Sam regained consciousness for the second time on cold concrete.
Her view was sideways, looking at old wooden steps—four treads with a handrail leading to a small landing. From there a longer set of wooden stairs ascended past the low ceiling and out of sight, presumably up to a door. There was a kerosene lantern on the landing, casting a weak glow onto the gray masonry walls. The air was thick with mold, dust and mildew. Somewhere, water dripped. Further above, heavy rainfall measured a steady beat.
“Get up,” Nina said from behind her.
Pain flared in Sam’s chin where she had been hit the second time. Rotating, forcing her stiff, cold muscles to obey, Sam worked her way to a sitting position and looked at Nina.
For some reason Sam couldn’t fathom, the young woman was naked; dirty and pale, her rain-slicked black hair stuck to her head. The skinny thing was shivering. A pile of clothes, including tennis shoes and socks, lay off to one side at the base of bare wooden shelves.
What held Sam’s attention most urgently, however, was the gun—Sam’s Glock—in Nina’s right hand, its barrel aimed jerkily at Sam’s chest.
“I said get up,” Nina repeated. Her voice was hoarse, like she was getting over a cold.
Sam held up a placating hand, palm out, and maneuvered to a standing position. “You wanted to talk, so let’s—”
“Shut up!” Nina spat. “It’s because of you, all of this… I tried to tell him you’re not worth it but he won’t let go.”
“Who? Who are you talking about?” Sam asked. “The man they call the Eclipse Killer? The one I asked you about befo—”
“Stupid! Stupid, stupid… the man in the church, it’s why the killers come to us. You! You’re why…”
Nina lifted the shaky barrel from Sam’s chest to her head. Perspiration had appeared on the woman’s face and chest. Goose pimples raised on her arms. Sam gauged the distance between them, calculating her chances of rushing her captor and wrestling the gun from her hand before Nina could squeeze off a shot. The distance was longer than she would have liked, but if going hands-on was her only chance, she’d take it.
Cocking her head as if gazing at the unseen night sky, Nina said “Not long now. You’ll see… see the truth. I’ll fix everything. For all of us. And then maybe just go. Go where the killers won’t find—”
Just then Nina doubled over and stumbled backward, spewing a thick stream of bile onto the concrete floor. Sam darted forward but Nina raised the Glock in a blur of speed, pressing the barrel against Sam’s forehead, pushing her back onto her heels, stepping barefoot into her own vomit, shoving until Sam’s Achilles’ hit the bottom wooden step.
Nina backed up, reached into her mouth with her left hand and rooted around. A second later she pulled out a tooth and tossed it to the floor.
What the hell is wrong with her? Some kind of disease?
“Don’t worry,” Nina said in a strained voice. “Not going to shoot you. Don’t… need to.” She leaned her head forward and spit out two more teeth. A long stream of bloody saliva dangled from her mouth.
“Here,” Nina said. Her eyes were drooping slightly as she tossed the gun onto the concrete floor at Sam’s feet.
Clearly Nina was mentally unstable… but Sam wasn’t about to question this turn of fortune. She bent down, never taking her eyes off of the woman, and picked up the gun.
“Shoot me,” Nina said. Her voice was raspy, thick, slurred from the missing teeth. And lower in pitch than it had been just a few seconds ago. She grimaced and bent over, clutching at her stomach.
“I don’t want to shoot you, Nina, I want to help you. You’re sick.”
The woman chuckled, her face hidden behind dangling black hair in the dim lantern light.
Sam was about to turn and go up the stairs, try to get back to the vehicle, maybe find her phone, when Nina rushed forward faster than should have been possible. She slammed Sam back until her ass hit the landing, and the two of them began tussling over the gun.
“Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me, bitch, shoot me!”
Though Sam had both hands on her gun, it was no use; Nina was impossibly strong. “SHOOT ME!” She screamed, spattering globs of crimson spit on Sam’s face. The woman yanked Sam’s wrists until the barrel was aimed at her own chest and with her thumb she forced Sam’s finger back against the trigger.
There was a loud bang and Nina tottered backward. Gun smoke drifted in the air; Sam’s ears rang.
Jesus, she did it. She really did it she made me shoot her.
Sam felt her stomach turn and thought she might puke. She shook her head to clear the ringing and looked, expecting to see the woman’s dead body on the floor…
But Nina was still standing.
A thin trickle of blood leaked out of the hole in her chest, just between her breasts. Sam couldn’t believe what she was seeing; the bullet had struck her heart; it must have…
All over her body, Sam’s skin prickled. This wasn’t real; couldn’t be real. Blood drained from her arms and legs; she felt weak, unable to run or fight or move or think. Her brain rejected what her eyes were seeing.
Nina reached up, put two fingers on either side of the bullet hole and pushed back against her skin. A glint of metal showed in the wound; a second later the deformed bullet emerged and dropped onto the floor into the small pool of Nina’s vomit.
“They won’t… find your body,” Nina said in a gravelly voice that sounded as if it had been altered, like when eyewitnesses had their voices disguised so they wouldn’t be recognized. One of the woman’s shoulders dropped as Nina closed her eyes. There was a popping sound. Her head tilted up, then snapped to the side. When it came upright again, her eyelids raised, revealing bright yellow, shining irises. Sam felt a scream building in her throat but no sound would come. Nina took a slow, shaky step forward and Sam fired three more shots, center mass.
Aside from shifting slightly, Nina seemed completely unaffected.
“Won’t be a lot… left of you…” Nina continued. Sam’s breathing sped up; sharp, ragged intakes that burned her lungs even though it felt as if she couldn’t get enough oxygen.
Run. You have to run!
Sam turned, thrust out her left hand and yanked the metal handle of the lantern as she clambered clumsily halfway up the long wooden stairs toward a narrow door at the top…
A door that was secured with a padlock and hasp.
Sam dropped the lantern on a wooden tread and scrambled to get a closer look. The hinged hasp was screwed into the door jamb, and fitted over a staple in the door. The padlock was locked on the staple.
A loud whap! sounded from below. Sam turned to see Nina’s arm on the landing. Her fingers dug into the wood, which split beneath her thick nails.
Jesus oh Jesus…
The fingers then did the impossible and lengthened. Nina’s gritty voice rumbled “I’ll eat the soft parts first… bury what I don’t eat… tomorrow...”
Sam turned back and fired once, twice, three times at the padlock. Her first two shots missed because she was shaking so badly. The third hit the padlock dead center. The bullet punched into it but didn’t go all the way through. Sam reached out with her left hand and yanked down on the lock but it didn’t budge.
There were heavy thumping sounds behind her.
Nina was coming up the stairs.
Sam’s heart threatened to beat right out of her chest as she turned to look. Nina was on all fours, just a few steps below the lantern. She stopped, her entire body seizing, muscles trembling; her back arched upward. There was a series of loud cracks as her spine snapped in several places.
Get out you have to get out…
Sam turned back, looking at the hasp, the lock, the screws. Shooting the lock wouldn’t work but the roundhead screws were fairly small. The Glock held nineteen rounds. Sam had no idea how many she had already fired, but she would have to make these last shots count.
Holding the Glock at an angle close to the three screws securing the hasp to the jamb, Sam ignored the stretching, snapping, popping sounds on the stairs below and fired five times point-blank at the screw heads.
The metal was left scarred and scored, but to Sam’s relief one of the screw heads had been sheared off, and another was half missing. That left only one completely intact.
She needed something thin to fit into the slot of the screw head…
Sam smacked the gun onto the top tread, fumbled the badge holder out of her pocket then snatched out the badge. It took both hands, one steadying the other and Sam concentrating on reigning in her labored breath, to fit the edge of her badge into the screw head slot. She twisted, and the screw rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise. She repeated the motion three times, repositioning her hands. It was working. Agonizingly slowly but it was working.
A loud thump sounded from below. Sam gazed wide-eyed back down the stairs. The thing that greeted her vision was only partially Nina. She had made it halfway up the steps, her feet resting just above the landing. Those feet had become thin and elongated. And her legs were… deformed. The thighs were shortened, the calves thinned out, tapered. Her heels formed a kind of backward knee.
The thing that was no longer Nina crawled up one more step and stuck her head closer to the dim light, opening her blood-coated mouth.
As Sam watched, horrified, the thing’s head... changed, reshaping itself into something not human. The mouth opened impossibly wide as the remaining teeth fell out of the gaping maw, forcibly ejected by the extrusion of glistening, curved fangs. There were sounds like a rubber glove being stretched; Nina’s head quivered, her nose, upper mouth and jaw pushed forward. Her ears disappeared and her long black hair sloughed off in ragged chunks, leaving shorter dark hair beneath.
Warm, wet liquid gushed into the crotch of Sam’s jeans. She quaked uncontrollably as she used both hands to aim the Glock at Nina’s head and emptied her remaining ammo.
Aside from the cracking sounds her bullets made when they pierced the skull, there was no reaction. Hair continued to grow on the thing, on its face and body. Pointed ears grew upward; and the thing’s eyes turned down on the inside corners and up on the outside.
The beast’s left arm whipped out, striking the lantern, toppling it. The lamp’s base blocked the light, plunging the lower half of the stairs into darkness; impenetrable save for those glowing eyes.
GET. OUT. NOW.
Sam went into a kind of autopilot, her brain focusing on a single imperative: escape. She cursed her trembling hands, forcing the badge edge back into the screw head. Turning it ninety degrees once more…
From the darkness below came a low, rumbling growl, amplified by the stone walls. It sparked an immediate, primal response in Sam: the terror of the mouse under the claws of the cat, the soul-chilling dread of the fox cornered by the hound.
She turned the screw one more time and then forced her badge under the hasp. At first there was no result but then the hasp lifted away from the wood slightly. She levered with all her might and it separated a fraction more. Sam twisted the doorknob and pushed, dislodging the hasp further. Slamming her shoulder into the door, she felt it give, straining against the metal. She was almost there…
In the blackness below, the growl increased. Claws dug into wood. The thing was preparing to spring.
Sam threw all of her weight into the door; the hasp broke away.
As fast as her quaking legs would carry her, Sam ran…
Into a short hallway, then a bare kitchen. There was a smashing sound as the thing collided with the hallway wall. Sam rushed on, through an unfurnished living room to the home’s front door. The beast crashed its way through the kitchen as Sam twisted the doorknob and flung herself out onto a wooden porch, jumping the front steps into mud and pouring rain. Her Mustang was parked just in front of the home. She ran to the passenger door: locked.
The thing reached the doorway as Sam scrambled past the front of the car, feet slipping in the mud; she came around, yanked on her door handle and mercifully the door opened. She squeezed in and slammed the door shut as the beast leaped onto the hood.
Those eyes were just on the other side of the glass, and whatever may have existed of Nina was no longer behind them. The thing staring at her was simply a beast; a wolf-like beast that still retained a semblance of human form. It bared its fangs and pressed its muzzle against the windshield.
Sam’s heart thundered as she reached to where her car keys should be, but they weren’t there. Glancing into the rearview mirror she saw that the trunk lid was still up. Were the keys still in the trunk lock?
Swinging its legs over the side of the hood, the beast landed in the mud and moved to the driver’s side window. It barked and gnashed its teeth against the glass. Sam held her palms to her ears, shutting her eyes tight, screaming…
And then she heard a shot.
She looked over to see the beast crumple and fall out of sight.
For a few seconds there was only the sound of Sam’s breathing and the pounding rain. Then, a figure emerged, rifle in hand. It proceeded to the passenger side window and leaned in.
The face was that of Elias, the mechanic.
“Let me in!” he yelled.