling tone.

“Yeah,” I managed to croak through strangled breath, “and piss off.”  I pitched forward, collapsing on the ground, and slapped the chain on the foot of the creature.  The chain glowed for a moment and then seemed to come alive, wrapping along the thing’s ankle.  The creature’s eyes went wide and it began to shudder.  It seemed to be sucked into the chain, like a vacuum cleaner pulling in smoke, and then, the whole thing, chain, lock and creature, vanished in a twinkle of light.

Well, okay.  That was done, but I still probably had security coming after me.  I pulled myself across the floor and managed to lever myself up against the wall.  Carefully, I managed to get to my feet and make a stumbling walk to the nearest stairwell.  I labored my way up the steps, trying to shake off the aftermath of what that thing had done to me.  And, miracle of miracles, I made back to the chapel.  I wasn’t sure how exactly, I managed it, but I found myself sitting in one of the pews.  The lady from before was still sitting in the same seat, head bowed in prayer.  The young man I’d been talking to had left, so it was quiet.  I sat there, breathing hard, trying to shake off the trauma and hoping I wouldn’t need to be checked into the hospital.  That would have been fairly awkward.  

I’d been sitting there for all of two minutes when the door slammed open.  It shocked me so badly, I fell out of the pew I was sitting in.  Cut me a break, alright?  It had been a hectic fifteen minutes.  But, there in the door, was the young man from earlier.  He walked up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and hugged me.  

“Thank you,” he said.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“Uh,” I said, “you’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome.”

He pushed back from me, hands still on my shoulders.  “She’s getting better!”

“Your sister, right?”

“Yes, she’s getting better.  Almost like someone flipped on a light switch.”

“Oh,” I said slowly, “that’s great news.”

“She told me you were there.”

“Uh,” I said.  The rollercoaster hadn’t stopped yet, it seemed.

“She said you left her this,” he said, holding up the little glass globe.  “What is it?”

“Mustard seed,” I said.  “That’s the prescribed size of faith.  Or something.”

He looked at it for a moment, then up at me.  He seemed to hesitate in the middle of his joy.  “Can… Can I keep it?”

I smiled tiredly.  “Never meant for anything else,” I said.  “Go on, your sister still needs you.”

He hugged me again in a big, military, rib-creaking hug before he left.  I slumped back down on the pew with a sigh.  I’d have to stay put for a while until I could go back to the Kellers.  I took a moment and laid my head back.  I was going to be exhausted as soon as all this was over.  I thought about that thing being a growth of the despair here, trying to cultivate it.  And how it could come back.  Something had to be done about that.

And I felt like I was being watched.  I opened my eyes and lifted my head.

The woman who had been praying smiled.  Her dark skin seemed to shine in the light from the window.  “You did it.”

I blinked a few times.  “I did?”

“Yes,” she said, still smiling.  “I’m the one that had the Kellers contact you.  I’ve heard of you.  Been in here praying since you arrived.”

“Oh.”  See, I wasn’t used to being, I don’t know, renowned or anything.  “Well, I guess you knew something was up?”

“I suspected something was up.  This place didn’t feel right.  I’m the chaplain here.”

I smiled.  “You were right.  There was enough here that the place started to… it doesn’t matter.  You were right.”  I paused for a moment, trying to find my words.  “Listen, there’s a lot of work to be done here, by someone that knows the place.  There’s too much despair, too much depression.  It’s going to be a lot of work, or else this thing will come back.”  I looked her dead in the eyes, and was met with a warm, caring gaze.  “Are you up for it?”

“Come on,” she said.  “We’ll go see the Kellers, then we’ll settle your bill.”

I got up, slowly, tiredness already starting to gnaw at me.  “Whatever you say,” I said.  “It’s your hospital.”

“It is now.  Thank you.”

Dusk, P.I.; primer short story draft

It’s not something that I like to parade out in front of people.  I mean, in all honesty, there’s a pile of good reasons not to.  People don’t want to hear it, people may not be ready for it, people might even get angry when they’re shown it.

Oh, it’s not that I’m a P.I. that tangles with stuff that doesn’t seem quite right.  God, people just eat that sort of thing up right now.  Everyone wants to be the next ghost hunters or wizard or join up with the vampires, werewolves, ghasts, whatever.  It’s like being back in high school, only with everyone wanting to be the goths.  How many people went to go see those movies more than once?  That’s the biggest reason I don’t put the words ‘occult’ or ‘paranormal’ on my business cards.  When I have them.

No, the thing that I don’t like to parade in front of people is that I’m apparently Blessed.

Now, let’s get something straight.  I’m not going to tell you my life is glamorous.  I’m a private investigator, which seems, by definition, anathema to a glamorous life.  No, see, what I mean is that the Good Lord has seen fit to share some things with me in order to make what I do a little better, I guess.  I have to do this whole spiel every time someone starts after me about it.  I’m not a dancing monkey that’s going to summon angels up at the drop of a hat to either confirm your faith or make you renounce your atheism or something like that.  I’d be kind of worried what would happen if they did show up, really.  I get the idea that they don’t really care for the dancing monkey act, either.

My name is James Dusk, and I’m an investigator.  The Good Lord has seen fit to make me a good one, and maybe a little push that direction.

Which is how I ended up in the middle of the woods.

There had been a rash of disappearances lately.  Not to be cynical, but many disappearances are more mundane than they seem.  They could be as simple as someone tired of the life they’re living and taking off, up to, as much as I hate to say it, human traffickers snatching people.  That’s the bad end of the scale, but it’s on the mundane scale regardless.  This was different.

The people disappearing had been from a series of nearby towns.  Now, there are lots of small towns in the Appalachian Mountains.  In this case, they’d been laid out not too far from each other as the crow flies, but before money came into the region, they weren’t easy to get to.  They’re clustered around a few pretty big hills, down near the flood plains where there’s flat land to build on.  It’s like they were laid out in a rough circle around the high hills.

It hadn’t been fun.  The roads weren’t the problem, the travel wasn’t the problem.  I’m used to the drone of the road, the detached attention to driving and the rest of my brain being somewhat unengaged.  The hard part had been talking to the people who had lost folks close to them, all in the last week.  Two teenagers, sixteen and seventeen had vanished, and they were only children.  Two parents; one had been a mother of one, another had been a father of two.  One forest ranger had gone so long without reporting in, and that was a little easier.  But, five people, gone without a ransom call, a call for help or anything of the sort.  They’d all vanished under different circumstances.  They’d been out running, deer hunting, the ranger had been on patrol, things like that.  But one thing had been the same: they were all near the treelines.  That isn’t saying much on its own, or hadn’t been.  What broke it open was that there had been things left.  Bits of clothing, shoes, jewelry, all with blood on them, left near where the victim had disappeared.

I’d been on my way down to the police station from my hotel room when a black car had pulled into the parking lot.  Two men in black suits hopped out and started across the parking lot towards me.  I had a styrofoam cup of coffee in my hand and no inclination to run from what I guess to be feds, so I walked over to my Crown Victoria and leaned on the back bumper to wait for them.

“Mr. Dusk,” the first one said.  He was trying to be all professional, but he was breathing hard.  It sure wasn’t from walking across a parking lot, so I guessed something had him wound up.

“Mmmm,” I replied, taking a sip from my cup.  The second one, looking younger than the other by a few years, compressed his lips.  He didn’t like my nonchalance.

“Mr. Dusk,” the first one repeated, “I understand you’ve been working on the local disappearances.”

“You understand correctly,” I replied.  The coffee was sludge, but it was hot and caffeinated, so I took another sip.  

“I’m Special Agent Barnes,” the first one said.  “This is Agent Wilson.  We’re from the FBI.”

“Figured,” I replied.  I really wasn’t trying to be rude, but it was seven-thirty in the grey, overcast morning and I had just started my first cup.  “You’re here to tell me to stop my investigation.”

“We should,” said Agent Wilson.  He folded his arms and glared at me.  He had to have been new.  The puffed up intimidation tactic was almost funny if it weren’t so early.  I’m not a big guy; I’m about five foot ten and wiry, and Wilson was big and built.  It was the attitude.  He was so full of pride and vinegar.  “This is now a federal…”

“Oh, quit being such a prick, Wilson,” Barnes said, clearly annoyed.  It was at that moment, I decided I liked Agent Barnes.  “Listen, Mr. Dusk, you’ve been working this case and already been talking to people before we were called in.  The local law enforcement said that you’ve been good about working with them, and I’d kind of like to continue that.”

Things started to make sense.  “Ah, I get it.  People around here don’t exactly care for you guys, but they’ll talk to me.”  I took another sip and noted that Wilson’s jaw clenched.  That was all the confirmation I really wanted.  “So the P.I. that came in and started putting all these together becomes invaluable.”  I tried to keep a smirk off my face.  “Well, fair enough.  So, what’s going on?”

Wilson’s jaw was still clenched.  Combine that with the fact that his face was starting to get a little red and it made me wonder if he was going to chip a tooth.  Agent Barnes reached into his coat and pulled out a notebook.  Notebooks and not smartphones; I was actually a little more impressed by Agent Barnes.  I don’t have anything against smartphones, don’t get me wrong, but I have one of those pay-as-you-go deals, and the reception was spotty at best, so I didn’t use it much.

“Well, five disappearances recently, no real connection between them,” he said, flipping open his notebook.

“Agent Barnes,” I said as diplomatically as I could manage, “I know all that.  Given that you guys have rolled up to me before most people are on the clock makes me think you’ve got something new going on.”

Barnes gave me a slow nod with a small quirk at the corner of his mouth.  “Yes, there is.”  He went down the list.  Personal items, blood on them, and in a few cases, the fingertips of the owners on them.  It still made me shudder a little bit.  

“Great,” I said quietly.  “I knew about that stuff, too.  I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like serial killer behavior.”  I paused for a moment.  “Wait a minute.  Why is the FBI involved in this?”  They looked at each other for a moment.  I tried to remember what I knew of FBI jurisdiction.  “Wait, another question first; when did you guys get called in?”

“It was when the items were found,” replied Wilson slowly.  “Search parties started finding items matching what the missing people were wearing.  We had to do some verification before we came out here.”

“Oh, crap,” I breathed.  “This is a repeat, isn’t it?  Happened in another state?”

Barnes threw a glare at Wilson.  “Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky have all had similar activity.”

“Right.  Right.  Hang on a minute.”  I thrust my cup at Wilson while I dug my keys out of my pocket.  “I need you to hold this.”  I felt his hand take the cup and I popped the trunk on my car.  It was an old police surplus cruiser, and they had left lots of little brackets and frames in the trunk.  I reached in and first pulled out my coat.  It’s a solid coat, dark brown and marketed to be made out of old firehose material.  It’s called a field coat, so there are pockets all over the thing.  I pulled it on and opened up a black hardshell plastic case.  

In the case, packed with foam that I had cut slots into, were several small items.  I pulled a cross out and slipped it over my head, then some other small trinkets and slipped them into other pockets.  I then moved one of the foam sheets and used a key to open a lockbox underneath.  In the box was my shoulder holster and my FN Five-Seven.  I pulled the slide to check the chamber, snapped the safety on and grabbed three magazines.  I heard someone behind me choke when he saw the gun.  With a sigh, I reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a card.

“Concealed carry and registration,” I said, holding them up.  “Don’t have an aneurysm.”  I put them back in my pocket.  “Like I’d want to pull a gun in front of two agents.”  I slid one magazine in the gun, put on the holster and then the coat over it.  Finally, I grabbed my cap, a military surplus patrol cap, shut the trunk lid and turned to them.

Agent Barnes looked unimpressed.  “You do realize we don’t intend on taking you for an arrest, and all that…” he gestured with one hand, “is unnecessary.”

“Yeah, a jacket, a hat, some stuff in the pockets and a firearm are unreasonable in the face of a serial killer being on the loose.”  I took my coffee back from Wilson, and noticed he had slopped more than half of it out.  My guess was it was him that had the reaction when I got my gun.  “Thanks,” I said to him and knocked back what was left.  “So, what’s next?”

The two nice agents gave me a ride to the Sheriff’s office.  I sat in the back and looked out the window, letting my mind wander.  Something about this had seemed wrong from the start, but now, with the new developments, this whole thing seemed to be wrapped in a greasy coat in my mind, like something was wrong.  I reached into a pocket and rubbed a small LED flashlight.  Along the length of it, a friend of mine had etched the words “Luke 1:79” into the steel.  To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.  Something was very, very wrong here, and I couldn’t put my finger on what.

I ended up following the two of them into the dispatch office with my mind still rolling over what was going on.  They went in and Wilson started making a big deal about it being a federal case now.  If Barnes hadn’t seemed so irritated, I’d have sworn that they were doing a good cop, bad cop routine on cops.  While they were getting everything laid out on a large conference room table, I was snapped out of my funk when the sheriff walked up to me.

“Morning, Mr. Dusk,” he said to me quietly.  Sheriff Combs wasn’t a big man, of about my height and with some comfortable weight of age, but his eyes were sharp, and his iron gray hair and mustache made him look like the prototypical seasoned officer.  He was sharp and willing to talk to me.  

“Morning Sheriff,” I replied.  “I know you’ve got to be thrilled,” I said, nodding to the agents.

He shrugged.  “If it’s a serial case, then I say let them at it.  If it slips through their fingers or blows up in their face, won’t be our fault.”  I looked at him, confused.  “I’ve done this dance before,” he said.  “I don’t much care to get tangled up.  So, why did they bring you?”

“Easier to have me come along rather than write down everything relevant I could know.”  I sighed.  “Do you guys have any coffee?”  He chuckled and gestured to the corner of the room.  “Thanks.”

I made the slow walk to the ambrosia dispenser while looking at the things on the table.  The personal items were spread out around a map and corresponding notes with them.  I stared at the table for a minute, then took a drink.  Everyone seemed to be talking at once, pointing at the map where there were red marks where the items had been found.  I tilted my head, looking at everything.  

“Well, it’s obvious we’re looking for something in here,” Agent Barnes said, connecting the dots in a large circle.  “Are there any structures of any type in this area?” he asked.

“There’s an old mine here,” one deputy said, pointing at a location.  Wilson made a mark and notation on the map.”

“There used to be a community here, the only thing still there is what’s left of the schoolhouse,” another said, which was also marked and noted.  

“What about…” I said, starting to think out loud.

“No one asked you,” said Wilson, without looking up.

“What’s your problem?” I shot back at him.  I’ll admit, this guy had rubbed me the wrong way early on, and now, having just finished a full cup of coffee, I was only getting to being prepared for polite society.

“My problem is that you’re just some private dick that was brought in for a disappearance, and now you’re in the middle of…”

“You two brought me in,” I countered.

“And when we want your opinion,” he started.

“SHUT UP,” Agent Barnes shouted, interrupting him.  “Alright, Dusk, you’re here for insight, since you’ve been working the whole area.  What have you got?”

I looked at the map for another minute, then spun it.  I leaned down on the table and reached to the side, grabbing a file folder.  Using its spine as a straight edge, I started marking on the map with a felt tip pen I pulled from another coat pocket.  Long slashes marked the map, connecting the points in the circle.  When I was done, I had a pentacle staring back at me.  The center of the… “Oh, great,” I muttered, then spun the map again.  With it oriented correctly, the north side of the map away from me, I had an inverted pentacle, a pentagram on the map.  And in the middle was a small field on the map.  I put a dot in the center.  “More and more serial killer all the time,” I sighed.

“Get me the GPS location of the center of that,” said Agent Barnes.

That’s how I ended up out in the woods.

I’m not exactly sure why they brought me, except that I guess they felt like they needed as many warm bodies as they could drum up.  They had left men on patrol back in the towns, and gathered up people from each force.

We crept forward, and we spread out. We had formed a long line, working our way through the woods with our weapons readied. We'd discussed putting suppressors on our guns, but decided that we wanted to have the light and noise in case one of us found him without someone around.

The sky was dark overhead, the moon was only a sliver in the sky and thick clouds drifted slowly. We kept moving forward, being as quiet as we could. As we moved further and further forward, I checked the GPS unit I'd clipped to my vest to make sure we were still on track. Our goal was dead ahead when I realized that the only sounds I could hear were my own breath and the quiet rustling of the other officers. The sounds of the night had otherwise gone completely quiet.

I looked around slowly. The other men had slowed their movements as well. When my radio earpiece clicked on, I almost jumped out of my boots. "Team, check in." Agent Barnes was asking for us to count off, and through a sense of dread, I realized why. We checked in all down the line, one after another, until Jenkins didn't answer.

Jenkins had been on the flank for a reason. Jenkins was a big guy, maybe six foot five and two hundred and fifty pounds of solid rock. He was the anchor for the line, since anyone trying to move on him would find a sudden, loud, violent reaction. Agent Wilson was the next in line on that end, and clicked on the tac light on his pistol. The white light was bright and harsh to our eyes, but it was easy to see as he swept it over where Jenkins had been.

Once again, the radio clicked on, but with a burst of static, which didn’t happen when any of us used them.  "Children," came a slow, rich voice flavored with a long drawl, "this is certainly no place for decent folks like you to be. Run along home."

I turned to look at Agent Barnes and I saw him scowl. There was no way he could let this go. This creep had taken one of their own, and they were going to take him down. The line moved forward again. I glanced at my GPS and saw we were approaching the coordinates. I lifted my eyes and saw there was a break in the trees ahead of us.

The break in the trees opened into a small clearing, right in the center of the compass we'd charted on the map. In the center of the clearing, there was a sizeable shack, cobbled together from what looked like cast off timber and sheets of tin for roofing. There were no lights. And that's when noticed something else: the scarecrows.

No, not exactly.  They were the bodies of the missing people on frames like scarecrows.  They formed a line in the treeline just outside the clearing and all faced outward.

Towards us.

I swallowed and looked past them and into the clearing. That's where I saw Jenkins lying on the ground. His head was twisted around at an unnatural angle, and I knew he was gone. That's when I saw the other figure. It wasn't as big as Jenkins, but it wasn't much smaller. It was hard to see details. He was covered in a long coat of what looked like faded black denim, and a broad brimmed hat was pulled low. The figure turned in the clearing, pulled another scarecrow frame out of the shack and draped Jenkins over it. Then, he pivoted smoothly and planted the new scarecrow in the clearing, facing us and looming by Jenkins' body in the pale moonlight.

The radio crackled once more and I heard the Barnes’ voice: "Fire."

The stillness was shattered by a hail of gunfire. Scarecrows bucked and jerked as rounds tore through them. Pieces of the shack shuddered in the impact of rounds landing, but the figure in the clearing turned on his heel and walked to the shack, vanishing from our view. Some kept firing at the shack, looking to land a hit inside. Then it was quiet. The night seemed even more quiet than it had been. I took a deep breath. Maybe we'd gotten him.

There was a rustle of chains and a strangled shout. I turned, flicking my gun light on, but saw nothing. Nothing except a hole in the line where a deputy had been. I swung my light, looking to see if he'd moved forward. I saw the figure, walking parallel to our line. He stepped behind a tree. He didn't emerge from the other side of it.

Instead, he emerged from behind another tree twenty feet away, his stride unbroken.

They opened fire again. Handguns barked their shots as we followed the line of progress this... thing made. The sheriff’s shotgun boomed through the night as he fired. I had given Wilson a hard time for bringing an SMG with him, but now, I was saw he knew what he was doing. The fully automatic hail of 9mm rounds scythed through the woods.

The figure kept moving. I saw him emerge from a patch of shadows behind Wilson and whip his arm. I heard, even above the gunfire, a rattle of chains as what looked like a rusted logging chain snaked out and wrapped around Wilson’s neck. With a sharp jerk, he went down, and the figure turned again and vanished. We turned wildly, hoping to catch him in our lights.  I kept trying to figure out what my move should be, but moving anywhere was probably going to get me shot.  

He appeared again and swung a fist at Barnes. There was an audible crunch and Barnes went down as well. One by one, he seemed to appear and take them down with contemptible ease.  I had my opening and went for it.  I bolted into the clearing, past the scarecrow bodies.  If he didn’t have some way to break line of sight, maybe he couldn’t approach without moving in the open.  I also started going through my pockets.  I heard shouts and screams as the fight continued.

As I pulled my cross out from under my shirt, I turned, looking for motion.  The door to the shack stood open.  Here, in the clearing, the full moon overhead lit the night quite clearly, but the door’s threshold was covered by a curtain of inky blackness.  And I felt a crawling, tingling sensation on my skin, like it was being covered in dirty oil.  I knew that feeling.  It came from the presence of… “Demon,” I whispered to myself.

“Oh, but yes, child,” came that rich voice.  “You aren’t as clueless as the others, but your weapon won’t do.  It didn’t for any of the others.”

I turned on my heel and pulled a small, inscribed LED flashlight.  “Lord, let me see as it truly is,” I whispered to myself.  The light on my pistol played over the form of the man.  Heavy, rusted chains were wrapped around his fists, and he stood not six feet away from me in the clearing.  His coat was unmarked by bullet holes and his broad brimmed hat, looking to be made of pale leather, covered the upper part of his face.  The beam from my gun light almost seemed to slide off of him.  But the beam from my little flashlight didn’t.  The being flinched from it, and as I ran it over its face, I saw what looked to be a human face, but eyes black as pitch with small, red pupils, glaring at me.  

“How dare you,” it hissed at me.

“Yup.”  Okay, listen, I was pretty terrified, so I wasn’t at my wittiest, but this wasn’t the newest ground to me, either.  I also knew one other thing: since the light in my hand revealed it as it was, that meant that I knew exactly where it stood.  So I fired.

An FN Five Seven is not a small gun.  It’s not a cheap gun, it doesn’t have cheap ammo.  What it has is a twenty round magazine and a lot of punch for a handgun.  I fired ten shots in rapid succession, working hard to keep my breath measured and my eyes focused.  At this range, I knew I could hit him, but my grouping would probably be terrible.  Yeah, facing a demon in his little refuge in the pale moonlight will do that to you.

Ten shots slammed into the figure, tearing holes in its coat and making him stagger with each one.  Each jerk from impact made me bolder, and my hands steadier.  This wouldn’t kill it, but it would certainly make it think twice.  

It raised a hand and one of the rusty chains lashed towards me like a snake.  The demon’s eyes blazed hate at me.  “One of the Faithful,” it spat.  “Didn’t think I’d get to kill one of you in this day and age.”  The chain seemed to be alive as it wrapped around my neck and tighten.  I dropped my light and grasped at it, but it seemed to writhe in my grip, preventing me from being able to pull it open.  

I staggered as the chain tightened; I kept a death grip on my pistol.  If I dropped that, I had this strong suspicion that I was done.  Blood thundered in my ears as I tried to shake it off.  My footing got unsteady and I dropped to my knees.  I knew I wasn’t just being strangled.  The chain was also restricting blood flow to my brain, and it was doing it well.  My vision was turning red and inky blackness was creeping in from the edges of my vision.  

I kept trying to reach into one of my pockets, but my fingers were too clumsy.  I couldn’t feel very well through my fingertips, and I felt my conscious thought slipping away.  I couldn’t reach any of my tools, I couldn’t aim well enough to rely on my gun to get me out of this.  

“Sleep, little man,” came the demon’s voice.  “Let the darkness carry you away.  I can’t wait.”

I had one idea left.  I reached my hand up towards my neck again, and even in the state I was in, I could see the demon’s eyes.  They lit with excitement and anticipation.  It was expecting me to make a last, desperate struggle to remove the chain.  Instead, I pulled on a different chain around my neck and tugged the shiny cross from under my shirt.  “Though I walk…” I gasped, barely more than a whisper, “through the valley of the shadow of death…”  It was so hard to even think, I felt like my brain was going to explode.  “I will fear…” the demon’s eyes widened when it realized what I was saying.  “ evil, for You are with me…”  

The chain leapt from my neck like it had been burned.  I pitched forward, gasping for air.  My vision began to clear slowly, but I could see the cross hanging from it’s chain, glowing faintly.  I got one foot up, knelt on just one knee and lifted my head.  I didn’t have time to recover, the demon was still right there.  It snarled at me, raised a hand again, and flung more chains at me.  The end of the chains had tied themselves into large, bulky knots as they flew at me.  The first one approached the glow of my cross and turned, not hitting dead into my chest, but instead hitting my left arm.  The pain shot through me, but it was galvanizing, bringing me back from the haze of trying to recover.  Another knotted chain shot towards me and I rolled.  Again and again, the chains fired out, cutting massive divots in the dirt where I had been as I kept moving.  

I managed to twitch aside from another flying chain and grab it.  I dropped my gun, grasped my cross on its long chain, and pressed metal to metal.  There was a loud hiss and white smoke rose up.  I let go and the chain recoiled like a snake, flailing in what I could have sworn was pain.  The demon was clutching the arm that had thrown the chain and snarling at me.  The two lengths started to slowly draw back to the creature, which gave me time to pick up my gun.  My light still shone, the beam resting across the front of the shack from where it lay.

“Pretty sure you aren’t welcome here,” I said.  I was trying to think, desperately kicking my brain into gear.

“Ah, but child,” it replied as the chain slithered back up its coat sleeve, “welcome doesn’t have anything to do with it.  I go where I’m fed.”

“What do you feed on,” I demanded.  If I didn’t take this thing down, I’d need to know, and I was trying to get it talking to buy time.  Demons always have egos and they just love to gloat.

“The dregs of mankind,” he said, his voice warm with satisfaction.  “Hate, wrath, lust, pride, all of those I find sweeter than the finest honey.”  It started to circle me, towards my left, so I carefully shuffled my feet to follow.  It was heading towards its shack, and I suspected that it was either going to try to escape or pull a nasty surprise.

I was dealing with an intelligent beast.  It knew what it fed on, and it knew how to create more of what it wanted.  It was finding people that fed its hunger, then using them to create more food.  That’s why I had kept feeling the inky darkness around everything on this case.  This thing was actively nurturing and consuming all the darker sides of people, and it was making a blanket in the area.  The atmosphere of fear, anger and things of that nature would just make it stronger.  Time to do something about it.

“Lord, give me what I need,” I prayed quietly as I got to my feet.  The demon’s head twitched at me, and I took a long step to my right.  That put the demon right in front of its door in my line of sight.  Then I started firing.  The next ten shots were all dead center, and hammered the creature back into the doorway.  When the chamber locked open, I dropped the gun and pulled a glass vial from a coat pocket.

I knew a few things.  Demons needed anchors to act like this.  Since it had been moving around and operating on a specific pattern, that meant it either had a human host or it was creating locations of power to base out of.  This shack was clearly something of the sort; it had created a barrier to keep things out.  If someone had tried to get inside, that darkness could have torn them apart, killed them instantly or just swallowed them whole, never to be seen again.  Which meant that I knew what I was going for.

Holy water isn’t some sort of magical hand grenade.  It doesn’t burn with white fire or anything like that.  However, when it’s blessed by a true person of faith, it can certainly react.  Especially if what you’re up against believes it will.  My light was already on the curtain of inky blackness and I could almost hear some sort of scream as it seemed to peel back.  Inside, the demon was just regaining its footing from where my shots had driven it back.  I gave the vial an underhand toss and it seemed to shine in the light.  It hit the creature, shattered and it bellowed out an unearthly roar.  A door of battered planks swung shut and the shack quivered, then collapsed in on itself.

I felt like a heavy blanket was fading away, slowly ebbing.  I didn’t seem to have to breathe quite as hard and the night air lost an oily quality, tasting sweeter by the breath.  The moonlight shone a little brighter.  I picked up my pistol, replaced the magazine and stuck it back in my shoulder holster.  It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t here anymore.

I turned, feeling exhausted, and turned.  The grisly scarecrows still hung.  The bodies of the men that had come with me still lay in the forest.  And I felt a crushing sadness that these people had been taken in the way they had.  It told me something else; the creature wasn’t fully otherwordly.  If it had been powerful enough to manifest here on Earth, then it would have consumed these people, their bodies gone as well.  This was a presence tied to a human, altering it and empowering it.  It could be from full on possession to some dark partnership.  And it had gotten away.  

I did the only thing I could think of.  All of these people, gone because of the dark evil a man’s heart had chosen.  I dropped to my knees and I sang an old hymn for them.  My voice was broken and raspy ,and tears ran down my face, but I sang for them, a hymn and a prayer together.

“Oh, come, angel band.  Come and, around us, stand.  Oh, bear them away on your snow-white wings, to our immortal home.  Oh, bear them away on their snow-white wings, to our immortal home.”