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the killing begins...

“Gail...Gail!!” called a fair-skinned, red-haired young woman to her co-worker, a dark-haired woman of similar age standing just outside the fence surrounding a farm in the foothills of the western side of Cranton Ridge. Gail Stevens was talking with Evert Earwood, the owner of the property. She and her team were there investigating a reported rise in predator attacks on livestock in the area. Wolves were always first to get the blame, even though there were wildcats and bears living right alongside them in the hills.

Gail Stevens was interviewing an elderly man in stereotypical overalls and a weathered straw hat. She pulled up the voice recorder app on her tablet and tapped the red record button.

“What exactly makes you think wolves are responsible this time, Mr. Earwood?”

“You can call me Evert, miss,” he said with a moribund smile. “Heard ‘em out here a-howlin’ n’ carryin’ on. Come from way back up in them trees there.”

He gestured to the top of the highest hill in view.

“Next thing I know, it sounded like a stampede out here. I run out here with m’ twelve-guage just in time to see ‘em boundin’ over the fence an’ off into the woods on the other side here. Big sons-o’-bitches, too. Bigger’n that’n Buck Taggart killed last week, and we measured that’n at about six feet once we hung him up to skin ’im. Reckon they took down about three of four of my best milk cows. Didn’t even eat ’em. Just tore ‘em all t’ hell an’ scattered the pieces ever’where. Almost looks uh....”

His voice and gaze trailed off.

“Shit, that can’t be,” he mumbled almost inaudibly, “that ain’t happened for the longest time....”

He wasn’t about to tell what he was thinking and have the outsider investigators think he was deranged.

Gail was saving the audio file when the woman who had been calling to her came up from behind and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, I’ve been yelling for you up there for like five minutes. You gotta come see this.”

“Sure, yeah, just let me get this down and I’ll check it out.”

She went back to her notes, thanked the farmer for his time, then turned to her colleague.

“Ok, Olivia, let’s have a look.”

Gail took out a thick, red elastic band and began securing her long black hair into a loose bun as she followed Olivia up the slight incline toward the cow pasture.

“Maybe something, maybe nothing. That’s why I need you.”

Olivia Scott was a rookie photographer working with Gail and training to move up into her job once she was promoted next month, not to mention Gail’s best friend since childhood. They approached one of the mangled cows, and Gail had to swallow hard to keep from gagging. She’d seen the results of wildlife attacking livestock before, but something about this case was especially unsettling. These cows had been mutilated and left to die. Some were eviscerated and their throats torn out. Others had legs broken and their flanks ripped open. One was missing its entire snout, from just below the eyes. It was just gone, nowhere to be found.

“This is the weird part,” Olivia began, “I noticed this when I walked through the second time. Look at these pieces here.”

She pointed to some bloody chunks of skin and muscle tissue laying near the cow’s front hooves. “Looks chewed up, not just ripped from the body, y’know? Like whatever it was just....I dunno...”

She motioned back and forth in the air, expressing her loss for words.

“Spits instead of swallows?” Gail chimed in, managing half a smile in spite of being thoroughly repulsed.

“Um..yeah, let’s go with that,” said Olivia, making her distaste for gore humor obvious.

“I found pieces like that around all of them. Wolves regurgitate food for their young, but I think it’s pretty obvious this isn’t a case of killing for food. Kinda odd, right?”

“Yeah, it is,” answered Gail, looking the scene over again. Pack up the camera and let’s wrap this up. All this blood’s getting the better of me. It’s one thing when you know it’s corn syrup and latex, but this is nuts. We’ll talk about it some more after we get back to the Wildlife Center in Crow’s Rest.”

Crow’s Rest, however, was nearly a hundred mile drive, and the conversation at the very beginning of said drive soon turned to the slaughtered cattle that were now miles behind them yet still fresh in their minds. Olivia was the first to put the subject back on the table.

“I took pictures of everything out there. The whole damned farm. The carcasses, the blood trails, even that disgusting mess with the undeveloped calf hanging out of the rip in that one..cow’s..gut.” Olivia gagged on the last three words. After taking a long drink from her bottle of water to quell the gurgling in her stomach, she continued.

“Shit, that was close. Sorry.”

“No problem,” Gail lied. She had been within a hair’s breadth of a bout of sympathy puking.

“So outside of that, did something about the site bother you?”

“Yeah, yeah it did,” Olivia began, looking pensive, “Not one single track or trace of movement except for the cows’. No fur left around the dead animals. Taking down a cow would cause a little fur to fly at least, wouldn’t it?”

“One would think, yeah,” said Gail reflectively. “I’ve seen it on occasion in other livestock slaughter cases. Well, with wolves and bears, anyway. Caught in the barbed wire fences or even in the mouth of an animal that actually tried to bite back. Hmm. There wasn’t any? Anywhere? No prints either? That is odd.”

Both women were quiet for the longest time, playing out the day’s events silently to themselves and pondering. What had the old farmer been murmuring about? Would the pictures perhaps reveal something they had overlooked and bring unknown factors to light? How much further until her damned cell phone could pick up a signal? Gail rolled down her window. The warm late evening air was at least somewhat comforting after all they had seen today. She looked over at Olivia, who had dozed off in the silence, and thought to herself with a deep sigh, “This had better not get weird.”

Crow’s Rest wasn’t at all like the tiny speck known as Derby Cross, just outside the foothills of Cranton Ridge. It was big enough to accommodate a MilleniaMart, several of the big chain restaurants and convenience stores, yet still small enough to be considered a small town, and far removed from Cranton Ridge itself, which was pretty much untouched by time and one of the few unspoiled areas left in northern Georgia. Gail was glad to see both the driveway of the Wildlife Center and the bars at the top of her phone’s screen. She’d been in such a daze the last leg of the trip, she hadn’t even heard the beep it had emitted miles ago to indicate being back within her service area. She parked right at the front door, shut the engine off, and exhaled heavily.

“Livvyyyyy.....Olivia! Hey, Snoozy McSnory, we’re back.” she said, nudging her comatose passenger. Olivia sat bolt upright, grabbed the dashboard and yelled, “I’LL EAT IT!! JUST PUT THAT UP!!”

Her eyes darted around the car as Gail raised an eyebrow and gave her a curious looking-over.

“Um, never mind. Don’t wanna know. Help me get all this stuff inside so we can get back to the motel.”

She handed Olivia the camera case and a couple of folders, then reached into the back seat to get her backpack, which contained the rest of the field gear.

“We’ll take a look at all this data tomorrow. I am just so tired right now,” she said, stretching her entire body out before shutting the car door. This was one of the few times her exhaustion trumped her curiosity, and she had her fibromyalgia to thank for it. She’d taken her last round of meds before they left the farm, but even so, that familiar dull ache had begun to seep into her body. All she could really focus on was ending this day. A quick jingle of keys and a hard clack later, the door was unlocked, the equipment back in its proper place, the door locked again, and the pair were back in the car and headed for the motel on the other end of town. The day’s end was getting closer with every street light they passed, and like sweet music she could hear the pillow and spare comforter she’d brought all the way from her house calling out to her sleepy head.

Morning came blazing through the cheap curtains in room 19 at the Nite ’r Day Inn and fell across Gail’s weary eyes. She had been dreading morning because once again, she hadn’t slept more than four hours the entire night. Her night had been spent running through the woods and across fields from whatever horror had befallen the cattle out at Evert Earwood’s farm. She was accustomed to frequent nightmares, but this one had an element she couldn’t quite put her finger on, one that separated it from the nonsensical comic-book horror she usually experienced in the night. There was something a little more sinister, a little more...real. Struggling to get past it and back into the real world, she opened the nightstand drawer and took out her bottle of Pericodin. She sat up slowly and put her feet on the floor. Once again, she had failed to receive a miracle healing while she slept after praying for it right before falling asleep, so it was up to modern medicine to fulfill her wish as best it could.

Breakfast was the first order of business after a long, scalding shower and dressing. Gail’s pills required food and a full glass of water, so every day started almost immediately with a meal of some kind. Today it was the cream cheese danish she’d picked up at the tiny grocery store the day before when she and Olivia arrived in Derby Cross. In place of a glass of water, though, it was going to have to be a bottle of Blue Glacier. Local, unknown water? Not happening. While she ate, she sat flicking pennies from the bottom of yesterday’s pants pockets at Olivia’s head.

“Wake up, biiitch!” Gail called across the room between bites and pennies. Olivia moaned something and rolled over, covering her head with her pillows.

“No-no-no, chick, come on, it’s almost seven,” said Gail with a little more authority, settling on the bed beside Olivia and rolling her back over.

“We have to go through all those pictures and interviews from yesterday, then compile a report and blah blah blah...”

Her voice trailed off as she leaned over and picked up the remote, then clicked the TV on and turned it way up. Olivia grunted and buried herself under the covers in a tight ball. Finally she relented and resurfaced at the other end of the bed, climbing out from under the blankets and stretching.

“You suck, Gail,” she mumbled, trying to clear the cobwebs in her head.

“And for some reason you love me anyway,” cooed Gail, batting her eyes.

“Because we’ve been friends for about three hundred years?”

“That’d be it, alright. Get in the shower and I’ll grab us some real breakfast from that diner across the street. We have to get down to the Center before Joel does or he’s gonna throw another girly fit. If I have to hear one more of those, I’m gonna lose it.”

Joel Reed was the supervisor at the Crow’s Rest Wildlife Center. Tall and thin, mid-40s, but with an exceptionally boyish face upon which he sported a narrow goatee and pencil-thin mustache. He was also an hour ahead of Gail and Olivia, who pulled up while he was standing just around the corner in the smoking area lighting a cigarette. Gail and Olivia looked at each other with that look that says, “Yeah, I know.”

“Ladies, good morning!” Joel sounded a little more sarcastic than usual as he put his cigarette out in the tall chrome ashtray beside the bench under the ‘Designated Smoking Area’ sign.

“Hi, Joel,” sighed Olivia as she shut the car door and walked to the front door behind Gail. “I guess you’ve already had a look at what we found yesterday. We’ll get right on the reports as soon as we’ve had a chance to look everything over ourselves.”

“Nope, not today, I’m afraid,” Joel said with a wry smile. “I’ve got a real treat for you two today. You’re gonna love this one. Has a few similarities to the cases you’ve been working, only no dead livestock.”

“Really?” said Gail inquisitively. “Then that means....”

Her curious expression gave way to shock.

“Oh no. Damn it!”

She put her hand over her mouth and closed her eyes.

“ I was hoping this wouldn’t happen. That means man-eaters, and that means animals being destroyed.”

“True, but in a place like Cranton Ridge, there aren’t any population problems. Still sad, but at least it won’t threaten their numbers any.”

“Shit, Joel! Back to Cranton Ridge again?” Olivia protested.

“Well, yeah,” he said matter-of-factly, “Of course, if you’d rather not go back, I hear the Burger Castle’s hiring.”

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