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.
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.
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. “...no 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.”