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no place like home...

“James, Barnett.”

Gail sat on her motel room bed and pointed to the name in the very thin Derby Cross phone book, which included the very, very few in Cranton Ridge who opted in for phone service. It was hard for a city kid like Gail to get her head around the concept of a place where mass communication had yet to catch on. The locals up in those hills just didn’t seem interested in anything more advanced than cars, dial telephones, and maybe the best technological advances in farm equipment the 80s had offered up. Luckily, Barnett James was one of the few that could be contacted without having to search the expanse of Cranton Ridge.

“Who is this James guy anyway?” inquired Olivia, scrolling through the pictures she’d taken at Gryder’s Cove on her camera’s two-inch screen.

“Sheriff Whaley says he’s kinda like Cranton Ridge’s historian, which he also says loosely translates to ‘the only one who isn’t too lazy to look shit up’. He actually went to college in Atlanta for a little while, too. The reason he wants us to see him, though, is that he also knows a lot about the supernatural and the superstitions of the locals.”

“Hm. I hope he knows something. This is starting to get really fucking weird.”

Olivia turned off the camera and settled beside Gail on her bed, laying her head on her shoulder. The two just sat there for what seemed like forever, thinking about everything that had happened over the last couple of days. It was a great deal to process for people who had lived lives without any kind of experience with the supernatural world. Gail had always had curiosities, but remained largely skeptical in spite of her fascination; she wanted to believe, but had never been shown a solid reason to do so. She glanced over at her backpack, which now contained the artifacts she and Olivia had retrieved from the floor of Elsie Gryder’s house. Could two pieces of decorated wood really be a direct link to the spirit world? Could they be as dangerous as people had always said they were, even though divining boards could be purchased in the board game section of any MilleniaMart? Olivia was the first to break the silent contemplation.

“God, I’m exhausted.”

She fell back onto the bed, arms out.

“Call this guy already so we can get some sleep. Are we still going back home in the morning?”

“Yeah, definitely. This is taking way longer than I thought it would. I’d like to get some more clothes, more equipment, maybe my GameVision. Some handheld gaming action would definitely make me feel better about all of this.” said Gail as she picked up the phone book and her cell phone. She punched in the number, pressed the green SEND button, and listened to the other end ring...and ring...and ring. She counted seventeen before taking the phone away from her ear and nearing the END button with her thumb just as a male voice said, “Hello? Who’s ’is? Anyone there?” She pulled the phone back up quickly.

“Hello? Barnett James?”

“Yes, ma’am, this is him alright.”

His voice was like warm molasses, and so deep it made the tiny speaker in her phone rattle a little bit. She thought for a moment it might have gotten a little bit warmer in the room.

“Sheriff Whaley suggested I call, I hope that’s alright. I’m Gail Stevens, I work with the Wildlife Center of Northern Georgia. Right now I’m working on an animal attack case here in Derby Cross and in Cranton Ridge.....well, Gryder’s Cove, actually, and the sheriff thinks you may be able to provide some insights on we’ve discovered.”

“Animal attack in Gryder’s Cove, huh?” Barnett asked knowingly, “Sure, ma’am, I think I could spare ya a li’l time, pro’ly in the afternoon sometime or ’nother.”

“Well, my associate and I have to go back to the home office and regroup, as it were. Can we contact you when we return and set something up? We live pretty far from Crow’s Rest, so we’ll be gone for a couple of days.”

“Sounds fine, jus’ call me back then. You take care now.”

He sounded very sincere for someone she’d just met on the phone.

“You too, sir. Thanks so much. B’bye now.”

Barnett kept the phone on his ear for a few more seconds, tuning out the dial tone as he turned the conversation over in his mind. There could be only one reason someone from WCNG would be calling him, considering all the goings-on in Cranton Ridge lately. Slowly he returned the receiver to its hook on top of his old black rotary phone, eased the footrest of his recliner up and went back to rolling his cigarette. He sealed it, lit it up, took a long drag, then shook his head slowly.

“Son of a bitch,” he drawled softly before exhaling a long, thick cloud of smoke, “Somebody’s found it.”

The long drive home was blissfully uneventful, save the three vultures feasting on a mangled mass of red glop and clumps of hair that was once an animal. Gail and Olivia left Derby Cross talking about the case, and halfway to Crow’s Rest they were having ‘the cartoon conversation’ (modern vs. classic, and classic was winning). The subject changed a couple more times before there was a tiny lull in the conversation, which is what Olivia had been waiting for.

“Are you getting scared at all? I mean, there’s a lotta weird shit going on back there, and I’m beginning to get a little freaked out. A witchboard, for fuck’s sake?”

Gail tried her best to sound reassuring, but her own feelings on the matter made that increasingly difficult.

“Liv, it’s gonna be alright. We’ve never really bought into all this supernatural stuff. I doubt it could really be ghost wolves or a dead nut who called herself a witch. Odds are all the dead livestock and those poor kids will turn out to be some whack job - maybe several – with a great talent for covering up tracks.”

“I feel better already,” said Olivia, employing her gift of sarcasm.

“You know what I mean.”

Gail put her hand on Olivia’s shoulder.

“It’s gonna be alright, you’ll see.”

Olivia nodded and smiled a slight, tiny smile, then leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

“I’m gonna rest my eyes for a little bit, ok?”

“Ok, yeah, you do that,” Gail said gently, “It’s been a long week, huh?”

“Yeah, it has. I’m not gonna sleep, though, just kinda...y’know.....” Her voice trailed off into a very light snore. Gail looked at her friend of ‘three hundred years’ with a sigh, hoping and inwardly praying that all of this would turn out to have a sound, logical explanation that didn’t involve ghosts, witches, goblins, or any other creepy-crawly thing that goes bump in the night.

Night had fallen just before they pulled up at Olivia’s place. She had been staying with her parents after a bad breakup, and was counting on getting this promotion so she could afford to move out into a place of her own. Gail and all of her other friends were hoping for it as well, being as Olivia’s parents weren’t the easiest people to get along with, especially if you were Olivia.

“Wake up, chick, you’re home.”

Gail nudged Olivia’s shoulder gently a couple of times. She put her hand on her knee and shook it. She stuck her fingertip in her ear and twisted it. When all that failed to rouse Olivia, she decided to try a desperation move. This wouldn’t be necessary if Olivia didn’t sleep like the dead. Gail backed into the street and down to the end of the block, lining herself up with a car parked by the curb. She crept toward it, head-on, and just as her car was within a couple yards of the other vehicle, she slammed on the brakes, grabbed Olivia by the arm and violently shook her and screamed at the top of her lungs, “OLIVIAAAA!!! OH MY GOD!!!”

Olivia sat bolt upright to see the other car right in front of them as Gail’s car went nose-down from the sudden braking and curled up into a screaming ball. Gail tried not to laugh, with little success, as Olivia sat up and opened one eye to see Gail’s car was stopped in front of the parked vehicle.

“Bitch, I hate you!” she grunted through clenched teeth as she slapped Gail across the arm and shoulder, which did nothing to stop her from laughing as she pulled back into the driveway of Olivia’s parents’ house.

“I’m sorry about that, but you know you’re hard to wake,” Gail laughed as she parked the car.

“I know, but damn...”

Olivia tried to remain grumpy about it, but just couldn’t. She wasn’t about to let Gail see her smile, though.

“Get some sleep. Well, some more sleep. I’ll call and see if you’re ready once I am, k?”

“Yeah, sleep, like that’s gonna happen now. That sounds good, though. See ya then, I guess,” said Olivia, pulling her bag from the back seat and hanging it over her shoulder. She waved Gail a final goodbye as she started up the short walkway to the front door. It was only two blocks to Gail’s house, and she couldn’t wait to get there and sleep some herself, in her own bed, and sleeping in was sounding better and better.

The next morning started late for Gail Stevens; 10:48 a.m. type of late. After making herself a small home-cooked breakfast, the first she’d eaten in weeks, taking the time to thoroughly enjoy every scrap of it, then showering and donning her sweatpants and an XXL-sized Black Label Society t-shirt, she set about the task of gathering the things she’d come for: her GameVision, the charger, the case that holds ten games but only contained the four she ever actually liked enough to buy, several changes of clothes, a pair of hikers and thicker socks, and a clear stud for the piercing in her left nostril. Luckily, the last few weeks of maintaining a professional veneer hadn’t caused the hole to narrow, but this time, she wasn’t taking chances. Her nose had been pierced since she was fifteen, and she was quite fond of it.

She sat for a few minutes to list the other pieces of equipment she thought she might need, and decided not to kid herself; she just wanted to come home and ground herself again before getting any deeper into the craziness happening in Cranton Ridge. That being the case, the morning was spent watching Toon Village, the channel that showed her childhood favorite, Stick Willie, along with a ton of other cartoons she and Olivia had grown up watching.

Later today, she would go see her dad, maybe ask if he wanted to visit her mother’s grave, then visit with her sister’s family. Her teenage nephews always brightened her day, and her day could really use some of that, being as the previous ones had been so lacking in brightness.

Plans made, she lost herself in her cartoon binge as the day slipped on by. At one point during Big Bang Toons, she laughed so hard she slid off the couch, which put her right in front of the clock on the coffee table. It was almost 1:45 already!

She swapped her sweats for her worn black jeans and headed out. As it turned out, her father was already at the cemetery when she drove by it on her way to his house. She pulled up inside the gates and parked beside his heavily modded DynaGlide, then got out and walked toward her mother’s grave. She came up quietly behind him and took his hand, disguising her voice as she grunted, “Rick Stevens!” This startled him, causing him to wheel around and draw his fist back as he prepared to swing. She held tight and ducked with a deep laugh, and upon realizing who had grabbed his hand, he smiled and pulled her close, hugging her tightly. His old leather jacket smelled like Black Eagle cigars, Highwayman (the only cologne he had used for decades), and miles of miles of highway. It was the scent of security, safety and love, and she absolutely loved it.

“Hey, Cupcake!” he said, a wide, genuine smile stretching across his wind-weathered face, “When did you get back? How’s Liv doin’?”

“Last night, Pop. Really late last night, actually. Liv came back with me. You should stop by Frank and Jeanette’s and see her before we have to leave again. That case I told you about started to get a little messed up, so I decided to come back for some stuff, and to see you, of course..”

She smiled and hugged him again.

“Predators attacking livestock in Cranton Ridge? How could that get weird? Aren’t there a lot of wild animal attacks up there? It’s a pretty sparsely populated area, not much deforestation. What do they expect, settin’ up farms where at least three predators dominate the...”

“Pop, don’t start,” Gail interrupted, stepping behind him to straighten up his long gray ponytail, “People have been farming that area for generations, and they’ve all managed with minimal problems. To answer your question, though, it got weird because of what we didn’t find more than because of what we did find. No fur, no tracks, but the wounds on both the human victims and the livestock looked like they were inflicted by some kind of animal. I’m at a loss on this one. That’s why I wanted to come back and sort of regroup.”

“Humans too? Hmm..that is weird. Come on, we’ll talk about it over lunch. I’m buyin’. How about T-Bone’s?”

“Oh God, yes! I haven’t had T-Bone’s in sooooo long!” Gail exclaimed enthusiastically. This trip home was getting better and better.

After visiting her mother’s grave, telling her all that had been going on in her life lately, and shedding a few tears as she remembered how very much she loved her mother and how close they had been, she was off with her father to have lunch. They talked about the case, and her dad seemed very, very interested in the part about the board she had found. He had always been a horror buff, and was intrigued by anything related to the occult. She explained how the sheriff had advised her not to fool with it until she had spoken with Barnett James and why. This intrigued him even more.

“I gotta meet this guy sometime. Sounds like we’d get along. Wouldn’t mind takin’ a look at that board, either,” said Rick, biting into his steak sandwich like it was trying to get away. He washed it down with a gulp of beer that took down half the glass.

“I’ll see if I can set that up,” Gail said with a grin as she squirted extra barbecue sauce across her Tater Hog, a giant baked potato split and stuffed with slow-smoked pulled pork, grilled onions and bell peppers, topped with melted cheddar and monterey jack, and jalapeños on the side. After they’d eaten, they decided they would both go visit her sister Natalie and her boys. Nattie’s husband Kevin would be at work, but she could always catch him later that evening.

Rick pulled a second helmet from one of his saddlebags and handed it to Gail. It had been her mother’s, and she and her sister were the only other people in the world allowed to wear it. The ride over was great; the cool mid-November wind in her face, the trees and lines on the road whipping by, the sound of the engine. She hadn’t been on her dad’s bike in a long time, and it somehow made the world make sense again to be riding on this rumbling monster that had been such a huge part of her childhood. Winter had been a joke in northern Georgia the last two or three years, and her dad rode his bike until the cold finally cut through his leathers.

He had a reputation as a dedicated rider, and it was well earned. Rick Stevens wasn’t a ‘one-percenter’ by any means, but he wasn’t someone you could or should mess around with either. He had a run-in with some members of the Black Iron Mafia once, and when the president rode up and saw him standing his ground against four of them and two already unconscious on the ground, he offered him a membership, no probationary period, no initiation. She remembered him as always having been a great father in spite of the ‘mean-ass biker’ label he had earned in this little town. He had his wild streak, and was quite the hellion in his youth, but from the moment Natalie was born he had cleaned up and stayed that way, save the occasional beer with friends or with meals.

They stayed well into the late afternoon at Nattie’s talking, having a few beers, and listening to the boys tell stories about school, the band they were trying to get off the ground, and how their dad had grounded them for racing the neighbors’ wheeled garbage cans up and down the street at 3:00 in the morning with their friends inside them.

“We hosed ’em out first!” was their only defense.

A few hours passed, the beers wore off, and late afternoon spilled over into evening. Natalie encouraged her dad and sister to stick around a couple more hours until Kevin came home, but Gail had worn herself out with all the excitement of the day and was in severe need of her medication. The ride back to T-Bone’s to get her car was a lot less comfortable than the ride to Natalie’s, but she still thoroughly enjoyed it.

“I’ll come by your house tomorrow morning, Pop.”

Gail smiled and hugged her father tightly before reaching for the door handle.

“Sounds good, Cupcake. Your uncle Bruce said he’s comin’ over after breakfast, so you might catch him before ya hafta take off.”

“Sweet! See you tomorrow then!”

Rick mounted his bike and fired it up, waving one last goodbye as he pulled off, the twin pipes of his flat-black beast uttering a deep, guttural roar as he sped off. He rode much more safely when he had one of his daughters as a passenger, but by himself, all bets were off. He started riding motorcycles at eleven years old, and only his family meant more to him. Gail shook her head and smiled as her dad rounded a turn two blocks up and disappeared. Once in the car, the excitement began to fade a little, and that familiar dull ache began to set in. With a heavy exhale, she started up her car and headed back to her little house on Henson Drive. Dusk was on its way, and her body longed for the comfort of her own queen-sized slice of heaven in her bedroom. Working cases kept her on the road a lot, especially being jostled from one to another lately, and her silky black-and-red-checkerboard sheets with the grinning skulls in every black square and extra-thick matching comforter were screaming her name.

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