With the first draft finished, and the pre-order out, here’s the final sample chapter:
I almost bowled Tall Bear over as I slammed out the door, my .45 already in my hand. I didn’t see any of the crowd carrying guns, but I was almost certain that somebody in there would be packing heat. There were certainly enough pipes, chains, and baseball bats in evidence.
I didn’t stop at the door, either. I kept moving toward the truck; my rifle was in there. Sure, I had the 1911, but a pistol is what you use to fight your way to the long gun that you should have had the whole time. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Tall Bear and Craig, Craig’s quarrel with us apparently momentarily forgotten, rushing to the cruiser, where they must have had shotguns or patrol rifles.
Eryn was right behind me, pulling Chrystal along with her with one hand, Chrystal’s shotgun in the other. I spared the girl a glance as I hauled my Winchester ’86 out of the back seat, and saw why my wife had her shotgun. Chrystal was in no condition to fight. Her eyes were wide, she was still hyperventilating, and she was shaking like a leaf. She looked like she was about to puke.
Eryn set her shotgun on the hood and pulled Chrystal down next to the front tire. I kept my eye on the approaching crowd. They looked mad, and more than a little crazy, like they were all hopped up on something. Which they might have been, except I’ve never known even a meth town to all get psychotically high at once and go try to smash somebody. I searched for the tall figure I thought I’d seen in the background, but there was no sign of it. Maybe I’d imagined it.
Of course, in our line of work, it was never a good idea to dismiss anything with, “Oh, I must have imagined it.”
I could hear Eryn talking to Chrystal. “Chrystal, I need you to listen to me, and do exactly what I say. Then you’ll be safe. Do you understand me?” There was no reply, but she must have nodded, because Eryn continued. “I need you to stay right here next to this tire until Jed, or I, or one of the deputies comes and gets you, all right? The tire will protect you if things start to go bad. Don’t move away from it until one of us comes and gets you. You hear me?” Another pause. “It’s going to be all right. We’ll keep you safe.” I saw movement and heard her pick the shotgun up off the hood and check the chamber. Then she racked it. Chrystal had been carrying a shotgun without a round in the chamber. Eryn was too good with guns to pull some Hollywood stunt like racking a loaded shotgun to show she meant business.
Looking out at the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder if my wife’s assessment of the situation wasn’t a little overly optimistic. I’d faced bad odds before, but we had nothing to fall back to except the trailer, and I was under no illusions that it was going to keep out a psycho mob for very long.
For some reason, they weren’t advancing on us very quickly, and I suddenly thought of an old zombie movie, with the zombies slowly shambling toward their prey. But these weren’t zombies, these were very real, armed people, and they were angry.
I leveled my rifle over the hood. Even at a distance, that looks like a big bore when you’re staring down it. I was hoping it would have some deterrent effect, but none of them even missed a step. They kept drifting closer, the same angry muttering never quite becoming intelligible. Now that I could see them, it looked like they were talking to themselves. They weren’t yelling at us, or speaking to each other. They were just speaking, the tones low and angry.
The two deputies now had rifles out and aimed as well, and before I could say anything, Craig spoke up. “All right, that’s far enough!” he yelled, with the same bellow he’d used in the motel. “Break it up and go back to your homes! We have everything under control here!”
Boy, that last part was a lie if ever I heard one.
The crowd didn’t stop. They didn’t slow down. On the plus side, they didn’t speed up, either. They just kind of kept sauntering closer, various blunt instruments dangling from their hands. As I got a better look, it looked like most of their eyes were kind of vacant, just staring into space. Something was manipulating them, somehow. I looked again for the tall thing I’d almost seen.
“Last chance!” Craig yelled. This was getting ridiculous. These people weren’t going to stop. They no longer had the capability.
But I didn’t want to shoot them. I’ve fought people before. I’ve dropped the hammer on a few as a Witch Hunter, too. A lot of the things I’ve fought are malicious, predatory, downright evil. A few of the people I’ve had to kill have been the same. But I know, all too well, the consequences of that trigger break. As soon as that bullet goes home, that’s it. That person has no more chances. No more chances for repentance, no more option for redemption. It’s no small thing.
But sometimes you don’t have a choice. And as an ululating wail went up from the back of the crowd, wordless, eerie, and simply mind-bendingly weird, the front rank lifted their clubs and chains and started to run forward. They didn’t yell, they didn’t scream, they just kept up that angry, unintelligible muttering.
Then there was no more time to hesitate. I put the gold bead on the closest man’s chest and squeezed the trigger.
It briefly occurred to me, just as the trigger broke, that if the deputies decided I’d jumped the gun, I could find myself in trouble when this was all over. But instead of my shot ringing out on its own, it was part of a ragged volley, as all four of us decided we were out of time at once. The other two rifles and the shotgun were almost drowned out by the .45-70’s report. The big slug knocked the man flat on his back with a splash of blood, tangling up several of the people running behind him. Eryn’s blast of buckshot took out the woman a few paces to his right, while the lighter barks of the two deputies ARs tore into a few people off to the left.
I was shooting as fast as I could crank the lever and switch targets, which was pretty fast. A skinny guy with scabs all over his face, dressed in baggy jeans and a filthy white wife-beater ran at us a little faster than the rest, a tire iron held high, and I shot him through the chest. He fell on his face and was trampled by the others coming after him.
I’ve seen mobs before. There had been an Iraqi mob we‘d had to face down in Anbar once, after a kid got run over by a Hummer. They have an ant-like quality, but generally can be reasoned with, or at least enough of the people in the mob can be reasoned with to break it up.
This mob wasn’t like that. It was as if they had no remaining sense of self-preservation at all, no thought in their heads except getting to us and tearing us apart. I was pretty sure that whatever had made that wail was probably controlling them, by some means that I didn’t understand, but I was pretty sure it was nothing good. Anything that takes away free will like that sure doesn’t come from anywhere wholesome. I was praying for mercy with each shot. Whether for the souls of the people I was gunning down or for my own, well…it was a bit of both.
The Winchester ’86 only carries eight rounds in the tube, and while they pack a good punch, those eight rounds went pretty quick. Eryn and I went dry at the same time. I dropped the Winchester on the hood and transitioned to my 1911, while Eryn hastily started shoving shells into her 870’s loading port. The .45 ACP rounds didn’t pack the punch that the bigger .45-70 rifle rounds did, but they still did plenty of damage, and whether they’d lost their sense of self-preservation or not, these were still living people, not zombies. Shoot ’em in the chest, particularly with a .45 hollow point, and they crumple.
But there were just too many of them. Eryn was back up, blasting a rough-looking young woman in a crop-top who was holding a meat cleaver over her head in the face. I quickly swapped magazines in my pistol, shoved it back in the holster, and slammed eight rounds back into the rifle’s loading port as fast as I could make my fingers work. I’ve had a lot of practice, so it didn’t take long, but by the time I was back up, the mob had almost reached the vehicles.
Now, we hadn’t set the truck and the cruiser up to form a defensive line. And even if we had, I wasn’t sure it would have taken them long to clamber over it and beat or hack us to death. As it was, they just had to run around the flanks and we were done.
The trailer still wasn’t an option; it wouldn’t last long. So I yelled at Craig and Tall Bear, in between thunderous rifle shots and shotgun blasts, “Get over here and get in the truck! If we stay here, we’re dead!”
Craig hesitated. I don’t know if it was worry about getting in a civilian truck and abandoning his cruiser, or if for some unknown reason he still had some kind of grudge building up related to Chrystal, but before he could say anything, Tall Bear had a fistful of his shirt and was hauling him across the gap to the truck.
I kept shooting, the tooth-rattling booms of the rifle echoing across the campground and drowning out the weird muttering that hadn’t changed a bit as the mob had charged. Now I wasn’t sure they were even making the sound, or just mouthing along with it. “Get in!” I yelled at Eryn. “You’re driving!” I didn’t want to let up on the covering fire until the rest of them were in the cab.
Eryn tossed her shotgun in the cab, grabbed Chrystal off the ground, shoved her in the back of the cab, sort of on top of a couple of the go bags we kept back there, then jumped in the front, scooting along the seat to the driver’s side, starting the engine with a roar before she had even stopped moving. It put her closer to the mob, but at least I could sort of whittle it down as it approached. Suppressing it wasn’t happening.
Tall Bear shoved Craig in the back after Chrystal, and the two of them got kind of tangled up even as the big deputy squashed them against the door as he squeezed his own bulk inside, yelling at me, “Last man!”
I took one last shot, laying out a fat man in a mechanic’s coverall, and piled in the passenger seat, yanking the door shut even as Eryn threw the truck in gear and mashed the accelerator, cranking the wheel over. My truck didn’t have the shortest turning radius, but she was able to make the turn without hitting a tree or the cruiser, and got us pointed at the mob. Without pausing to give any of the ones close enough a chance to swing a weapon at either hood or windows, she gunned the engine again, and sent us surging into the crowd.
Now, we didn’t exactly have much momentum, and the mob was pretty closely packed, leading me to wonder how some of them waving around various edged weapons hadn’t managed to slice each other to ribbons yet, but that F250 was a big truck, with plenty of power. I don’t care how closely packed the mob is; it’s still flesh and bone against three tons of steel being pushed by two hundred fifty horsepower. The truck is going to win. It won’t be pretty, but it will win.
The truck shuddered as it plowed through the human barrier, bouncing over bodies that went down under the tires and batting others aside as Eryn held down the accelerator. Bones were crushed and bodies pulped, but in moments we were clear and accelerating down the road toward the town.
I watched out the window, looking for any sign of the tall, slightly hunched figure I’d thought I’d seen before, but it had vanished. Trees sped past as Eryn spun up the big diesel with a roar.
Of course, it couldn’t be that easy. While it looked like most of the town had come out to try to tear us apart, we could see smoke ahead even as we got clear of the campground. It boiled toward the morning sky, thick, black, and ugly. And, just from looking at where it was rising into the air, I was sure it was actually on the road we were presently hurtling down.
I was right. There were two cars and a van mashed up on the road and burning, belching the thick smoke into the air above an angry orange blaze. The woods on either side came right up to the road, and there simply wasn’t room for the truck. Eryn slowed as we approached, and finally brought us to a stop as it became evident that there was no way around or through the flaming barrier.
“Well, crap,” I said. I twisted around to look past the two deputies. The mob was already starting to follow us; the first figures were jogging around the curve that had hidden the fires from us to begin with.
If I lost this truck to a mob, I was going to get mad. I’d lost its predecessor to some kind of conjured toad-demon thing in Silverton. But the truck was stationary, it wasn’t going off-road in those woods, and we couldn’t afford to sit still. “Everybody out!” I yelled. “Into the woods!” I glanced at Tall Bear as I suited words to actions and piled out the door, dragging my rifle and my bandolier with me. “I sure hope you guys called for backup.”
“We did,” he said, as he followed, “but it’s going to be another half hour before it gets here.” He leveled his M4 at the approaching mob and ripped off about five rounds. They weren’t particularly aimed, but he was just trying to suppress them, a habit that I was afraid wasn’t going to do anything but waste ammo in this situation. And in fact, I was right, as the lead runner, a machete in his hand, didn’t even break stride. I aimed and dropped him with a single shot, shoving another round into the loading port as the rest ran off the side of the road behind me. Eryn wasn’t shooting, as she had a hand on Chrystal’s arm, steering her through the trees, but the two deputies were putting up some decent fire.
Of course, they really weren’t accomplishing much. While a few of our attackers were going down, the deputies were still trying to suppress people who were no longer capable of being suppressed. I took careful, aimed shots, for the twin reasons of knowing that there was no way to scare them into leaving us alone, and with only eight rounds in the tube and a loading port instead of a magazine well, I had to make every shot count. I didn’t have the firepower to spray it indiscriminately.
For some reason, our pursuers weren’t speeding up as we booked it away into the woods. They kept to the same easygoing jog, although it looks a lot less easygoing when the person in question is staring vacantly at you and wielding something that would hurt a whole lot if they hit you with it. It made me suspect that whatever was controlling them either had some pretty narrow capabilities, or didn’t have a lot of imagination.
It meant that now that we weren’t sitting there with our backs to the wall waiting for them, we could keep some useful distance between us and them. Unfortunately, we were going to tire eventually, and I had a feeling that they’d be forced by whatever was compelling them to this psychotic behavior to keep after us long after they were physically ready to drop from exhaustion.
Another burly guy with a shaved head and tattoos crawling up his neck started closing the distance, so I turned, took a moment to steady my aim, and blasted him, working the lever as the big rifle came down from recoil. He was down flat and not moving. I turned and ran after the rest, shoving another round into the loading port as I went.
The woods followed the river, which skirted the south side of Coldwell, between the town and the freeway. The trees were mostly aspens and birches, and there was a fair amount of undergrowth, but nothing so thick that it would particularly slow us down. A few deadfalls loomed up in front of us, and we had to divert around them, but most of the bushes were easily pushed through. The biggest obstacle before we got to the road was a big blowdown that went clear into the water. There must have been fifteen trees that had gotten caught up in the tangle of trunks and branches. We weren’t far from the road at that point; I could see the bridge up ahead, past the gray tangle of branches. I stopped and turned as Eryn led the way to find a path around the blowdown. The mob was still after us. I could see too many glimpses of them through the trees and the brush. The deadfalls and the bushes weren’t slowing them down. I brought my rifle to my shoulder, searching for the clearest target.
Craig was ripping through another mag next to me, but Tall Bear had slowed down his shots, apparently having come to the same conclusions about our pursuers that I had. He was waiting for a good shot before taking it. When Craig reloaded before either of us had fired, with a shout of, “Last mag!” the wisdom of that course of action became apparent. I still had over two thirds of my bandolier left.
Tall Bear and I fired at almost the same instant, and I think we both shot the same guy. The concentration-camp skinny meth head flopped over backwards as he was hit.
“Come on!” Eryn yelled. She had found a way past the blowdown, and was standing there with her shotgun in her shoulder. I started toward her, pushing Craig along. He didn’t appreciate it, but this was no place for a last stand. Tall Bear just took another shot and followed right behind me. I could hear his pounding footsteps at my back.
It took me a second, between the noise we were making thrashing through the brush, the angry muttering of the crowd that was still reaching us even through the trees, the breath rasping in my own throat, and of course the occasional gunshot, but I realized I could hear something else—sirens. The cavalry was on the way.
The road was well banked up, as it approached the river and the rest of the ground dropped down toward the rocky channel. It was a scramble up through bushes and fallen leaves, but in moments we were up on the road. The sirens were getting louder, but the cruisers sounding them weren’t visible yet.
From the road, Tall Bear and I turned and looked back. We’d managed to open up almost a hundred yards between us and the mob. “How are you on ammo?” I asked the big deputy.
He didn’t even look. “Two mags left,” he replied. He was in better shape than Craig, who was down in the prone on the other side of the road. It still wasn’t going to be enough.
I shook my head. “Killing these people isn’t accomplishing anything,” I said. “We’ve got to find what triggered this and deal with it.”
He squeezed off another pair of shots. “If you’ve got some idea of how to do that, I’m open to suggestions,” he said.
I couldn’t be sure, but it looked a little like our pursuers had actually started to pick up the pace a little. Or maybe that was because we were now stationary at the road. A lanky teenager with shaggy brown hair, a thick-waisted blond woman, and another emaciated, wild-eyed meth-head came charging out of the trees. I dropped the meth-head first, worked the lever, and turned to the teenager. Tall Bear was pumping round after round into the ax-wielding woman, but she staggered another ten yards before she dropped.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t go after whatever was driving the mob without disengaging from the mob in the first place, and that wasn’t looking too likely. We’d killed or disabled a lot of them, but there still had to be close to a hundred coming after us. It was as if the whole town had emptied out to try to tear us apart.
The terrain was deceptive; while it looked like it would take a long time for the sheriff’s cars to get to us, they came screaming around the bend not even five hundred yards away, and roared toward us, blue lights flashing. They came to a screeching halt right next to us, having apparently noticed the two deputies and two civilians shooting into the trees and figuring that this must have something to do with the call.
I, admittedly, didn’t see much beyond the lights coming up on us. I was a little focused on the horde of druggies and semi-normal people trying to tear us to pieces. Under any other circumstances, I’d have expected to be knocked down on the ground with my arms wrenched behind my back and be facing some serious charges. But the newcomers, seeing the deputies shooting alongside us instead of at us, made the leap and came charging out of their vehicles, rifles, pistols, and at least one shotgun leveled. The knot of weapon-wielding, vacant-eyed madmen who came out of the trees next was met with a thunderous volley of fire that knocked ten of them flat in a second.
And just like that, it was over. There were still people in the trees, but they’d stopped their strange, tireless jog and collapsed where they were, aside from a few who caught themselves against tree trunks and stood there, clinging to the bark, gasping. A couple of them fell to their knees and vomited.
I’ve got to hand it to the deputies; their fire discipline was excellent. As soon as the people stopped charging forward, they stopped shooting. I was momentarily glad it was over, for no other reason than the fact that I was down to about twenty rounds left, all told. I almost immediately felt a little guilty about the sentiment; there were a lot of people dead, who probably hadn’t had any idea of what they had been doing.
In fact, even as I lowered my gently smoking muzzle, several of the nearest, who had collapsed to their hands and knees in exhaustion, started to look around them, almost as if waking up from a dream. The hatchet-faced, skinny brown-haired woman, wearing shorts and an oversize t-shirt, suddenly realized she was clutching a butcher knife in her hand. Dropping it, confused, she looked around, and began to see the carnage around her. She just stared for a moment, then started to shake. Then she put her hands to her head, her hair bunching beneath her palms, and started to scream. She wasn’t the only one. Even the rougher-looking customers weren’t doing too hot. One dude who looked like the very image of a Hell’s Angel, complete with studded black leather vest and forked goatee, was soon howling himself hoarse with horror at what had just happened.
“What in the hell happened here?” a loud voice demanded. I looked back to see a tall, barrel-chested man with white hair and slightly squinted eyes above a square jaw. While his uniform was exactly the same as Craig’s and Tall Bear’s, I picked him out as the Sheriff himself. He stood on the edge of the road, an AR held in large, meaty hands, and surveyed the scene with a mix of horror and weariness on his face.
“It looks like Coldwell finally went ax-murderer crazy, Sheriff,” Tall Bear said grimly, as he reloaded.
The big man shook his head. “I always expected something bad to happen, but I sure didn’t figure the whole town would go psycho.” He looked at me, as if seeing the tall, spare man in civilian clothing with a rifle for the first time. “Who are you? Did you have something to do with this?”
“In a manner of speaking, I guess you could say they did,” Tall Bear put in before I could say anything. I’d started to respond, but subsided when the big deputy started talking. He knew his boss, and after what had just happened, I was generally inclined to trust the man. “The town turned out as a bloodthirsty mob specifically to kill these two, and possibly Miss Meek, as well.” The Sheriff looked around to see who the other person was he was talking about, and saw Eryn, her red hair slightly disheveled, a shotgun under one arm and supporting Chrystal with the other, coming across the road toward us. He frowned.
“What did you do to make the whole town come out for your heads?” he asked. “That just doesn’t happen, even in someplace as screwed up as Coldwell.”
“They didn’t do anything but ask a few questions about a friend of theirs, that out-of-towner who came through asking a bunch of questions of his own about a week ago,” Tall Bear said. “We were here for most of it. Apparently, the questions they asked weren’t the right ones for Coldwell.”
The massive Sheriff was squinting at me. “Well, mister?” he asked. “You got a voice, or is Deputy Tall Bear going to do all your talking for you? I’ve got what looks like a truckload of dead people and now a report of some mighty strange behavior. You got any explanation?”
“Not yet,” I answered honestly. When I didn’t elaborate, he frowned harder.
“I don’t think you quite get it, son,” he rumbled. “This isn’t just idle curiosity. I’ve got to have answers for what just happened here. I will have answers. So if you know something, you’d best spit it out. Now.”
I hadn’t been disarmed, but I kept my Winchester very carefully aimed at the dirt as I took a deep breath. I glanced at Eryn. She just nodded fractionally, still supporting Chrystal, whose head was hanging down, her shoulders shaking as she wept silently. I looked the Sheriff in the eye. “I’ll be honest with you, Sheriff, I don’t know much of anything. I might have a couple of suspicions, but I can’t confirm them until I go back there in the trees and poke around a little. And even if I find anything, well…you might not believe it.”
He just stared at me stonily for a long moment. “You might be surprised at some of what I might find believable, mister,” he said. I could tell he was trying to decide whether to play along or just throw us in the clink until he figured out what to do. But he waved his hand toward the woods and said, “Lead on. Let’s see if we can find something that might explain this.”
When I looked back at Eryn, she looked at Chrystal and said, “I think I’d better stay here with her for the moment.” I nodded and looked at the Sheriff questioningly. He thought for a second, then grudgingly nodded as well. His deputies would be able to keep an eye on her while I went into the woods with him.
As we started down the embankment, Tall Bear joined us. The Sheriff looked at him, and Tall Bear just shrugged. “I just had to kill a lot of people,” he said. “I’d like to know why.”
We passed the nearest bodies, and started threading our way through the shattered survivors. I was keeping an eye out, but was generally heading for where I thought I’d seen that unnaturally tall figure, just as everything went pear-shaped. It was the only lead we had.
It seemed like a lot longer distance, when we weren’t running for our lives. We came to the burning vehicles that had blocked the road. They were still fully involved, with flames starting to lick through the undergrowth and up several of the trees. I could hear the deeper, harsher note of fire engine sirens in the distance; hopefully they’d get here in time before this little barricade turned into a forest fire. My truck was still sitting there, the doors open, far enough from the flames that the paint wasn’t even going to be scorched as long as the fire got put out soon. A cursory glance showed that it hadn’t been touched. Everything was still where it had been.
I frowned. My theory that the townspeople had been under some sort of compulsion was getting stronger. A riot or a simple mob probably would have trashed it, maybe even set it on fire. I was quietly glad that they hadn’t. I didn’t want to have to try to find another truck. I immediately felt guilty for the thought, given the number of bodies we’d stacked in the woods.
Given the stress we’d been under at the time, I hadn’t really pinpointed where exactly I’d seen the thing, if I’d even seen it at all. I had to look around. I was pretty sure that it had been on the river side of the campground, so I started there. The ground was pretty torn up; footprints were everywhere, and crowding each other into illegibility. I didn’t see anything in particular that looked like a monster footprint, but if the thing was the kind that could get into a few hundred people’s heads and turn them into bloodthirsty pseudo-zombies, it might not be the kind that left discernible footprints, either.
Tall Bear was looking just as intently as I was, and I noticed. “Did you see something?” I asked him.
He frowned, still studying the surrounding trees. “I don’t know. I think I did, but there was a lot going on. I might have imagined it, but I don’t think I did.” He glanced at the Sheriff, who was watching and listening without appearing to, and added quietly, “It was weird, if I did see it.”
I nodded. “Yep. That’s why I told Sheriff…”
“Baker,” Tall Bear supplied helpfully.
“…Sheriff Baker that he might not believe me if I found anything,” I finished. “If I’m right, there is some very weird stuff going on here.”
I still couldn’t find any marks, footprints or otherwise. That alone was starting to make me nervous all over again. Even some of the more powerful denizens of the Otherworld often need to use glyphs or sigils to have the kind of unnatural effect that the people of Coldwell had been under. The fact that whatever this was apparently hadn’t was…disturbing.
There was something, though. As I stepped next to a tree, I got a sudden feeling of dread, like I imagine a mouse feels when a rattler is watching it. I held up my hand and froze. Both the Sheriff and his deputy followed suit. I scanned the trees, but I couldn’t see anything, just the shadows and the growing murk as the smoke from the burning cars filled the woods. The thing could be just hiding behind one of those sooty black clouds, watching. It sure felt like it.
Sheriff Baker had his AR held at the low ready as he looked around, squinting against the growing sting of the smoke. I was looking from tree to tree, but if the thing was moving, it was well disguised by the movement of the smoke. I couldn’t get any sense of direction, like you can sometimes tell that there’s something behind you (a lot of times there really is, you just can’t turn around fast enough to see it—be glad of that fact). There was just this oppressive sense of being watched by something big, powerful, and predatory. “I think we should get out of here,” the Sheriff said carefully. “Right now.”
“You feel it, too?” Tall Bear asked.
“Yeah, I do,” was the clipped reply. “And we are not in an advantageous position right now. Let’s move.” He didn’t take his eyes off the trees and the smoke, but his next words were clearly aimed at me. “I think I’ll be taking your word for it, mister. And we need a lot more manpower. Let’s go.” Suiting actions to words, he started moving back in the direction of my truck and the burning cars. Tall Bear and I weren’t going to argue. The threatening feeling of the campground was only getting worse as the smoke billowed thicker. Two fire trucks were already at the burning barricade, dousing the fire, but that just added steam to the black smoke, making it just as hard to breathe, and leaving more gloom for the thing to get closer. By the time we got up to the road by the fire trucks, I was already imagining all kinds of toothy Otherworldly predators drifting closer like Jaws. But it didn’t show itself.
After another ten yards, the threatening feeling disappeared. I stopped and looked back. That was weird. I glanced at the other two. They were also looking around quizzically. Both had felt it, too. I took a step back the way we’d come, back toward the campground. The feeling didn’t come back. Another step. Still nothing.
“What are you doing?” Baker asked quietly.
“Checking on something,” I replied, as I carefully, slowly made my way back toward the campground.
I got all the way back. The oppressive sense of being watched by something ancient and malevolent did not return. I looked back over my shoulder. Both Baker and Tall Bear had followed me, either similarly curious or determined that the crazy civilian with the lever action rifle didn’t get into any more trouble and/or get eaten. “I think it’s gone,” I said.
“You may be right,” Baker said. “But I’m not taking the chance with only three guns. Come on.”
When we finally got back to the sheriff’s department vehicles, where the deputies had the remaining members of the mob restrained and face-down on the pavement, and were checking the bodies to make sure there wasn’t anyone who still might need medical attention, I had even more questions than I’d had going in there. And I wasn’t the only one.
“Do you have any idea what was back there?” Baker asked me, standing next to his vehicle. I couldn’t help but notice that Tall Bear was the only other deputy within earshot. Craig was still hovering near Eryn and Chrystal, neither of whom were paying him much mind. Eryn was trying to talk to Chrystal, but kept glancing over at the three of us.
I shook my head. “I really don’t,” I replied.
He squinted at me. He looked like he squinted a lot, but this was a little more intense. “I’ll come clean with you, mister. I’ve been a cop in some capacity for twenty-five years. Probably ninety percent of the crazy, messed-up stuff I’ve seen has been due entirely to drugs, violence, or just plain stupidity. But that other ten percent…I’ve seen stuff I can’t ever explain. So has every cop who’s been at it long enough. I was a beat cop in Seattle and had to fight a guy who was no kidding possessed. Took six big cops, two the size of linebackers, to restrain him. Couldn’t hurt him no matter how hard we hit him. I’ve seen other stuff I can’t even begin to describe. So I’ve got a bit of a sense for when things are off-kilter. And this is about as off-kilter as it gets.
“Those people weren’t just a mob; they were after you five. And whatever that thing back in the smoke was, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t human. And I’m getting an idea that you know a little bit of what I’m talking about.”
With a deep breath, I nodded. This part was always awkward, which was why I preferred to get the work done and leave. “I do. This kind of thing is our job.” I waved to indicate Eryn. “But I still don’t know what that was back there.”
“Do you have any idea whatsoever as to what’s going on here?” he asked. “Because I’ve got a whole town gone crazy, lots of dead people, and no explanation. None.”
“We’re as much in the dark as you are, Sheriff,” I admitted. “All we knew, coming here, was that a friend of mine is in trouble. When we couldn’t find him here, we were supposed to find Chrystal Meek. Well, we found her, and then all hell broke loose.”
He eyed me. “Your friend in the same business?”
“Yeah, he is,” I said. No point in denying it. “So yes, the fact that there’s some Otherworldly weirdness going on here isn’t all that surprising. I just have no idea exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Baker nodded toward Chrystal. “Does she know?”
“We haven’t really had time to find out,” Tall Bear put in. “We’d barely gotten to her trailer when the mob showed up.”
“Well, then, let’s go talk to her.” Without another word, Baker stalked over to Eryn and Chrystal. Tall Bear and I followed. “Miss Meek?” Baker asked, crouching down to bring himself face to face with her. “I’m Sheriff Baker. I know you’ve been through a lot, but I’ve got some questions.”