The beast chased Samantha through darkened woods.
Saplings whipped at her face as she sped, faster, faster— knowing all the while that she could never outrun it. She stumbled into a moonlit clearing and turned, shuffling backward, the fear at last overcoming her, preventing her legs from taking another step. No more running, no place to hide. It emerged from the night-cloaked treeline on two legs, its fur glistening in the radiance of the bloated moon, its eyes burning like twin pits of fire. Lips parted to reveal teeth evolved to tear meat from bone.
The maw opened, and a single word escaped:
Samantha Cain had awoken with a sharp intake of breath; her pajamas had soaked all the way through to the sheets. Fading sunlight had peeked around the edges of her drawn curtains. A glance at the clock had told her that it was almost time to start getting ready for the evening shift.
The nightmare had remained present in her mind as she showered. This dream had been only slightly different from others—the one difference being the word spoken at the end.
After feeding the cat, while putting on her uniform, Sam had told herself that it was silly for her to dwell on it. After all, she knew what the cause was: her subconscious was reacting to a night two weeks ago when she had been on a foot chase, pursuing a suspect through a backyard. She had taken a nasty fall, hitting her head… and there had been a dog. Luckily the irate animal had been more interested in the fleeing driver than her, latching onto the suspect’s leg. Still, she had thought she might have to shoot the animal until the owner came out and called it off.
After that night she had begun having the nightmares. Dogs already made her nervous… that was how it had been for as long as she could remember. Now her mind was just taking that fear and manifesting it in night terrors. All she had to do was let them run their course.
The first few hours of her shift had been uneventful. One call for a bike theft, a few warrants and a stolen car to be on the lookout for; the usual paperwork. Not long after sundown there had been an anonymous call for a domestic violence incident. When she had arrived at the address, however, the home was empty. Sam had checked in with neighbors, who hadn’t heard anything, waited for fifteen minutes and then notified dispatch that the call was a bust. While it was good that no one was in danger, the waste of time was frustrating. She was less than two years out of the academy, still on a probationary period and looking to impress the department.
Had she missed anything? Sam was replaying her performance in her head while driving north on Knox Street through a residential neighborhood known as “Hard Knox” because of the drug and gang activity, as well as the homeless population. Her windows were up to ward off the frosty October air. There was a heavy cloud cover and a smattering of intermittent rain, not at all unusual for Washington State this time of year.
Sam had completed her mental self-review and was satisfied with the result when she swung into a roundabout and slammed on her brakes.
Standing in the middle of the road was a man, wearing a scarf, sweater and sweat pants and a ragged hooded coat. The scarf and hood kept his face hidden, but it wasn’t his face that brought Sam to a state of full alert:
The man’s gloved hands and arms were coated in blood.
While she was still registering the image before her, the figure dashed out of her headlights. Sam swung the cruiser through the roundabout, turned onto Harris and spotted the man on her left side running through an overgrown corner lot. She hit the brakes, put the car in park and leapt out, thumbing the talk button on her shoulder mic with her left hand…
“Blackrock, echo six in foot pursuit, code 2. Harris Street, the old church. South side…”
And withdrawing a mag light with her right. The subject was running toward the fence of an abandoned church that was a well-known squathouse.
Dispatch’s voice came through: “Copy echo six, backup en route.”
The man ran like a track star, disappearing through a large hole in the chain link fence. Sam followed, the flashlight in her left hand now as she unholstered her Glock 22.
Scanning with the light all around the tumbledown structure, Sam determined that the only place the man could have gone was inside. There was the slightest second of hesitation: should she go in alone? Was this the right thing to do, or a rookie move? Then she thought about the blood.
Someone could be dying in there…
A second later she was at the entrance, informing dispatch: “Blackrock, echo six, entering the church through the south entrance. Suspect is wearing a gray hooded coat, scarf, and sweatpants.”
The first open space she stepped into had once been an administrative area with a corridor and pastor’s offices. The inner walls had been demolished, leaving a devastated ruin that looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Sam had crossed her wrists, left under right, so the Glock’s barrel followed the mag beam. Her light revealed trash, debris, and used needles littering the floor. The smell of human waste was pungent.
Ahead of her and to the right, connected to the only walls that were still intact, was a doorway leading to the sanctuary, where services were held.
Rapid footfalls, decreasing in volume, carried to her. Sam hurried through the doorway, glancing to either side and then shining her light across the vast chamber.
The pews had long ago been chopped up and used as firewood. A light misting of rain drifted through the missing roof. Sam stepped forward, hearing a door crash open somewhere at the far end of the room. Casting her beam in that direction she saw an open doorway next to the stage. Something at the edge of the light caught her eye and she swung it over, frowning. She couldn’t be seeing what she thought she was seeing.
A man, hanging upside down. He was wearing pants but not a shirt. His skin was a pale, ghostly white. Sam hurried to the foot of the stage, taking a closer look, making a conscious effort to slow her breathing. The man was very clearly dead. There was a large, dark, wet vacancy where his throat should be and the face below it was masked in crimson. Barely enough of the mangled neck had remained to keep the head attached to the body. Into her mic, concentrating on keeping her voice even, she said:
“Echo six, Harris Street church, homicide to my location.”
Sam heard sirens now, getting closer. Her mag beam was reflecting off of something on the floor. She sucked in air when her light revealed a tarp stretched out over a large hole in the stage. The tarp was weighted at the edges with rocks, creating a reservoir beneath the corpse. That tarp was filled with blood. Further back was a broken straw broom, the kind with tapered bristles, like a brush. The broom too was soaked in gore.
Stepping aside, Sam shined the light onto the back wall behind the body. The back of her right hand flew to her mouth.
There, painted in bloody letters two feet tall was a single word: