HOWLERS

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the last body

“That has to be the most disgusting...I mean, the cows were one thing, but I can kinda deal with something that would’ve ended up hamburger someday anyway, but..ugh!!”

Olivia was on a bit of a rant, pacing the floor of the motel room.

“At least the next victim we have to go see is alive.”

“If you wanna call it living,” said Gail, “Sheriff Whaley said he hasn’t said anything except ‘stay out of Gryder’s Cove’ and ‘it wasn’t me, it was the wolves’ since he was brought to Adams. He barely eats or drinks anything, doesn’t socialize at all, never watches TV. Kinda weird, really.”

Gail went back to looking over the pictures from the morgue.

“Um, Olivia? Mind if I ask you something?”

“Sure,” said Olivia, now sitting on the edge of her bed and looking lost in thought.

“Are you positive you want to take over my spot? I mean, you seemed to have a hard time holding it together today and to be honest, the bodies we saw at the morgue aren’t the worst I’ve seen in an animal attack case.”

Olivia shot her a look that said nothing else but ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’

“Well, yeah, the one in the tub, but you know what I mean. It gets easier with time, yeah, but I just don’t know if it’ll get easier for you. You couldn’t even watch any of my dad’s horror movies with me unless they were the old black-and-white classics.”

Gail sighed and went to sit beside her friend.

“I’m just trying to look out for you again, I guess. I don’t mean to step on your toes.”

She laid her head on Olivia’s shoulder and put a hand on her knee. Olivia put her arm around Gail and smiled a little bit.

“I know, but I have to try. Nobody thinks I can do it, so I guess I feel like I have something to prove. I’m gonna keep trying, though. I just hope I have enough sense to hang it up if I can’t hack it.”

“I’m gonna be behind you the whole time, Liv. I’ll help you all I can, but you know the decision isn’t mine in the end, right?”

“Yeah, I know, Gail. I won’t be pissed at you if I don’t make it. I’m gonna hate our asshole boss for the rest of my life, though.”

They both laughed and then hugged.

Gail walked back over to her bed and picked up her backpack, taking out her tablet. She drummed her fingers on it gently and pondered reviewing the day’s findings. Not now. Too tired. She tossed it onto the bed and uncapped a bottle of water to take her Pericodin.

“Damn, I don’t wanna drive back to Crow’s Rest tomorrow!” grunted Gail, falling back onto her bed, then immediately having to roll over quickly, catching her tablet just before it bounced off into the floor.

“HA! Dumbass!” chuckled Olivia, “I’m gonna shower. I feel like I have corpse residue on me.”

“Can’t blame ya, kiddo,” said Gail, propping herself up on her pillows and putting her tablet on her lap, “I’m gonna watch a movie, I think. I was gonna go over these pics, but nothing really jumped out at me at the morgue, so I’m gonna clear my head a little with something funny.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. Maybe ‘Machete Motel’.”

“That’s funny?”

“It’s funny to me,” smiled Gail, tapping the screen of her tablet and putting on her headphones.

“Go for it, chick. Later.”

Olivia disappeared into the bathroom, and Gail stared at the screen of her tablet for a few minutes. She closed the movie, then opened the case files from the morgue again. Zoom, pan, rotate, repeat process. The accompanying audio she’d recorded told all about the wounds, including approximate size of the teeth, depth, width and shape of the bites, suspected animals, etc. Just as she was about to close the files up, one small note caught her attention: ‘No fur was found anywhere on or around any of the bodies. The only hair samples taken were from the victims.’

“Hey! Liv! C’mere a minute!” she called, but the shower drowned out her voice.

“Ok, maybe later,” she muttered, turning her attention back to the tablet. “Holy shit. That’s more than a little weird. Wonder how I missed that before.”

She zoomed in on all the wounds individually, and sure enough, not a trace of fur anywhere. How could that be? An obvious animal attack, and not one single hair?

“So,” Gail mused to herself, “the plot thickens.”

Adams Institution was a two-hundred-year-old gray brick building on the outskirts of Crow’s Rest, just before the city limits on the east side of town. It had been a lamp factory, a slaughterhouse, an appliance warehouse and several other businesses over the years, but these days it was the only place within a hundred miles of everywhere to treat and house those residents with needs like those of Billy Randall, the only survivor of what had become known as the Gryder’s Cove Massacre.

Most of his days were spent in his room or in arts and crafts. He never really did anything himself in there, just silently watched everyone else making things or painting or whatever else they might be doing. Being as he wasn’t a danger to himself or others, he was largely allowed to go where he wanted within the confines of the patient areas, so today he was sitting in the cafeteria around 8:30 am picking at his breakfast when Gail and Olivia arrived to interview him about what happened at the Gryder house. They were accompanied by a young man named Charlie Phillips, an orderly who had been assigned to show them around and introduce them to Billy.

“That’s ‘bout all he does, right there,” drawled the thin, young orderly, brushing back his prematurely thinning blond hair, “That, an’ tellin’ people to stay outta Gryder’s Cove. Like anybody’d wanna go assin’ around up thar anyhow!” he said with a small chuckle, “Now then, you ladies come this way, please. Just try t’ avoid any o’ them trigger words on the list his doctor gave ya, and y’ oughtta be alright. I don’t wanna hafta rassle him to the ground and give him a knockout shot again.”

He patted his left scrub pocket and winked.

“Shall we?”

“Please,” smiled Gail.

She’d been watching Billy intently as Charlie spoke, watching the way he looked all around the room subtly but almost constantly, noticing that small noises immediately caught his attention and held it for a few moments, as though he were making sure there was no danger before looking away. He had just returned to tapping his slightly undercooked eggs with his fingertip when Charlie eased into Billy’s view and sat opposite him at the table. Billy looked up quickly, then relaxed when he realized it was someone familiar.

“Mornin’, Billy,” Charlie said, his voice gentle and friendly, “This here is Gail Stevens. The lady with the red hair, that’s Olivia Scott. They just wanna talk to ya for a few minutes, okay?”

For a second, it looked as though Billy may have nodded, but it was too subtle and slight to really say for sure. Apparently, though, it was a signal Charlie recognized as a positive acknowledgment, because he nodded and smiled at Billy, then rose from the table and stepped over to the next one, taking a seat there. Gail and Olivia looked at each other for a moment, each with an expression that clearly said neither of them knew where to begin. Finally, Gail decided to be the first to try and bridge the obvious gap between them and the one person who might help put them on the path to solving their case. Places like this made her uneasy, and she was trying her best not to show it. She put her tablet down on the table in front of her and pulled up her recording app.

“Hi, Billy,” she said with a smile that felt forced, “Like Charlie said, I’m Gail Stevens. My friend and I work for the Wildlife Center in Crow’s Rest, and we’ve been investigating some wild animal attacks in the area. We were...um...well, curious about what you saw up in Gryder’s Cove back in October.”

Billy’s breathing began to quicken a little and he rolled his eyes around once to scan the room. His bottom lip quivered as he whispered, “Stay out....stay outta Gryder’s Cove....don’t never go up ’round there.”

Charlie got up slowly and walked around behind Gail so Billy could see him. This seemed to make him feel secure, and he was able to calm down a little. He leaned in until his chest was almost in his plate, looking Gail square in the eyes before saying, “The wolf-ghosts got ’em. Got ‘em all. Then that ol’ witch-lady says to tell ’em, tell ’em all stay out.”

Charlie suddenly looked puzzled and spoke to Billy again, gently and cautiously.

“Billy, did you say wolf-ghosts? Old witch-lady? That’s what you saw up there?” he asked, putting his hand on Billy’s shoulder. Billy just kept looking at Gail, then at Olivia.

“He’s mentioned wolves a coupla times, but he ain’t never called ‘em ghosts, and sure as hell never said nothin’ ’bout no witch. Shit, that kinda gives me the willies.”

Goosebumps became clearly visible on Charlies arms as he spoke.

“My gran’daddy was from Derby Cross. He told me that a while back, there was this old lady named uh...hmm...Elsie, I believe. Elsie Gryder. Always heard she was a witch. ’Course, he also heard she was just flat-out crazy, too. Had folks up in them hills scared to death for a long time, though, way I heard it. All the grown folk told stories about her to spook young ‘uns into behavin’ and to keep ‘em from wanderin’ off into the hills alone. I dunno too much about her myself, but I know that much, I reckon.”

Olivia put her hand on Billy’s. He looked up at her slowly, and she held his gaze for a moment before speaking.

“What were they like? The ghost-wolves?” she asked softly.

Billy’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth slightly. An unintelligible stammer escaped him, but he became steady when Olivia held his hand more firmly.

“We understand, Billy. We know all about the wolves and what they’ve been doing in the hills and at the farms around Derby Cross. We want to believe you, but we have to know more.”

During his entire stay at Adams, not one person had ever said that to Billy Randall. This was the first time since he was found in the woods that someone had assured him that he wasn’t crazy, that he hadn’t imagined it all. For just a moment, he forgot all about the cold, black fear that had held him fast for so long. As its grip loosened, it seemed there was a faint light struggling against the darkness within, and he meant to stand in it, if only for a moment. He gathered all of his courage, trying his best to block out the images that had played over and over in his head since that horrible night at that rotting old house. He closed his eyes tightly, he exhaled hard through pursed lips a few times and shuddered. Once he had broken through the fear, he did something he had barely done in weeks: he talked. Not just speaking, but talking.

“That board’s what did it,” he muttered, wringing his hands, “I just held it, I didn’t know...I didn’t know, or I woulda...woulda...” He began rocking back and forth slowly. “That old witch called the ghosts with that board we found. It’s still up there. Once I come to, I shoved it down into th’ floorboards so’s nobody’d ever find it.”

Charlie reached into his scrub pocket for the syringe but stayed back. Billy seemed to be struggling for breath and for words now, but continued.

“They came outta the woods, howlin’ and snappin’ at us. Chased everyone down an’ they...an’....”

As the memories of Devils’ Night at Gryder’s Cove and the taste of Delia’s blood and muscle tissue came flooding back into his mind and mouth, Billy began to gag and choke, thrashing around in his seat.

“Oh shit!,” Gail exclaimed, clapping her hand over her mouth in an attempt to slip back behind the professional veneer she had just broken down by blurting out profanity as she jumped up from her seat, almost knocking Olivia out of hers. Charlie managed to slip behind Billy and inject the sedative, holding his arms down and talking gently to him as the medicine made its way through Billy’s system. In a minute or so, Billy was still and breathing slowly, eyes half-closed.

“Damn. That’s the most he’s ever said t’ anybody. Didn’t make a lotta sense, but y’all’d be the first folks he’s ever spoke to like that,” said Charlie in amazement, “Look, it ain’t yer fault he flipped out like that. Hell, who knew he was gonna even recall anything from that night, let alone say anything about it. I’d best get you two outta here ‘fore anyone comes in here askin’ questions.”

“Yeah, good idea,” said Olivia, who was still looking Billy over, “Thanks a bunch for your help, Charlie.”

“No problem, ma’am. Come on, I’ll take y’all out the back way.”

Olivia approached Billy, leaned over and whispered in his ear, “And thank you, Billy.”

At the rear entrance, Charlie waved goodbye and disappeared behind the beige steel door. Neither of the two women really knew what to make of what they had just heard. Could it be true, and that’s why he became so thoroughly traumatized, or were they just the ramblings of an imagination gone wild because his fear of a local legend exaggerated the events of that night? Could he have really seen what he claimed he saw? What unspeakable memory brought on his panic attack and caused him to lapse back into the internal world in which he’d been living? It seemed as though there was no getting out of going to all the way to Gryder’s Cove, like it or not...and it would be way too soon.

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