HOWLERS

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the killing resumes...

By 9:32 a.m. Gail and Olivia were back at the sheriff’s office in Derby Cross, waiting on Sheriff Whaley to finish his phone conversation with Eugene over at the morgue.

“I’m gonna take Ms. Stevens and Ms. Scott over to th....no, you can’t come too, Eugene, just wait for my call t’ come n’ pick up the bodies after we’re done. No, Eu...you ain’t gonna...damn it, boy, will ya listen? Just sit tight ‘til I call, or I’ll bring y’ in for obstruction, and piss on what yer mama thinks about it, alright? Thank you!”

He dropped the phone down onto the hook with frustration, rubbing the balding spot on the back of his head.

“That kid is on my last nerve, Judy. I swear to Christ, if he wasn’t my sister’s kid, I wear him out! Why the hell does Bill keep him on over there?”

Officer Judy popped her head up from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet she had been rifling through and smiled at the sheriff, shrugging her little round shoulders then going back to flipping through files.

“Lotta help you are,” said Sheriff Whaley, stifling a laugh. After dealing with Eugene Travers, he needed a little giggle at the least.

“Well, ladies, let’s load up and uh...head out. Gotta get this wrapped up before Eugene wets himself. If ya ask me, he takes entirely too much pleasure in his work. Him havin’ a schoolboy crush on you two,” He gestured to Gail and Olivia in turn with his hat as he picked it up off the counter, “don’t help things today at all. Now then, shall we?”

The two women glanced at each other, both with a slightly amused, slightly baffled expression, then nodded to the sheriff and headed for the door.

“Looks like you’ve got yourself a boyfriend,” Olivia whispered derisively, pointing at Gail with a twirling finger. Gail twirled a finger back at Olivia; the middle one, to be exact.

Now the trio found themselves on another road winding endlessly uphill into the trees, changing from pavement to gravel to dirt as they left civilization farther behind. This time they seemed to be traveling a more longitudinal path than the trip to Gryder’s Cove, as if going around the massive ridge instead of straight up. Olivia spent most of the trip gazing at the overcast sky, staying inside her head and riding quietly. Gail tried her best to distract herself from her nightmare and the plans she had been making since that night by asking the sheriff about anything and everything she could about the area: farms, landmarks, the local families, whatever she could squeeze out of him.

“Y’know, Barnett James is more of an authority on the hist’ry ‘round here. Maybe y’ oughtta go see him again,” said Sheriff Whaley, trying to sound helpful and hopefully change the subject of ‘how long people around here had known about the Gryder family and why nobody ever tried to do anything about them.’ So far, she had learned that Barnett knew so much about the supernatural goings-on and Elsie Gryder because nobody else dared delve too deeply into the subjects, and that was about it for that. She decided that perhaps it was a better idea to discuss the site at which they would arrive in only a few minutes.

“Well, from what my deputies tell me, it looks a lot like the same thing happened to these folks that happened to them kids up in Gryder’s Cove. Two old couples this time, though. Pro’lly lookin’ for some free campin’ is all. See, for the longest time, outsiders been comin’ up here for that very reason. Bikers, RV types, teenagers, all kinds o’ folks over the years. Problem with that is that all this land here is owned by some family or another, and none of ‘em take to strangers trashin’ their property. Damn bikers are the worst ones.”

“Bikers like my dad, you mean?” Gail asked, raising an eyebrow and looking Sheriff Whaley right in the eye.

“No, no, now don’t take offense, ma’am. I’m sure yer daddy’s an alright guy ’n all. I mean like the ones they call ‘1%ers’ or whatever. Patched-in, bona fide outlaw types. Throwin’ beer cans, condoms, cigarette packs ever’where, fu...umm, havin’ relations right out in the open. Barnett’s older brother Mason caught a bunch of ’em all bowed up ‘n goin’ at it in his hayloft back in the summer of ’78. Come to think of it, he caught ‘em doin’ that in ’79....then ‘82.....anyway, point is, folks up here don’t want their land messed with, and this is the kinda thing that happens when somebody goes assin’ around up here in these hills.”

As Sheriff Whaley spoke those last words, he pulled up between his deputy’s blue-and-white SUV and a huge, white older model RV with two wide stripes down the sides in different shades of brown. Deputy Kenneth Hicks was standing at its front bumper scribbling in a notepad. The visible side of it looked as though someone had connected a fire hose to a tank of blood and blasted it from wheel to wheel. Right next to it, two matching green lawn chairs and two yellow ones sat splattered with blood. Small chunks and strips of flesh hung from the woven seats like red, gooey tinsel on a Christmas tree.

From the back seat, Olivia could be heard stifling herself, trying not to gag and busying herself with her camera in an effort to see anything but the gruesome spectacle they had come to see until she absolutely had to. Gail’s professional veneer slipped yet again when she absently muttered, ’God, that’s fucked up!′ It wasn’t quite as ‘under her breath’ as she meant it to be. From the SUV, it looked like there was a lot less remaining of these people than the kids from Gryder’s Cove. None of the three made any immediate move to get out and approach the scene, but it was the sheriff who finally decided to initiate some kind of action. He unbuckled his seat belt, zipped his jacket, then opened his door.

“Ladies, if you will,” he said in a serious voice, gesturing toward the bloody scene, “Better get this done quick. We’d like t’ keep the state police outta this until it becomes absolutely necessary, and somebody’s bound t’ call ’em if they see this shit.”

The three eased out of the vehicle and walked toward the deputy as if treading thin ice, each trying not to make their apprehension obvious. Once they were standing in the midst of the campers’ remains, it was clear that the scene wasn’t as it appeared to be before; it was dreadfully, horribly worse. Strips and wads of fabric that must have once been clothes were stiff with dried blood and littered the area. There was barely a solid piece of flesh to investigate for bites or claw marks. Shards of skulls and loose teeth were strewn all over the campsite, and when Gail absently stepped on an eyeball, Olivia just happened to be looking as it burst and spewed glop across a clump of grass, clinging to the blades. She barely had time to utter a few choice words of disgust before she quickly turned and bent over to throw up.

“PPFFTT!! Gail..uh....,” Olivia grunted as she spat, “watch where you’re walkin’, huh? Oh, good, got some on my $1200 camera. I was hoping I wouldn’t miss it this time.”

Gail looked puzzled a second, then lifted her foot, turning the sole of her hiker upward to reveal the popped eyeball stuck in the tread.

“GAH!! Shit! What the hell?” she gagged as she tried to shake it loose, but nothing doing. She employed a small stick to pry it out, which was more difficult than it should have been because she wasn’t looking the whole time. After dislodging the smashed eye, Gail tensed up and shivered all over. In her repulsion, she had bent over, hands on her knees and turned her head away from the burst eyeball on the ground and toward the RV. There she saw what might be the only scrap of tangible evidence: a torn, bloody torso, void of internal organs with large chunks of skin and muscle missing in various places.

“Sheriff Whaley! Over here!” she called. The sheriff and Deputy Hicks were dragging another victim’s remains from the bushes on the other side of the RV.

“I’m a little busy here, Ms. Stevens,” Sheriff Whaley grunted as he and the deputy pulled the remnant of the body free of its entanglement by the scrap of a shirt wrapped around it and the leg that was still attached and dropped it on the ground. Olivia had managed to steady herself and take a few shots of the area, snapping several of the sheriff’s find before going over to see what Gail had discovered.

“Wow. Jesus. So that’s what, two more unaccounted for, right?” Olivia asked Gail, trying not to breath the stench of death in too deeply.

“Yeah, I think so. The sheriff said two couples, right? God, this is.....fucking.....crazy! This is why I can’t let that old witch get that board back.”

Gail’s eyes welled up. The realization of just how huge this thing was becoming and how much bigger it could get had just sunk in, and it was a great deal to process. Olivia reached out and put her hand on Gail’s shoulder.

“We’ll get through this, I promise. I’m with you no matter what, ok?”

Gail nodded, breathed in deeply, and exhaled slowly, trying to smile at her best friend with sincerity, but she was still knotted up inside in ways she couldn’t describe.

Back to work, that’s the best thing right now.

“Get a few more shots here, ok? We have to have something to send to Joel so he’ll let us stay. I’m gonna go check out the body they just found.”

Gail headed for the other body as Olivia took close-ups of the gore-laden lawn chairs and tried not to gag. She made notes on her tablet and went through the entire pretense of doing her job in the most professional manner, saving the files separately from everything else she had recorded from the other cases, trying her best to go through the motions and make it look good. In truth, all the craziness was getting to her. It really was. She decided to wrap things up and get out of there as soon as humanly possible without revealing the fact that anxiety was welling up inside of her and about to pour out uncontrollably.

“Liv...Liv! Let’s get back, huh?”

Olivia turned quickly away from the RV and began putting her camera away, relieved that it was finally over. The sheriff was already standing beside his vehicle, talking with Deputy Hicks and making the last of his own notes.

“Ladies, if you’re ready, we’ll head on back,” said Sheriff Whaley, “Better getcha outta here ’fore Eugene shows up. We’ll never get outta here then.”

“Thanks, Sheriff. Yeah, we uh...we need to get back and send off this new data.”

Unconvincing yet transparent. Way to go, dipshit.

“Let’s get goin’ then. Kenny, stick around ‘til Eugene gets here an’ give him a hand, alright?”

Deputy Hicks nodded and waved, then reached into his car and pulled out a book, which he opened and began to read while sitting on the hood of his car. Sheriff Whaley pulled away and they headed back to town. The ride was long and quiet, everyone still trying to get their minds wrapped around what they just saw. It was especially trying for Gail, knowing what she did about what was really going on here. What was it like, she wondered, to be clueless about the reality of these killings, like Sheriff Whaley, and not know they were the handiwork of a dead witch to whom you promised to deliver an immensely powerful supernatural weapon in return for your own safety.

Safety. ….

Was there any such thing here in these hills, in these trees, in her own head? God, please, let it be somewhere.

“I can’t do it, Liv...I can’t...”

Olivia turned her attention away from her laptop and looked at her friend inquisitively.

“Were we, um...talking and I didn’t notice orrrr...what?”

Gail hadn’t said a word since they got back to their room. She had been sitting on her bed, head in her hands, staring off into nothing for a couple of hours now. She hadn’t even bothered changing into her comfortable clothes as she always did whenever the day’s work was done.

“These people, the animals, it isn’t gonna stop even if I give that board back. Fuck, especially if I give it back. There has to be a way to stop her, there just has to be. I have to talk Barnett again, or...”

Gail looked up, tears beginning to fill her eyes as she took in a slow, calming breath.

“No, Gail! No!” Olivia said firmly, “You can not use that thing again! Who knows what’ll happen this time?”

“I might find answers!” snapped Gail, losing herself for just a moment.

“You might find your death or worse!” Olivia shot back, feeling a little betrayed by Gail’s need to buck common sense, “That thing is evil, nothing but evil, and you know it.”

“The voice I told you about, the one that came from the board that night, it belonged to someone who knew something about all this when he was alive, and I need to know what that is!”

Olivia sighed heavily, brushing her hair back behind her right ear.

“Just be careful, alright? Do you want me to be there when you do this?”

Gail smiled weakly, looking over at Olivia and wiping her eyes.

“I don’t wanna put you in danger, too. Like you said, no telling what might happen.”

“Doesn’t matter. If you need me, I’m in.”

Olivia got up and walked over to Gail’s bed and put her forehead against her friend’s, then kissed it gently as she sat on the bed beside her. Gail wrapped her arms around Olivia and held tightly, trying not to cry again.

“Thank you, sweetie. I love you so much, you know that?”

“I know. I love you too, babe, even if you are a crazy bitch.”

Gail burst out laughing; a long, deep, much-needed laugh from way down within her being. She smacked Olivia on her shoulder and sniffled.

“Fuck you!” she giggled, continuing to collect herself, “Let’s turn in early, huh? Today was just...God...”

“Absolutely,” Olivia agreed, “I won’t lie, I’m ready for this one to be over.”

Within a half hour of taking her meds and turning out the light, it was, and she was sound asleep in no time. However, just before slipping off to sleep herself, Gail was turning things over in her mind.

What if I just give it back? Can I risk my daddy’s life like this, toying with the idea of trying to destroy something I know nothing about?

Soon, though, the day’s events began to wear on her, and she eased off into a dream of riding with her father on his Harley, the breeze in her hair (because there are no helmet laws in her dream world) , the pipes rumbling a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm straight from Rick Stevens’ album collection she so dearly loved, a bright blue sky overhead that slowly began to turn grayer and grayer, clouding over and growing chillier as the bike sped along a road that now wound around and around a steep mountain, headed ever downward, until finally the bike slid to a stop under a dead tree standing out in the open in the middle of nowhere. The scent of rain teased at her nostrils, but was almost choked out by the smell of the red earth and....yes, that was a tinge of death that clung to the strengthening winds.

“Pop? Where are we? Pop?”

Her voice seemed to come from somewhere right outside her head. The rider who was once Rick Stevens now sat stone-still and in an unearthly voice, instructed her to dismount. She was too scared to ask questions or even attempt to look at his face. She eased out from behind him, dismounted, and backed up quietly until she stood under the tree. With a twist of the throttle, the mysterious rider roared off across the dry, cracked red clay underfoot and disappeared into the darkening horizon.

The black clouds seemed miles away, but tumbled and roared in the distance, coming slowly closer, lightning jumping from one to another from beneath and above them. Everything was still and quiet, not another sound to be heard except the growing storm in the distance, and Gail was looking around for some sign of life, some sign of anything. About a hundred yards away, something caught her eye: a small black shape slipping out of a patch of shrubbery and moving in her direction. After a few seconds, she noticed it seemed to be an animal of some kind, maybe a dog...yes, definitely a dog, dark fur, medium-sized, maybe a Lab. It began to trot along at a quicker pace, and Gail began to feel a little more tense. As it approached, it was gaining size, and not the way things get bigger as they get closer. This black dog was getting bigger and bigger, and the closer it came, the faster it ran, until Gail could clearly see its angry red eyes were focused right on her, jaws frothing as it bared huge yellow fangs. She backed up against the tree, desperately scanning the ground around her for a stout limb, a broken bottle, anything at all, but when she looked up, it was too late. The dog was almost as big as a horse by now, both it and the thunder growling and snarling as it leapt for her throat. The lightning flashed a bluish-white and thunder once again pounded the sky like dynamite as she blindly swung a fist and screamed, eyes closed, slamming right into nothing......

Gail opened her eyes, throwing glances in all directions, but the beast was gone. She turned around and looked up and down the tree, behind it and in its sparse canopy. Still the storm raged over the far-off hills as she stared into the branches. Suddenly, that feeling came over her...that feeling you get when you know someone is behind you. In the stillness, she could hear footsteps; slow, plodding footsteps drawing closer,and the unmistakable sound of chains. There was also the distinct sound of something being dragged through the dirt and rocks, something awfully heavy. Slowly she turned, trying not to cry or close her eyes, and sure enough someone was approaching, following the same path the black dog had taken.

For the first time since she arrived wherever she was, the storm on the horizon began a noticeable advance toward where Gail stood. Lightning crashed, and the trudging figure disappeared and rematerialized several yards ahead of the spot where he vanished. Another burst of lightning, and he reappeared only yards away. Gail shut her eyes and began to pray for this to end, for her to either wake up, or die quickly and move on, anything but more of these nightmares.

“I’m afraid it ain’t gon’ end so easy, miss,” said a rough, elderly, and eerily displaced voice. Gail opened her eyes, and there was the figure, standing right in front of her, inches away. He was wearing worn jeans and a blood-soaked red-and-yellow flannel shirt. The wind blew his dull gray hair around from the back of his head and it clung to the sides of his neck. He wore a short, wiry gray beard on his deeply lined face, and the irises of his eyes had gone almost white. In each hand he held a chain that seemed to come from somewhere behind him, but the end of neither chain was visible.

“Wh-who are you? Why am I here?”

Gail’s own voice sounded displaced now. The old man spoke again.

“Ain’t much time now. You gotta get that damned board and destroy it! If Elsie Gryder gets her claws on it again, won’t be a soul left in Cranton Ridge to stop her. She destroyed my family...made me destroy myself!”

He was becoming visibly agitated, his voice rising with the storm that was now directly overhead.

“SEE WHAT SHE DONE TO US!! EVEN IN DEATH WE COULDN’T ESCAPE HER!!”

He pulled hard on both chains, and from behind him slid the bodies of two young women attached to the right chain by two large hooks about four feet apart, and a teenage boy on a similar hook on the left chain, the tattered remnants of what used to be his head covered in red mud. Gail’s eyes widened; she covered her mouth with her hand in an effort to stifle herself, though she screamed into her hand anyway. Slowly the old man unbuttoned his shirt to reveal the hooks in his chest, thrust in from the back and anchored into his ribcage.

“You can’t let her have that goddamned board, Gail Stevens! She’ll keep doin’ this to other folks. She’ll do it to you an’ your family! She’ll do it to anyone she wants!”

Gail finally found her voice again.

“Y-you’re E-Edgar Briggs, aren’t you?” she stammered.

“I was. Now I’m just another lost soul, no heaven, no hell.....she has that power, y’know. That’s why it’s gotta be you that destroys her and that board for good. Don’t just hide it, don’t toss it aside, destroy it! Free me, free us all!”

Lightning smashed against the sky with deafening thunder to reveal several more people standing behind Edgar, like a crowd of zombies, then again, and there were more, at least twenty, then again and there were hundreds. Edgar rushed at her and his chains stopped him short, his face right in hers.

“SAAAVE UUUUUSSSS!!”

One last explosion of light and sound and Gail was tumbling from her bed, soaked in sweat and panting as she hit the floor on her side. Quickly she sat up and tried to catch her breath, checking her self for wounds or bites or anything that...that might have...in the..dream.....it was a dream, right?

Oh, God, no.....no it was more than that. Too much more.

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