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it gets weird...

“Gryder’s Cove? Is that even on the map?” asked Olivia as she searched her bag for an empty SD card, “Joel said it was the highest point in the whole area. Once we get there, we’re not gonna get any signal on our phones or anything, are we? Using GPS is out the window if we get lost.”

“I dunno, those towers are everywhere these days. Besides, we don’t have to go all the way up there just yet,” said Gail. “If we do, though, I hope you remember how to read a compass like we did in Adventure Scouts.”

“Yeah, of course, and I can start a fire with two sticks, too,” said Olivia.

“Is that the distinctive aroma of sarcasm coming from your direction?” said Gail with a raised eyebrow and a twisted little smile.

“It’s that or those shitty scrambled eggs and underdone bacon you brought me from the diner.”

They both burst out laughing, a laugh they both sorely needed after almost a week of nothing but blood, guts, and death out in the middle of nowhere. Before they knew it, they were passing the old wooden sign that read, ‘Welcome to Derby Cross, Where History Still Lives!’

“Oh yay, back in Cornfield County again. Lucky us,” Olivia quipped, “Who were we supposed to meet again?”

“Sheriff Herbert Whaley. He’s gonna take us up to the place where those people were found and give us more details on the case. The police station’s here on this street some...ok, there it is, up there on the right,” said Gail, pointing to a building on a corner two blocks ahead. Parking by the door, Gail reached for her backpack and took out her tablet and stylus while Olivia hung her camera on her shoulder.

“Well then....shall we, Ms. Scott?”

Gail walked in first, and was greeted by a small elderly woman in uniform behind the counter.

“Mornin’, ladies. I’m Officer Judy. What kin we help ye with t’day?”

Her accent was thick and her voice as sweet and friendly as the little round, wrinkled face under her silvery-white hair bun.

“Hi, um, I’m Gail Stevens, and this is Olivia Scott. We’re from the Wildlife Center in Crow’s Rest. We’re supposed to see Sheriff Whaley about the incident at Gryder’s Cove,” Gail said, trying to disguise how amused she was with this sweet little lady.

“Oooh yeah, Herbert mentioned y’all’d be a-comin’ this mornin’. I’ll go ’n git ’im fer ye.”

She toddled off toward the back of the room and opened the heavy white door there.

“HERBERT!!! HEEERBERRT!! THEM GIRLS IS HERE!!” she screeched, suddenly sounding more like a giant vulture than the little songbird who had been so bright and cheery a few seconds ago. She looked back over her shoulder, smiled at Gail and chirped, “He’ll be ’long in a minute. Coffee, y’all?”

“Umm..yeah, ok. That’d be great, Officer Judy,” said Gail, looking Officer Judy over with amused curiosity.

At that moment, Olivia leaned in and whispered in her ear, “She is so great!”

Gail couldn’t help but agree as they were each handed a styrofoam cup of strong black coffee and a third cup filled with sugar packets, stiiring sticks and some of those tiny creamers.

The door in the back of the room swung open with a small squeak as Sheriff Whaley stepped through it and walked to the counter. He was a ruggedly handsome man who looked to be in his early to mid-fifties. He wasn’t especially tall or broad, but still had an undeniable air of authority about him. His sandy blond mustache was so long you couldn’t see his top lip, and had some gray coming in right in the middle. Officer Judy introduced Gail and Olivia to him, and he reached over the counter to shake hands with each in turn.

“Thanks, Judy. We’ll be in my office if anything comes up, alrighty?” he said with a wink and sent the amiable old lady back to her duties as he ushered the two women toward the door he had just come through.

“Ladies, this way, please. I’ll get ya filled in on what’s goin’ on.”

They walked down a short hallway, past a door marked EVIDENCE ROOM on the left, a steel door on the right that lead to the holding cells, then stopped at a thick wooden door with brass handles opposite the steel door.

“I prefer to be back here, close to the prisoners. Only one way out, and that’s out that steel door and by my office, and I’m always watchin’.”

He pointed to a camera above his door that was aimed out into the hallway.

“Even got apps on my phone and laptop that monitor everything. The cameras in the cell blocks, the outer perimeter, the whole nine yards.”

Stepping inside, he said, “Got all the monitors in here that show me the whole buildin’, inside n’ out. Have a seat, ladies,” he said as he sat in the big brown leather chair behind an enormous oak desk, which had several monitors lined up on both ends. Sheriff Whaley pulled a small cedar box out of the top drawer and took a cigar from it. He turned in his chair and struck a match on the No Smoking sign hanging there, lit the cigar, then flicked a switch behind him that turned on a small ventilation unit overhead.

“Now then,” he said, rifling through the stack of folders on his desk, “Lemme see here...Gryder’s Cove, Gryder’s...yeah, this is it. Damned shame what happened to them kids. I mean, we’ve had folks wander into the hills and get mangled by wild animals on rare occasions, but this...I dunno.Somethin’ about it just gave me the chills. Can’t quite figger out what, though. Dunno if it was the way the bodies were laid out, or the...uh..condition we found ’em in or what. Just tore my nerves all up.”

He slid a plastic orange folder toward Gail.

“See what you make of it, bein’ as y’all are the experts ’n whatnot.”

Gail opened the folder to find black and white pictures on top of the reports, death certificates, copies of driver’s licenses and other paperwork from the investigation the sheriff’s department had done. She took the pictures out and began looking them over, turning to give Olivia a good view of them also. Black and White made the gore only slightly more palpable.

“Right there. See that? Spit, no swallow, just like at the Earwood place and the farm on the west side of the ridge,” said Olivia, pointing to several large, ravaged chunks of flesh laying beside half of what used to be Lacy Bell.

“That’s Lacy Bell. Whatever it was got her and her sister Delia. Their daddy owns the drug store over on Anton Street,” said the sheriff, shaking his head. “Sixteen and eighteen years old. Can ya believe that? That’s Dillon Harper, seventeen years old. Kind of a punk kid, I guess. He was a smartass, yeah, but mostly just mouthy and stubborn. Guess he won’t get a chance to grow out of it.”

The picture Gail was holding showed Dillon’s head face-down in the pool of blood that had spilled from his neck and torn leg. The bodies were in early stages of decomposition and had been scavenged by other animals, though it was obvious that had happened after the attacks.

“How long were they up there before they were found?”

“Lab says about two weeks. Nobody hardly ever goes near that old place. Superstitious, I reckon,” Sheriff Whaley said.

Gail continued shuffling through the pictures. The next two were different angles of a hand, two feet, some hair, and a pile of what looked like canned dog food and sticks.

“That one’s Jude Gunter, or what’s left of ‘im. We had to ID him with the teeth we dug outta that pile y’ see there. Eighteen, moved here from Blue Rock Springs with his momma about two years ago. Not a bad kid, I reckon. Worked at Mattie Greene’s restaurant since he came here. Five kids went up there that night, and only one came out of it alive. However it happened, this kid named Billy Randall managed to get away. Riley, ol’ Evert Earwood’s son, found ‘im wanderin’ in the woods, covered in blood, mumblin’ somethin’ about a wolf attack and ‘stay the hell outta Gryder’s Cove’. Shoot, I thought ever’body did that anyway,” chuckled the sheriff, snuffing out his half-smoked cigar.

“He’s currently residin’ at Adams Institution in Crow’s Rest. Y’all might oughtta drop in on ‘im once y’ get back.”

“We may...um...we might just do that, sheriff,” said Gail, completely distracted by the photographs. “Are these bodies still in the morgue, by any chance? I mean, a case like this, autopsies were ordered, right?”

“Yes, ma’am. They’re gonna be released tomorrow, y’know, so’s the families can get the funerals arranged and over with, start healin’. Those folks are pretty tore up, as you might well imagine.”

Gail tried to put on her best professional veneer, but the pictures had left a terribly queasy feeling in her stomach.

“Can we take a look, perhaps? We need to see the wounds to determine what kind of animals attacked these people, or if it even was an animal.”

“Jesus H. Christ, Ms. Stevens,” said the sheriff incredulously, “What the hell else could it have been?”

“That’s what we mean to find out, sir. Now then, the morgue is where?”

Following the sheriff’s car, Gail and Olivia pulled around to the rear of Derby Cross Hospital and parked next to the sign that read, ‘COUNTY MORGUE’. A large red arrow at the bottom directed them to a slightly bent steel door under a green tin awning.

“Right this way, ladies.” smiled Sheriff Whaley, gesturing toward the door, which they found to be locked. Sheriff Whaley peered through the small window then knocked hard on the door.

“Eugene. Eugene!” he shouted, “Open this door, boy!”

Inside they could hear a slamming noise, then the distinct squeak of sneakers on tile just on the other side of the door. A young, sunburned face popped up in the window, beady brown eyes fixing o n the sheriff.

“Who’s out thar?”

“Put yer damned glasses on, Eugene. It’s Sheriff Whaley. Gotta coupl’a ladies from the Wildlife Center out in Crow’s Rest need t’ take a look at the Gryder’s Cove victims. Eugene!”

As Sheriff Whaley knocked soundly again, the sound of locks clacking open was accompanied by a voice behind the door that said, “Hold on, Uncle Her-, uh, Sheriff, I’m a-gettin’ it!” The door swung open to reveal a tall, slender man who couldn’t have been more than 23. His long face was topped with a mop of curly brown hair pulled back into a long ponytail, his bangs held back by sunglasses, the shape of which perfectly matched the unburned area around his eyes. He was wearing green denim shorts, black canvas sneakers and a faded black shirt that sported a collage of all the famous movie monsters and murderers, all topped off with a slightly worn white lab coat.

“Afternoon, Sheriff!” he grinned, closing the door behind everyone.

“Bill still lettin’ you wear that goddamn shirt to work, boy?” the sheriff scowled.

“Nope!” replied Eugene with a smirk, “And I don’t see no reason as to why we gotta tell ’im I did, if you please.” He winked at Gail and smiled, as if letting her in on a joke she wasn’t aware of. Eugene struck her as being something of a misfit in this community, although his accent and mannerisms suggested he was from right here in Derby Cross. “So, you wanna see the meat from the Gryder’s Cove Massacre, right?”

“EUGENE!” barked the sheriff.

“Sorry, man.” Eugene muttered halfheartedly. “You wish to see the Gryder’s Cove victims, correct?” said Eugene, turning to look at Gail and assuming a falsely serious tone. He winked and nodded reassuringly at Sheriff Whaley, who just looked disgruntled and shook his head.

“Yes, yes we would, thank you.” said Gail, trying her best not to laugh.

“Rrrright this way, please,” Eugene said with an air of exaggerated cordiality, motioning the group down the hallway off to the left of the lobby. Olivia was the last in line as they approached the end of the hallway, having fallen behind while checking out the walls and ceilings. Coats and coats of cheap paint had been slapped over shoddy repairs throughout the years, which really didn’t help it look less run-down at all. A single incandescent bulb in the middle of the ceiling lit the way to a wide wooden door that had been thickly painted with an institutional pale green. On the other side of the door, however, things looked a little more modern. Amazingly so, actually. The floor and walls were tiled with an artificial black granite, with two steel tables under bright four-foot fluorescent light fixtures in the middle, each with a small instrument table at the end. The walls to the left and right were equipped with large steel drawers, and the far wall opposite the door had several paintings of country scenes hung there, along with some certificates and degrees that, surprisingly, belonged to Eugene.

Walking toward the left-hand wall, Eugene reached for a drawer and pulled it out. The head of Delia Bell rocked slightly in place against its former body when he stopped the drawer short before it opened completely.

“Craziest thing I’ve seen in a long time,” said Eugene, pointing out the torn flesh on the head and the place where a neck used to be, “Clean wound. Real clean, but a lotta tissue gone.”

He slowly pulled the drawer all the way out.

“Nothin’ on the rest of the body, though.”

Olivia stepped forward with her camera and snapped a couple of pictures from different angles while trying not to gag. The lack of blood didn’t make the wounds any less nauseating. Gail leaned in a little closer and brought out her tablet. After opening her voice recorder app, she spoke as she examined the body.

“Gryder’s Cove case audio file 001. Victim’s name is Delia Bell, eighteen year-old female. Neck wounds suggest decapitation by a large animal by biting through the neck.”

She moved the tattered skin of the wound back and forth with a pencil she plucked from the front pocket of Eugene’s lab coat while she spoke.

“Most of the tissue and bone from the neck is missing, suggesting it might have been consumed by the attacking animal.”

Olivia’s stomach lurched when Gail said the words.

“Well, it ain’t exactly missin’,” Eugene interjected. He reached into the drawer, past the corpse’s feet and produced a plastic zipper bag of something that looked a baseball-sized chunk of rotten ground beef and pieces of bone.

“Wow..um..Gail?”

“Yeah, get a shot of that, too.”

Eugene sat it beside the head so Olivia could get a better shot of it, then put it back at the feet of the body. Gail connected her tablet to Olivia’s camera and brought up the photos she’d taken. She then attached them to the new audio recording she’d made and saved it all as one project file. Neat software toys were just one perk of the job. Examining, photographing, and smelling bloody chunks that used to be people was not.

Next came the body of Lacy Bell, whose remains were accompanied by larger bags similar to the ones at the feet of Delia Bell’s body, for which Gail really couldn’t find much explanation save the possibility that two unknown animals had fought over her remains or that one had eaten through her midsection before mutilating the two halves.

“The bite pattern looks similar to that of a wolf, but the bite radius and size of the teeth suggest something bigger. The claw marks also are bigger and set wider than a wolf’s would be, and also wolves just aren’t normally this aggressive toward humans,” she said to her Bluetooth mic as she looked the body over. Olivia held her breath and snapped several pictures of the remains, especially the face, etched with the expression of fear it must have contorted into when the terror struck.

Gail continued to prod the corpse and record her observations, then added the pictures to the audio file and filed it away with the Delia Bell information. Dillon Harper’s body was a little easier on the stomach, but not by much. Like Lacy Bell, his face was frozen in that moment of ultimate terror, and his leg was placed where it would have been were it still attached. Gail examined the ripped flesh and came to the same conclusion as she did with the other bodies: wolf-like, but too large. She noticed that Olivia was looking a little pale, and tried to brace her up by putting her hand on her shoulder and telling her there was only one left, then they could leave. Olivia exhaled heavily and nodded.

“Alrighty then, folks, this is the last one,” said Eugene as he placed his hand on the handle of the drawer to the right of Dillon Harper’s. He slid the drawer out to reveal a clear plastic bag that contained the remnants of bloody jeans, a torn t-shirt and a pair of blood-streaked white sneakers, then a three-gallon sized green plastic tub. On the lid was a sticker:

GUNTER, JULIAN TOBIAS (JUDE):

CAUCASIAN MALE, 18 YRS

POSSIBLE ATTACK BY UNKNOWN ANIMAL

Olivia handed Gail the camera and strode right out of the room.

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