Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.
Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.
“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.
Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.
All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.
His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.
That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.
This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.
The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.
Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.
“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”
Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.
The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.
Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.
All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.
What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?
To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.
A sudden snap from the forest on his left.
Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.
Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?
He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.
Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.
But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.
Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”
Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”
Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”
Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.
Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.
At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.
The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.
The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.
As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.
It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.
As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.
Beyond the door lay only more blackness.