It was a long drive to Coldwell, and we didn’t get started until late, so it was getting dark as we drove into town. Perhaps not the most auspicious beginning.
The town itself was set well back from the interstate, a good five miles down a winding county road. It had apparently been on the old highway, before the interstate, and was still hanging on, even though there wasn’t much to keep it alive. There weren’t even many farms in the vicinity, though a sign just as we turned off the interstate, lit up by our headlights, announced the presence of the Bar-13 ranch, about ten miles in the other direction.
Mostly it was five miles of rolling hills, sagebrush, bunchgrass, and the occasional stand of trees in the low ground where there was more water. The trees were already clumps of darkness against the grasslands that were already going gray in the growing twilight.
There weren’t a lot of lights on in Coldwell. There was a gas station on the edge of town. As I got a good look at it, I thought Ray had been rather overly charitable in calling it a “truck stop.” The pumps were ancient and rusty, and the building behind them was dingy, the paint peeling where it wasn’t dirty enough to turn from white to gray. It looked like the windows hadn’t been cleaned in a quarter century at least. At least the lights over the pumps were on, though the building itself was dark.
Only about three streetlights were lit down the main drag. They didn’t help. All they seemed to do was show the decay. Sidewalks were overgrown with weeds, and more were growing out of cracks in the street. Several of the old storefronts were boarded up, and one was visibly sagging toward the street. Another was burned out, black sweeps of soot staining the dingy paint as well as the buildings closest to it.
It wasn’t that late, so there were still a few people out and about, but most towns I’d been in still showed more activity. The place almost looked like a ghost town, with a few scavengers still going through the detritus. But it was still, as far as we knew, a living town, albeit for certain values of “living.”
I almost drove us straight past the motel. It was set back from the road, and was mostly dark, lit only by a single light over the door to the lobby, and a sickly yellow light coming through the dirty windows looking in on the front desk. A few of the windows of the rooms showed some light, but all the curtains were drawn. A few grungy-looking cars and trucks squatted in the gravel parking lot.
“I don’t like the look of this place, Jed,” Eryn said, eyeing the motel.
“Can’t say as I do, either,” I replied, slowing the truck to turn into the parking lot. “This place looks sketchy as all get out. But I don’t see another motel in town.” And I could see most of the town from there; the entire place probably didn’t cover a square mile.
She shook her head. “I don’t just mean the motel,” she said. “I mean this place. All of it. I’m starting to feel what Ray was talking about when he said that there’s something off about this town.” She looked at me, her green eyes glinting a little bit in the splashback of the headlights. “Can’t you feel it?”
I squinted at the motel. I’d been in plenty of run-down pest holes over the years, ranging from borderline ghost towns full of squatters, meth towns, slums, dying railroad towns, and suburbs gone rotten. The predators of the Otherworld like to prey on such places, as do some of the more demonic enemies of mankind. Silverton had turned as warped as it had because the town saw a downturn, the locals got bored, and a few of them tried to summon something best left in the Abyss.
But this was something different. And, just like Ray had said, I couldn’t figure out just what was different. I could feel a sort of quiet unease, but there wasn’t any particular reason I could point to as to why. There was no visible threat. Sure, it was dark, and everything was dirty and falling apart, but I’d been in plenty of dark, dirty, disintegrating places before, without feeling like I should have a gun in my hand, like I was feeling right then.
Motion grabbed my eye. A figure shuffled in front of the headlights. I’d pulled over to the side of the street, but hadn’t pulled into the parking lot, as we sat there and looked at the crumbling roach motel. Now there was a young man making his halting way down the crumbling sidewalk toward us.
Even though it wasn’t a cold night, he was wearing a long, dark-colored parka that looked like it was about two sizes too big, with the hood flipped up over his head. He was gaunt, hollow-cheeked, and wide eyed, and his mouth, sans several teeth, was hanging half open. He had “meth head” written all over him. The stare he was giving us was not a friendly one. He glared at us like a madman. Even from ten yards away, I could see whites all the way around his irises.
He shambled forward, speeding up, and suddenly lunged at us and slammed his hands on the hood. I already had my .45 in my hands, and out of the corner of my eye I could see that Eryn had her Smith & Wesson Model 29 out. We might have to shoot through the windshield, which would be a shame, given how much it would cost to replace, but better that than getting mauled or stabbed by a meth-head.
He yelled something, but it was, frankly, completely unintelligible. When we didn’t respond, he just got more agitated, banging his hands on the hood and yelling wildly. I’d learned a long time ago not to get focused on just one threat, so I started to see movement as more figures started to come out of the shadows onto the street, watching us. None of them were moving toward us, at least, though that could be good or bad. Nobody seemed to be moving to calm down the yelling man, either.
With what could only have been an oath, though it was just as garbled as anything else he was saying, he started to come around the side of the truck, on Eryn’s side. She already had the window up and the door locked, but he started smacking his palm on the window, still yelling. Even that close, we still couldn’t understand what he was saying, but it was certainly hostile enough.
Eryn didn’t bat an eye. She just lifted her .44 and pointed it at his nose. That rather changed the dynamics of the encounter.
Faced with his imminent demise, the staring meth-head backed off. He didn’t get any more friendly, though. He continued to glare at us with an unnerving intensity as he backed away. Finally he continued down the street, though he kept looking back, staring at us until he ducked into a house that I could have sworn had to be abandoned at first glance.
The rest of the people on the street didn’t move for a while, and we stayed where we were, watching them back. None of them were standing under a streetlight, and they’d managed to all stand outside the cone of the headlights, so it was impossible to see any of them well. They were just dark silhouettes, their stares more felt than seen.
“Now I don’t want to go inside,” Eryn confessed. “I’m afraid that if we do, we’ll come back out to find the windows broken and the tires slashed.”
I couldn’t say I disagreed. There was a palpable hostility in the air. A few of the more distant figures were filtering back into houses and what looked like the town’s sole operating bar, but the nearest were still just standing there, watching. I grimaced. “We can’t just bug out,” I said. “This is where we’re supposed to meet Blake.” I looked over at her. “I’m just not sure which is going to be more dangerous—going out there to go into the motel to get a room, or staying out here on security.”
“I’d think staying out here would be riskier,” she said.
“Except we don’t know what’s inside,” I replied. This place was already making me paranoid. “Or who.”
“I’ll go in,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ll have Mabel with me.” She hefted her .44. She’d named her revolver long before I’d known her, and liked to tease me about why I didn’t name any of my guns. I’d just said that I wasn’t in the habit of naming my tools.
She cracked her door, and I rolled down my window, so as to have as clean a shot on anyone coming after us as possible. Nobody still on the street moved, except for a couple more fading back into the dark, briefly silhouetted by an opening door, then vanishing. Eryn got out, closed her door, and started toward the motel office.
The door opened, then closed behind her. I sat behind the wheel, as tense as I’d ever been in a combat situation, watching the watchers out on the street, my ears straining for the sound of gunshots from inside. I was confident that Eryn would put up a hell of a fight if it came to it. I just hoped it wouldn’t come to it, even as I wound up to dive out the door and go in after her.
A couple more of the dark figures melted away when I glanced back at the motel. I still had the truck running and the headlights on; if need be, I’d use the truck itself as a weapon. The rumble of the engine meant I couldn’t hear much of anything outside, but I wasn’t willing to shut it off.
Finally, one of the watching figures, wearing a coat like the meth-head, took a step forward, then another. Here we go, I thought. I lifted my 1911 to the edge of the rolled-down window, ready to punch it out and blast the guy if he came at me.
Whether he sensed my movement or not, I don’t know, but the figure stopped. There wasn’t enough light spilling from the headlights to illuminate his features, but his eyes glinted under his hood. A few others drifted closer, but the standoff continued.
I resisted the urge to check my watch. I was too busy trying to watch three hundred sixty degrees at once. It felt like Eryn had been in that motel office forever. She had to have gotten a room by now. There had to be something wrong. I hadn’t heard a gunshot, but something bad must have happened.
I think it was just the eerie decay of the town, the hostile watchers, and the circumstances that led to the hard, cold knot of fear that was building in my gut. Not fear for myself; I’m perfectly confident in my ability to handle myself in a fight, particularly against people as opposed to monsters and demons. I also hadn’t had any ideas about dying in bed for several years. No, I was terrified that something had happened to Eryn, where I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, and couldn’t do a damned thing to stop it.
Finally, a wan bit of light spilled out into the parking lot from the motel office door. I only saw it because I’d turned my head to make sure somebody wasn’t trying to come up in my blind spot. Eryn stepped out and hurried to the door, her Smith held openly in her hand.
She pulled open the door and climbed inside. Strangely, as she did, the people watching us started to move away, drifting either into the shadows or into more crumbling, decrepit houses.
Eryn shook her head. “That was painful,” she said.
I didn’t look at her, instead continuing to watch our stalkers disappear into the night. “What happened?”
“I went in, and there was nobody at the desk,” she said. “So I waited, figuring they’d come back sooner or later. They didn’t come back. So I rang the bell on the counter.
“This older lady came bursting out of the back room as soon as the bell rang. She looked really mad, and stared at me like I’d just stabbed her cat or something. ‘Why’d you ring the bell!?’ she yelled at me. As if I’d somehow committed a crime by disturbing her while she was at work. I told her we were looking for a room. That made her really mad. She got red in the face, and didn’t say anything for a moment, then screamed at me that there weren’t any vacancies, and I should go away before she called the sheriff on me.
“I told her there wasn’t any call to be treating customers like that, and she tried to hit me. That was when I pointed my gun at her.” Fear started to creep into my wife’s voice. “Jed, it didn’t even faze her. She just kept yelling and cursing at me.” She stopped and looked back at the motel. “There is something really, really wrong here.”
A handful of the people in the street hadn’t moved, even as their compatriots had faded away. The guy in the coat with only his eyes visible had even taken a step closer. I kept my eye on him as I said, “I’m rather inclined to agree with you.” Shoving the 1911 into the little pocket on the inside of my door, I put the truck in gear and started to pull away from the curb, ready to mash the accelerator and turn the big F250 into a battering ram. “Obviously we can’t stay in the motel tonight.”
“What are we going to do?”
I considered the question as I pulled out in the street. We passed only a few feet from the guy in the coat, who just kept watching as we rolled by. I caught a glimpse of haggard, gaunt features, but his hood still mostly obscured his face.
The truth was, we were already off to a bad start. Whatever Blake had gotten mixed up in here, in this benighted little decaying town, it was already advanced enough to make what looked like the entire town actively hostile. I suspected that if we started digging, we’d find the rot went deeper than a bunch of creepy meth-heads on the street at night. That was, of course, assuming that digging deeper didn’t end in a shallow grave down by the river. I had little doubt that these people would resort to violence if pushed. I only wondered what had managed to corrupt an entire town like this. Even Silverton, with all that had happened there, hadn’t ever gone this bad.
But, bad start or not, this wasn’t something we could just run away from. Blake was here, or, if he wasn’t, then this Chrystal person should be, and should be able to lead us to him. Like it or not, dangerous or not, we had to stay.
That didn’t mean we would be trying to stay under any roof in town. That was obviously a bad idea. “We’ll find a place to bed down for the night, and come back in the morning,” I said. “Someplace well outside of town.”
Spending the night in the bed of the truck wasn’t a problem. I’d spent a lot of nights back there, before Eryn and I had gotten married, and we’d spent not a few since the same way, when we were out away from Ray’s ranch. There was a canopy over the back, and a mattress. It wasn’t roomy, especially with the two of us, but since it was a chilly night, neither of us minded much.
Not that it was terribly relaxing. We’d found a campsite a few miles down the road, but still close enough to see the handful of lights that barely illuminated Coldwell. I found myself tensing up whenever a car or truck passed coming from that direction; there was no reason to think any of the people from the town had followed us, but we’d had a distinctly disquieting introduction to Coldwell, and I wasn’t terribly trusting that they wouldn’t get a tweaked-out posse together to go find the out-of-towners who dared to intrude on whatever weird stuff they had going on in the dark. I kept my Winchester by my side. Though I hadn’t said anything, Eryn had brought her shotgun to bed with her, too.
The mind starts to play tricks in the dark, especially when you’re already keyed up. Of course, a lot of the things a Hunter sees can never be un-seen, and they tend to come back to haunt you in the dark, quiet hours.
Every coyote slinking through the grass outside, every odd breath of wind, every creak of the truck turned into something ominous, a worldly or Otherworldly predator creeping up on the truck while we slept. I kept starting awake, expecting to see staring, glinting eyes in a cadaverously thin face under a deep hood, staring in the back window of the canopy. Or worse. Whatever was going on here, I suspected the tweakers were the least of our worries.
Nothing materialized, though. No monsters came out of the night and tried to tear us out of the truck. No meth-heads tried to stab us in our sleep, fitful as it was.
It was not a restful night.
Coldwell was hardly more inviting in daylight than it had been at night. If anything, the light of day just showed the advanced state of decay that much better. It didn’t look like anyone in the town owned a lawnmower, or if they did, they were either completely ignorant or indifferent as to its use. Weeds grew out of control everywhere, and it didn’t look like there was a single house that didn’t have most of its paint peeling off. Windows were broken and maybe repaired with plastic bags. I’m fairly sure that about fifty percent of the cars in the town were up on blocks or just rusting away on flat tires.
At first, the place looked dead, even compared to the night before. There was no one on the streets at all. No cars were moving, and there weren’t even any faces in the windows looking out to see who was driving down the otherwise deserted main drag. It almost looked as if the disquieting encounters of the night before had only been a dream, and we’d rolled into a ghost town, after all.
I parked almost right where we had pulled over next to the motel the night before. The place looked as deserted as the rest of the town, except for the cars and trucks in the parking lot, which hadn’t moved. Not a single curtain stirred. “This is just eerie,” Eryn commented.
The slam of the truck doors echoed loudly across the street. I looked around carefully, scanning for a reaction to the noise, but was greeted by hollow, dark windows and empty doorways. It really seemed like there actually wasn’t anyone around. Either that, or they were watching without revealing themselves.
I’d seen Iraqi villages that were far more welcoming.
I locked the truck, though that wasn’t going to stop determined vandals, and we stepped toward the motel office that Eryn had been shouted out of the previous night.
The door was unlocked, at least, and it wasn’t broken and hanging off its hinges, like more than one abandoned motel I’d been in. There was even a little bell that chimed when the door opened. The office itself had definitely seen better days; the two couches against the wall were faded, stained, and threadbare, the linoleum was bubbled up and worn out in several places, as was the counter top. There was a small service bell on the counter, but nothing else—no hours, services, brochures, nothing. There also was no receptionist. There was the faint sound of what might have been a TV coming from the back. So, the place wasn’t entirely uninhabited.
I held off ringing the bell for the moment; Eryn had found out how they reacted to that. I didn’t feel like sitting on one of the couches; they looked like you could catch something from them. So I leaned against the worn, slightly tacky counter, and waited. Eryn stayed back, keeping away from the door but putting some distance between herself and the counter. I don’t think she liked the idea of talking to the receptionist again.
We must have waited, hearing the faint noise of the TV, but little else, for almost fifteen minutes. I think both of us were getting a little fidgety by the time the receptionist finally came out of the back. She didn’t look that surprised to see us, but just snapped, in a nasally twang, “What you want?”
She was probably in her early fifties, though living in a place like Coldwell she could have been as young as forty. Her hair was a sort of dirty blond, in a sort of half-hearted puffy hairstyle. Her eyes had deep bags under them, and her skin was, well, saggy would probably be the best word. She wasn’t fat, but she looked like gravity was set on pulling her into the ground anyway. There was a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, in defiance of the “No Smoking” sign on the wall beside her.
A glance at Eryn’s tight-lipped expression confirmed for me that this was the same woman who had screamed at her and threatened her the night before. I briefly considered bringing that up. I’m a lot more intimidating than my wife; I stand about six-foot-two, broad-shouldered and kind of gaunt, with an unruly mop of black hair and equally black stubble on my jaw. Eryn had somewhat prevailed on me to look a little bit less like a dangerous drifter, but I still don’t usually look that friendly, as opposed to Eryn, who is small, red-haired, green-eyed, and probably the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
I refrained, however. This probably wasn’t going to be pleasant as it was; there was no reason to turn it into a fight before we had what we needed. Priorities. I reached into my shirt pocket, pulled out the only photo I had of Blake, and showed it to her. “We’re looking for a friend. He said he might be in trouble, and we haven’t been able to contact him. Thought maybe he’d been here.”
She just stared at me coldly for a moment before she reached down, with an exasperated sigh, and picked up her glasses. She was making me mad already. She peered at the picture for a long moment. Then a strange transformation came over her.
She almost seemed to twitch. She blinked rapidly a few times. Then she looked up at me with pure hate in her eyes. “You gotta lotta nerve, comin’ in here like this!” she yelled. “Get out! Get out now, ‘fore I call the cops!”
I didn’t move. I just glared at her and shook my head. “Go ahead,” I said coldly. “The phone’s right there. Somehow I doubt the sheriff’s department is going to be terribly amused if you call them to arrest somebody just asking questions. Last I checked, that still wasn’t a crime in this country.”
“You’ll see!” she shrieked, snatching the phone off its cradle. Apparently, she was nuts enough to think this was actually going to work. “They’ll throw you in a deep, dark hole with the murderers and the child molesters!”
I could see Eryn frowning. I kept my own expression carefully thunderous, but didn’t move. There was definitely something very, very awry here. I just didn’t know what.
The receptionist was screaming into the phone about harassment, robbers, and terrorists now. She wasn’t terribly coherent. I almost doubted if the sheriff’s department—Coldwell was too small for its own police department—would bother to send anybody, or just put it down to somebody being off their meds again.
She slammed down the phone triumphantly. “You better run!” she yelled at us. “They’ll gun you down, yeah, you’ll die in the mud, you scum-sucking…” Her ranting got steadily louder, more profane, and more abusive. I just folded my arms and glowered at her. I could feel Eryn tensing up next to me, and not without good reason. There was no telling when this psycho would go from loud to violent.
Now, it might seem strange that we were standing there, taking this abuse from someone who was clearly not sane and with no intention of telling us what we needed to know. The truth was, if everyone in this benighted town was as unbalanced as the receptionist, there was no way we were going to find Blake by asking questions. I had some burgeoning hope that the county sheriff might actually be sane, and might be able to point us in the right direction.
Far sooner than I expected, there were red and blue flashing lights outside the motel. I stepped back from the door, turning so I was facing both the receptionist and the door, just in case. Eryn followed, her hand hovering nervously near her hip, ready to draw. It was a habit she hadn’t quite broken yet.
The sheriff’s deputies who came through the door didn’t come charging through with their guns up, or even with their hands on them, which was a little surprising, given the racket the receptionist was still putting up, leaning halfway across the counter to spit her bile at us. Under different circumstances, I might even have been a little impressed at the extent of her vocabulary of foul language, but not at the moment.
Both deputies were in uniform and wearing vests. The first one, a short, skinny black guy, shouted down the screeching receptionist with a deep bull-bellow that would have done a drill instructor proud—of course, for all I knew, the guy had been one before he’d been a cop. Nobody’s perfect.
“All right, all right!” he yelled. “We’re here, we’ve got it under control!” The receptionist had now shifted the target of her screaming to the deputies, telling them to make sure all sorts of vile things happened to us. Eryn had gone white, mostly with fury. If she’d been anyone else, I’m not sure she wouldn’t have drawn and shot the receptionist on general principles. The deputy turned to us. “I’ll need you folks to come with me,” he said, a little too loudly, though seemingly only to make himself heard over the torrent of verbal filth coming from the receptionist.
Since both he and his towering partner, who was as brown as leather and looked about fifty, were trying to be polite and ignore the receptionist’s shrieking, I just nodded. I ushered Eryn out in front of me, mainly to shield her from anything the receptionist might take it into her head to throw as we left. Of course, the deputies were right behind us, but I also wanted myself between her and them, too, just in case.
Their cruiser was parked right behind my truck, the lights still flashing. Somehow, it suddenly struck me as a warning to the townspeople to stay away. When we got to the sidewalk, I turned to the two deputies and asked, “So, are we under arrest?”
The black guy, who I now saw had a black name tag that said “Craig” on his vest, just snorted. “What for? Because Psycho Kim started screaming at you? We’d have a county lockup full of truckers and clueless tourists if that was a crime. The only reason we showed up was because we’ve had a cruiser on standby for the last week to come in and rescue anybody lost enough to stumble into this crap-heap of town.” He squinted at me, while his partner, who had the name tag “Tall Bear,” watched the street. He was looking for trouble. I knew the look. “Speaking of which, what brought you here?”
“Looking for somebody,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows. “Somebody who lives here?”
I shook my head. “This was where he said to meet him.” I held out the photo. “You seen him around?”
Craig took the photo, saying, “He’s got pretty bad taste in meeting places, if he told you to meet him in Coldwell.” He frowned at the picture, then handed it to Deputy Tall Bear. “Doesn’t this guy look kinda familiar, Frank?”
Tall Bear took his eyes off the street to look at the picture. He barely gave it a glance. “Yeah, that was the guy who swung through the office about a week and a half ago, asking if there was anything weird going on, disappearances and such,” he said, turning his attention back to the surrounding buildings. As I followed suit, I was starting to see a bit of movement, though no one showed their faces. There were just a few moved curtains, a slightly opened door, that sort of thing. I could feel the eyes on the back of my neck. “He seemed like a decent guy.”
Craig was nodding. “I remember now.” He handed the picture back. “I’m afraid you either got here too late, or he decided he couldn’t keep the appointment,” he told me. “This gentleman left the county two days ago, in quite a hurry.”
“Do you know why?” I asked patiently. I was sure I saw a face dimly pale in the darkness of a broken window across the street.
He shook his head. “He didn’t say. Like I said, he was in a hurry. He did warn us about things getting worse in Coldwell.” He looked around and grimaced. “Boy, he wasn’t wrong about that.”
I frowned, something else he’d said suddenly standing out. Eryn beat me to it, though. “Why have you had a cruiser on standby here for the last week?” she asked. “Has something happened?”
Tall Bear just snorted quietly. Craig shook his head. “Oh yeah, it has,” he said. “Starting about a week ago, violent incidents here went through the roof. So far they’ve mostly been directed at people from out of town, but lacking that, they’ll tear each other’s guts out, too.” He had to be frustrated as hell to be saying this much to a couple of wayward citizens; he didn’t know us or our background, though the fact we were looking for Blake might have loosened him up toward us some. “This place has been a blight for years, but now…I’d just as soon cordon it off and burn it to the ground, and I don’t think the Sheriff is too far behind me.” As if realizing that he may have stepped a little too far, his demeanor changed, and he suddenly got more formal. “Anyway, I’m sorry, but you had to endure that little fit in there for nothing. Your friend’s not here.”
The sense of being watched was getting more and more intense. I wanted off that street. Fortunately, Blake having moved on wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle. “He said that if he wasn’t here, we should get in touch with a Chrystal Meek,” Eryn said. “Does that name sound familiar to you?”
The two deputies shared a glance, then Craig looked back at us. “Yeah, it does,” he said slowly. He took a look around the street, as if suddenly becoming aware of the same oppressive sense of being watched that I’d been feeling for a while. “Why don’t we go somewhere a little less public? You can follow us.” He headed for the cruiser without another word. I looked at Eryn, shrugged, and we went to get in the truck. Maybe we’d finally get some answers.