…whatever… v. 1.5
copyright 2014 by Jeremiah Donaldson
2004 Dancing Shadows
2007 Bardsandsages.com '07 horror contest finalist
2009 Horroraddicts.net, pod cast #17
2010 Four-Cornered Universe
2014 reprinted by Dark Futures magazine
2010 Spring Issue of Title Goes Here:
Something This Way Flutters
All rights reserved. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidence and not related to any zombie apocalypse. Maybe.
Table of Contents
SOMETHING THIS WAY FLUTTERS
The old man said...
"I see you there, don't turn away.
I'm your friend, no matter what you think.
Ignore the eye, ignore the leg,
ignore the stink, ignore the pus.
Time has not been very kind to me,
don't stare too long or I may FREAK!"
"Ha, ha, ha, it is not so bad.
I didn't mean to scare you boy,
you are a handsome lad.
I'd like to tell you a tale
that will make you shiver and run,
cry and moan as I LAUGH at my fun!"
"So push the cat out of the way,
you better not hurt his three extra legs!
Sit your butt down,
prop up your feet.
Midnight Run, remember it as.
Once you have heard, you will never fear
anything else that you ever hear!"
"Not long ago, nor far from here,
there lived an old man with his dog.
No one liked him,
enough to spit upon.
He lived a sparse life,
you could never believe.
Once a month he would walk into town
to cash the check that he found.
In the mailbox, he thought for his dog,
but a crazy check as you should guess.
Once a month you could see him around.
stumbling down the street,
raving at the town and waving his cane.
For years this came to pass,
then one month his visit came and passed.
No one looked for him, no one cared,
they just said good riddance "He's out of here!"
A week later pets begin to disappear."
"It was the old man,"
the boy said with a grin.
"That much is true,
but there is more tale to spin."
"The days went by and passed into weeks.
Every couple days a pet would go amiss.
No one thought about the man and his dog.
No reason to suspect him.
No reason to think,
That he sneaked into town
at the top of every night for something to eat.
The government thought that he was dead,
no more checks would they send.
They would never learn of this mistake,
but in the meantime he had to feed.
Old and slow, he couldn't run,
so had to lure them to their fate.
He killed his dog with a shovel,
so to use him as bait.
The skin he saved to make a cloak,
found it too small, so tied it around his throat.
In bib overalls and dog skin scarf,
he begin going out every midnight to hunt."
The boy started to rise.
"Christ, old man, you should get a life."
The old man's laughter filled the room.
"I do! I have you!
Sit back down, the tale is almost done."
"Night after night the shovel swung true,
the man ate good, let me tell you,
as the pets of the town disappeared.
Then one night there was a snag,
all the pets were behind fences or inside.
The old man adjusted to the shift,
begin braining farm animals left and right.
Then on one fateful night,
when the fog hung low,
hiding all from sight.
To his ears came a sound as he pattered about.
An innocent young voice,
singing in the night.
He readied the shovel and stood still,
waiting for his target to grow near.
Then she did,
and he swung true.
Everyone was riled and upset.
No one suspected.
No one guessed.
So the old man continued unchecked."
The boy sighed and twisted.
"Can I get paid for the yard?
I just want to go."
The old man smiled and shook his head,
black yellow teeth showed behind his lips.
"Just a minute more and you'll be out the door."
"With the death of the girl,
he had signed his fate.
But not one day later,
nor one week.
Six kids later and five weeks,
his luck came to an end.
He was seen one night,
hacking a corpse limb from limb.
The lady who held witness fainted from shock,
it was her daughter she was going to pickup.
When she came to he was gone.
Quick as she could she called the cops,
directed them to the bloody spot.
From the description everyone knew
who to blame and who to hang.
The posse they went.
The posse they left.
The rickety old shack was empty.
Just some boiled bones laughed at their efforts.
Everywhere they searched,
not a trace was found."
The old man stopped and smiled.
"Do you know why he wasn't found?"
The boy shifted nervously in his seat.
"How should I know?"
The old man's smile widened.
"Because he came to live with his brother."
The boy laughed and stood up.
"You're a shitty storyteller, old man.
Now can I have my pay and be on my way?"
The old man chuckled.
A figure stepped out of the shadows behind the boy.
"All in good time."
The old man said as the shovel descended.
A stone rolled under his boot, and Private Ned Johnson fell. The knees of his blue uniform pants ripped and rocks tore his dark skin. His palms were shredded as he tried to stop his forward momentum. He half succeeded and kept his face from digging into the ground. For a few seconds he lay still, straining his ears for any indication that the thing on the mountainside was in pursuit, but could only hear his pulse thudding in his ears.
The cougar’s scream had erupted out of nowhere while he tried to approach the Apaches’ campsite in the darkness. In itself, it meant nothing was wrong. Cougars were well known to roam New Mexico Territory, as all the soldiers at Fort Bayard knew. But the cry sounded again, and again. Then the noise of a furious row filled the air. The cougar moaned in pain and anger. Whatever it fought, fought in silence. With one final outcry that was so filled with sorrow that Johnson shuddered, the cougar fell silent and the loudest wolf-howl he had ever heard reverberated across the mountain. The hair stood on every part of his body. Something crashed through the undergrowth to his right, he panicked, and had bounded down the path toward his horse.
He felt foolish as he brushed the dirt off the front of his faded blue uniform. The night was again silent, and the cloud covering the face of the full moon drifted to the side, giving him enough light to examine his wounds. They were superficial, but the greater insult was that his rifle lay somewhere on the path behind him. Like the Colt revolver in the holster at his side, the repeating rifle had cost a pretty penny. He couldn’t just leave it.
He glanced downhill. His horse was just visible next to a large rock, and the others hadn’t arrived yet. He’d known it was a bad idea to split up, but with so much ground to cover they didn’t have a choice. Corporal Barnett and a new recruit named Hallow had gone into the valley to check out a cave while Johnson scouted up to the ridgeline. But he’d found the Apaches instead of a cold camping site. Could have been worse, the Apaches could have found him.
He looked up the path. Skid marks in the rocky, dirt path marked where he’d fallen. No one would have any problem tracking him. He pulled his Colt Army revolver from its holster and cocked the hammer. He worked his way up the path, looking for his rifle. Within a few moments he was dusting it off and making sure that nothing had been damaged. The weapon calmed his nerves.
Had the Apaches heard? Probably not, since I still got a scalp.
With a little luck, the uncanny howl had distracted them from the sound of him blundering down the path. He inched his way through the brush and climbed onto a rock overlooking the depression where the natives had camped, but they had gone. Johnson squinted. The embers from their fire still glowed red, the light just touched the blankets laid out around it. He lowered himself to his chest and froze. They must have realized someone had found them and either left or were going to ambush him.
A cloud blocked out the moonlight, and Johnson was grateful.
I'm in over my head. Gotta find Barnett.
A movement in the bushes behind him was loud in the silence of the night. Johnson eased himself up on his toes and fingertips to turn himself around. Rough, wet panting came from the darkness. A twig snapped. Something hard scraped on the rock.
Johnson eased the hammer back on his rifle and rose to one knee.
Damned bear. Should have known. What else would take on a cougar? The wolf howling was just coincidence. Or the Apaches were making the sounds as cover. Either way…
The bushes rustled again as he stood up. He could sense the movement of something large and graceful at the base of the rock.
The rifle kicked against his shoulder, and he automatically levered another shell into the chamber. He pulled the trigger for a second time before realizing that it wasn’t a bear illuminated in the muzzle flash. Nor was it an Apache sneaking up on him. It was bigger, and let out a roar brimming with rage as Johnson’s second slug tore into its shoulder.
Johnson staggered backward in surprise, and dropped his rifle when his boot heel caught on the rough surface of the rock. Massive claws racking on stone warned him it was coming. He drew his Colt just as moonlight pushed aside the darkness. He wished it hadn’t.
The thing was taller than his healthy six feet even while on its knees. Thick arms were knotted with muscles that seemed as if they should have burst through the thickly furred skin that contained them. The hands ended in claws half as long as his Bowie knife. Fresh blood covered them, as well as most of the thing’s forearms. It launched itself toward Johnson with its hands open, ready to drag him into a mouth so wide it seemed to encompass everything from the throat upwards.
He fanned the hammer of his Colt with the palm of his left hand as he jumped backwards. Two of the bullets opened wounds in the roof of the gaping mouth, but the other four missed or had no effect. The thing staggered and dropped to all fours. It growled and shook its head.
Johnson turned and jumped off the front of the rock.
The intelligence that burned in the yellow eyes of the wolf-faced beast wasn’t natural! What had the Apaches―
He hit the ground hard and slammed his right shoulder into a boulder as he rolled. His arm went numb and the revolver dropped to the ground. No matter, he didn’t have time to reload the six cylinders anyway.
His lungs burned and his legs wobbled as he ran, but just ahead was the edge of the depression. The treacherous mountainside lay beyond.
The night turned black as the moon was obscured again, and Johnson had to make a leap of faith as he started downhill at breakneck speed. Almost immediately, the tip of one boot got hung on a rock and he spilled forward onto his face. He slid on his stomach for what seemed forever. His hands found nothing to halt himself with and only pulled loose more debris. Dirt filled his eyes. He didn’t see what knocked him out.
Slowly, he realized that he was on the ground. His face was buried in rubble collected at the base of a boulder. He tried to move, but his body protested being bothered with such things. A ringing filled his head. Something grabbed his shoulder and rolled him onto his back.
“Barnett?” Johnson mumbled. He opened his eyes, but dirt blinded him.
Hot, moist air drifted over his face and something licked his cheek once, twice, and a third time. A cold nose touched his chin.
He tried to get to the knife on the left side of his belt, but his right arm was still numb and his left was trapped under his non-responsive body.
A hot tongue licked his throat and the form above him stood. Another howl shook the night and cleared the ringing in his ears.
The beast growled and dropped onto Johnson’s chest.
His breath escaped in a gasp, ending the scream building in his throat.
He barely felt the teeth as they tore into the sides of his neck, but he heard the crunch of his spine being bitten in half, and felt the jet of incredibly hot blood splatter his face as it pumped from his severed arteries. The world rolled as his head turned to a different angle once it wasn’t held in place by a neck.
The last thing he heard as his thoughts faded was the beast lapping blood from the pool around his head.
# # #
“Nuthin’ in here,” Barnett said, and pushed the torch in his left hand toward the cave floor. “No one’s been here since the last scout. We done wasted our time comin’ down here.”
Hallow squinted at the spot of dirt. Army boot tracks overlaid older, barefoot prints. “Fort Bayard isn’t as exciting as I thought.”
Barnett leaned the torch against the wall and pulled a pinch of tobacco from a pouch hanging on his belt. He chewed hard a few times and tucked it into one cheek. A grin crept to the corners of his mouth. “Things can go crazy like that―“ He snapped the fingers of his free hand. “They’re always out there, the Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, and all the others. Can’t see ’em, but they can see you.”
“Remember it,” Barnett said, and picked up the torch. “I’ve been out here since Fort Bayard was built.”
Hallow’s face fell. “You make them sound like ghosts.”
“I’ve never heard of a ghost shootin’ a man in the gut, scalpin’ him, and leavin’ him for the buzzards.” Barnett spat onto the cave floor. “I’d take a ghost any day.”
The recruit cleared his throat. “How come you been out here so long?”
“Like it, got me away from the East after the war. I jumped at the chance and never looked back.” Barnett starting walking toward the entrance.
“You joined up before the war?”
Barnett stopped and pulled down the left side of his collar, holding the torch close so that Hallow could see the twisted line of tissue that ran around that side of his neck. “Durin’. I tried to escape when the Union entered Atlanta, but was caught. A Union soldier cut me down in the nick of time. I din’t have no family, but General Sherman was glad for more shootin’ hands.” He shrugged. “Most of the boys at Fort Bayard used to be slaves, so we get along good.”
“The living quarters are a bit rough, though.”
“Shoulda been here when we had sod walls and no palisade.”
“Sod! No fortifications?”
“I knew you’s from Philadelphia, but I’d expect you to know the fort started from something.”
“Well, yeah…but Dad made us a good home with his butler money. I never even camped out. Then he decided I should serve some time in the army and made it a requirement for inheriting the family land.”
Barnett clapped the skinny recruit on the back. “Soundin' like he sent you out to be a man. You sure landed at the right place to be run through the mill. C' mon, Johnson’s waitin’ for us.”
The crisp air was refreshing after the stale interior of the cave, and Barnett took a deep breath before bending over to dash the torch out against the ground. He replaced it in its hiding place, a crevice behind a boulder, for the next men sent to check out here. He scanned their surroundings. Nothing had changed since they’d entered the cave. A movement at his elbow caused him to turn. Hallow had brought the horses over. Barnett opened his mouth to speak, but closed it with a snap. The faint crack of pistol shots came from far up the side of the mountain. He looked, but the valley was too deep to see anything. “Johnson’s found some difficulty.”
Barnett pulled himself onto his horse, spat, and said, “Mayhap.” He dug his spurs into the horse’s flanks, and galloped away before Hallow could ask more useless questions.
# # #
Johnson’s horse pulled at its reins, and his eyes rolled back in fear, showing the whites. He yanked hard enough to shake the good sized tree that he was tied to, and only calmed down after Barnett stroked his mane and spoke in his ear for several minutes.
Barnett shrugged. “Up there, probably. He went on foot for stealth.”
“And they still found him.”
Barnett tied his horse to the tree, and pulled the rifle from its sheath on the side of his saddle. He waited for Hallow to do the same.
Barnett shook his head and drew a finger over his mouth. For several moments they stood in silence. Only the horses made any sound. Barnett looked up the thin path, barely more than a game trail, waved for Hallow to follow, and started uphill with his rifle cradled in his arms.
Johnson had left clear tracks and they quickly found a disturbed area.
“Was he captured?”
Barnett shook his head. “Naw. He went up, ran back, fell, and then turned back uphill.” He looked at Hallow. "He shoulda reported back soon as he hit trouble. We’re not to fight, jus‘ find 'em.”
Hallow looked around nervously. “Then shouldn’t we get out of here?”
“You go home with everyone, or you know what happened to ’em.”
The new recruit nodded in agreement.
Barnett caught the coppery odor of blood in the air soon after and followed it to the base of a boulder next to the trail. It was splattered over the ground and bushes. A trace led up the block of granite.
He carefully climbed the rock, and almost tripped on Johnson’s rifle. He retrieved it, and looked down on the depression in the side of the mountain. Some distance away the coals from a campfire were kept alive by the breeze. Nothing but the flickering light moved. He traced a path from the campsite to the base of his vantage point where something metallic caught his eye in the pale moonlight. Johnson’s pistol was half buried in loose dirt. He climbed down and motioned for Hallow to keep up.
Barnett scowled at the recruit. “He’s not dead 'til he’s dead.”
“Both weapons? Someone got him. Who knows why they didn’t take his guns, but they got him.”
“Yeah…” Barnett said absently as his mind wandered. Johnson was in trouble at the base of the rock, climbed up, lost his rifle, and…fell?…got pushed? from the top and lost his pistol. He handed the extra rifle to Hallow, loaded Johnson’s Colt, and shoved it under his belt. “Find ’im, check any crannies. He’s probably wounded and hidin'. I’m gonna look at that campfire.”
Hallow nodded and blinked to clear his eyes of the sweat that poured from his forehead. “Yes, Corporal.”
The ground was rough, and the fifty yard walk to the campsite took several minutes as Barnett weaved his way around boulders and brush. He listened intently to the night, but only heard his own footsteps. Even the crickets had ceased their racket.
The blankets around the fire were what he’d expected. The weapons weren’t.
He nudged the unstrung bows and quivers of arrows. Four Indians wouldn’t have been spooked enough by one soldier to leave their bows. Barnett shook his head and looked around the silent campsite. Nothing added up. One way or another there, should have been bodies. Rather than being calmed by the absence of enemies, he worried about who could be watching him. He started to turn back, but caught sight of an odd shape at the edge of his vision.
The club was like nothing he’d ever seen. Large as his fist, the chunk of silver that served as the business end of the weapon was worth a year’s pay, maybe more. Strange totems had been etched into the surface of the silver. More had been burned into the leather wrapped around the long, bloody handle. Sinew held the silver in place, and two eagle feathers had been tied to a strap that hung from the end of the handle. He shoved the handle under his belt.
Barnett jumped at the words and jerked his rifle to the left. Nothing was in sight. He glanced back the way he had come and saw Hallow’s silhouette too far away for it to have been him who whispered the words.
“Ha…Ha…Strong like buffalo and dumb like white man's cow.”
Leaves rustled as a tree branch was moved aside. Barnett almost pulled the trigger, but the Indian already appeared bathed in blood. No weapons were visible.
Still, it could be a trap.
He eased forward and stopped just outside the Indian’s reach.
“Where’s the other soldier?”
The Indian laughed. One eye swung from its mangled socket with each hitch of breath, and his teeth were visible through one ripped cheek each time he opened his mouth. “Running with the Wolf Spirit.” He laughed again, but it turned into a coughing fit that brought blood to his lips. “We invaded…its territory…this mountain.”
“I don’t believe in any spirits I can’t drink.”
The man pointed to his wounds. “It did this.”
“Where’s Johnson? You‘ll die first if this is a trap! Talk!”
The Indian laughed derisively.
“Hey! You find something, Corporal?”
“Yeah, get over here!” Barnett knelt next to the Indian, pushing the end of his rifle barrel to within inches of the bloody face. “Speak up about Johnson. Maybe you didn’t kill ‘em, but you saw who did.”
The Indian coughed again, causing a gush of blood from between his lips. Barnett followed his line of sight, and repositioned one arm to block any attempt at the club.
“The spirit entered my wounds.” The Indian pointed at his forehead. “The gray rock can free me.”
“You expect me to bludgeon you to death?”
“You would shoot me in the dark.”
“Maybe…how long before more chase my brothers up here?”
“Stop attackin’ the miners.”
“They disrespect our land.”
“Our government says they can be here.”
“The same that enslaved your kind.”
“Mind your own business!”
“Kill me!” The Indian yelled, and sat up. One hand appeared, holding a knife.
Barnett reacted instantly. A single shot broke the silence.
The Indian slumped over and lay still. His eyes flickered. “Only the…gray…you…”
“What the hell was that about?” Hallow said as he walked up.
“He tried to trick me into getting stabbed.”
“Did he kill Johnson?”
Barnett shrugged. “He said Johnson went with the Wolf Spirit. Jus’ some native rubbish. I don’t know what happened. There shoulda been more Apaches if he’s part of the raidin’ party we’re trackin‘.”
“Maybe this one got mauled and they left him behind.”
“Still doesn’t ‘splain what happened to Johnson.” Barnett spat out his worn out tobacco and shoved more into his mouth. He chewed for a few seconds before speaking. “I don’t like this, let‘s git.”
“Just a few Indians.”
“Do ya think that one took out Johnson? I don’t. No bullet wounds, he wasn't shot, but we know Johnson was shootin’ at something. Any sign of him?”
“His tracks led over the side of the mountain. No body, but there’s enough blood splattered all over that he must be dead.”
A cloud obscured the moon. The land was once more thrown into a shadow. Barnett spat and led the way back to the horses.
# # #
Barnett heard the stealthy sound, and his rifle was up in an instant. He squinted. The branch that seemed to move was a dozen feet off the ground. Then the bush next to the tree moved. Barnett froze. Listening. The bush moved again. A twig snapped and a low growl sounded.
He looked over at Hallow. The new recruit was shaking as he wiped sweat out of his eyes. He nudged the private in the shoulder and motioned for him to continue down the path, but the man seemed stuck in place. Barnett hit him in the shoulder and hissed, “Come on.”
Hallow turned to him and swallowed. “That…”
Barnett frowned at the fear in Hallow’s eyes. The boy would never survive Fort Bayard if he couldn’t handle a wild animal or two. “It’s jus‘―”
Another branch cracked, and what Barnett had thought was a bush moved again. One arm let go of the tree it had been hanging onto and the thing lost some of its height as it crouched.
Barnett flung himself to the side as the form launched into the air.
Hallow stood in shock and was crushed to the ground underneath the massive creature. The creature split his chest open before the skinny man could even scream and buried its snout in the wound.
Barnett stumbled backwards for several steps before turning to bound down the path without daring to look back.
He reached the horses panting, with a stitch in his side. He reached for the nearest saddle horn to pull himself up, but was knocked backwards when all three mounts reared at the same time. He looked opposite the direction they shied from.
A shadow separated itself from the forest, and claws opened the throat of Barnett’s horse. The animal dropped to its side, twitching as blood gushed from the wound.
Screaming, Barnett pulled the trigger of his rifle, but only sent a slug flying through the forest. He hit the beast with the second shot, and it growled in pain while tearing into another horse. The roar of the rifle drowned out his own screams as he chambered shell after shell and fired at the massive form that was ripping the horses limb from limb. The lower half of a hind leg flew through the air toward him, showering him with hot blood and reminding him that he had to get out of there, and the beast charged.
Pain flared through his hands when he blocked the swing meant to disembowel him, and lost his rifle in the process. Its shattered remains clattered over the rocks. He stumbled to the side while trying to pull his revolver with a hand that wouldn't work. It was numb, and some of the bones seemed to be broken. His pistol dropped from his fumbling fingers and bounced away.
Tears of anger forced themselves from his eyes as he ran down the path toward the valley floor.
I didn't survive slavery and the war to be killed by a…a…thing! He forced his hands to open and close. Shattered bones grated back into place and some movement returned along with a great deal of pain.
Instinctively, he jumped to the side, and shuddered as the wind from the creature’s claws tickled his cheek as the monster missed and tumbled downhill. His boots slid on the loose soil, but he saved himself by hooking a tree with the crook of his elbow and letting his momentum use itself up.
He pulled the club free and closed his fist around the handle. Pain made him groan as he wrapped the strap tightly around his hand to hold the weapon in place. It was a pathetic weapon before the thing he had to fight. The silver head was all he'd wanted it for, now he was willing to trust his life to it.
He looked down the hill to find himself being stalked by the wolf-headed beast. It walked upright, balancing on its front knuckles. Something in its savage mind didn’t like Barnett staring; it answered with a drawn out howl and dropped to all fours to charge.
Height was the only advantage he had, and it was only good for one shot. He stepped to the right side of the tree. The creature took the bait and angled toward him.
The coiled muscles under the thing’s pelt rippled as the long legs pushed its bulk up the hill. A ridge of black hair ran down its back. Yellow eyes, the color of old pus, glared at him. The mouth opened to reveal a drooping tongue and teeth as large as a man’s little finger.
Still, he waited.
The creature rose to its hind legs a dozen steps away, reaching unnaturally long arms towards him. He saw his men's blood caked in the thing's fur and shuddered.
The massive claws were inches away when he dove to the other side of the tree. The beast tried to follow, but was stopped by the tree just as its hand closed and pain burned in Barnett‘s left thigh.
Barnett heaved upward with all his might, trying to catch the nightmarish face with an uppercut. Instead, he hit the elbow of the arm that had reached him. He thought he missed. The club encountered the barest amount of resistance, but the effect on the creature was drastic.
Bone shattered in the thing’s arm and fragments tore through its skin like huge needles that had been hiding underneath. The thing shrieked as it pulled back from Barnett with its wounded appendage flopping uselessly. The only time he’d ever heard such a pain-filled cry was years before when a fellow slave fell into the drive wheels of a water powered cotton gin. The screams still woke him up on bad nights.
The damn thing was hurt!
Barnett rubbed his wounded leg, watching in awe as the thing’s injured arm shrank and turned pale. Fur fell off in clumps and a clear liquid oozed from the skin. The beast cradled the useless limb to its chest and growled. It backed away, looking side to side.
“You yellow bastard!” Barnett yelled. He hadn’t expected to get off the mountain alive since Hallow died, and wouldn‘t until the thing was dead. “You done killed two of my men, and you got a lickin' to take!”
He edged closer to the creature as it slid down the hill away from him. Johnson’s Colt felt good, if awkward, in his left hand. He felt confident that he could hold it steady enough to shoot despite the pain.
The creature threw its head back and howled. Long and mournful, Barnett thought it wouldn’t end. He took advantage of it and fired. The slug entered the thing’s face and cut the howl short with a cry of pain that sounded almost human. It tried to drop to all fours, but fell over on its weakened arm. Snorting and growling, it rolled down the hill.
Barnett dropped the revolver as the powerful recoil sent a wave of pain up his arm that caused him to grit his teeth. He gave chase, and after a few steps gained so much momentum that each bound carried him a dozen feet downhill. He locked onto the creature’s head as it tried to clear its eyes.
It didn’t see the club that sprayed its shattered skull and brain all over the floor of the valley. The massive body fell backwards as if pole axed. Limbs contorted as the thing twitched and arched its back.
Barnett dropped to his knees and let out a huge sigh. He looked up to see the thing’s body shrinking and the fur falling off to reveal smooth skin. More liquid oozed from the flesh while bones crunched and creaked as they changed shape. Within a minute there lay before him a young Indian maid. She was perfect in every way except that her head was gone from the bridge of her nose up and one arm was mangled.
He pushed himself up on shaky legs, holstered the empty six shooter, and tucked the club back under his belt. On the third attempt he got a chew stuffed into his mouth. For several minutes he stood, trying to calm his racing mind. Never had he seen anything like this. Stories were rampant. Myths flowed like water in the West. But this was the first time a myth had almost killed him.
He ran his fingers through his short, curly hair and reseated his hat. The men in the garrison would think he’d lost his mind if he came back with this story. There was plenty of time to think of a suitable tale on the long walk back. But first, he had to get supplies.
Every sound made him jump on the way back to the dead horses. The mountainside remained silent. Perhaps there had been too much death this night.
He gagged as he approached the animals. Their bodies had been torn apart and the spilled intestines reeked. His boots made sucking sounds in the mud produced by all the gore. It took him several minutes to separate one set of saddle bags from the torn flesh. Finally, he had the prize and walked away from gruesome scene.
He traveled quickly, his thoughts on the value of the bloodied club under his belt and the curious itching that radiated from the wound in his leg.
Benjamin Yarkov watched the applicant enter his office. He sighed. Military types always looked the same. Close cropped hair. A brand new suit. Neutral faces they thought showed authority. He stood and shook the man's hand, admiring his taste in ties. Real silk had become a luxury again since China's production had shut down before the war.
"Major Nash Works, Sir," the man said.
"Pleased to meet you." Benjamin waved toward the wood chair in front of his desk. "Let's get started."
"Drop the 'sir'. Call me Ben."
"Yes, s― Uh, Ben." He shifted in the seat. "You are the head of the Life Security Agency."
Ben smiled. He opened the Major's file laying on his battered desk, and scribbled a few tiny words on the inside front cover.
Respects the chain of command.
He glanced at the picture topping a stack of paper containing everything about Nash from his first Christmas present to what time he went to bed the night before. The Major looked as stern in civilian clothing as uniform.
"Did you love the military or think it was a fun power trip?"
The Major frowned. "What, si― Ben?"
"Just that. Are you a Major because it pays the most or because you love your men and country?"
"I love my country, si― Ben."
"That's good, Major. How much combat have you seen?"
"I enlisted in 2023, was posted on the Chinese/Russian border at the start of the war, then got picked for special forces in time to be wounded during Operation BROKEN RIDGE. My injuries put me in the tactics room."
"That was some fight. Nothing like Tibet in winter."
The Major nodded.
"Why do you want to join the LSA?"
"The Asian War is over. We're being downsized."
Ben smirked. "Why don't you join law enforcement?"
"Why join a militia when there's the Army, why join the police when there's the LSA?
"I like your attitude." Ben leaned back and swiveled his chair toward the right. He pressed a couple buttons on the arm, activating the huge screen that filled the wall. White lines traced a grid of inch by inch squares. A live view from a camera somewhere on Earth cycled through each square. "Do you know what that is?"
"Take a look." Ben watched for the first signs of disbelief. No one ever thought the images were real.
The Major's face went slack, and he was silent for several seconds. "Is that what I think it is?"
"What do you think it is?"
Believes what he sees.
"Each picture is a stream from a camera somewhere in the world that's hooked up to a computer, cell phone, PDA, or any other electronic device."
The Major's eyes darted from side to side. "Even bathrooms."
Ben nodded as he wrote.
"We can look at them anytime?"
Ben slashed out 'possible'. "Yes, but let's move on. What do you think we do here?"
The Major grinned. "You oversee the planet's security, alerting local authorities to crime captured on digital feeds, and monitor for terrorist activity."
"Something like that." Ben pushed more buttons. A still picture of a pimple faced young man filled the screen. "Any idea what he did?"
"He's a criminal?"
"Looks like a kid."
"Three years ago Marvin Brown hacked the New York Power Authority and shut down the whole state for a month."
"That was solar flares."
"It was reported as solar flares." The picture of Marvin switched to one of a burnt house. "Because Marvin was removed."
"As a threat to our country?"
Perceived enemies are expendable.
The image changed to a man in military fatigues standing at the edge of a forest surrounded clearing. The picture had been taken from high above the ground.
"I hope you know this guy."
"Moses Marcel. Leader of the Last Days Cult."
The Major shrugged. "One of his men shot him to stop an assassination attempt on the United States President."
A picture of a Removal Team member in LSA's gray and blue uniform replaced Moses Marcel. "Well, not his man, but close enough."
Follows current events.
Ben pushed another button. Half the picture was of a dirty man in tattered clothes being escorted to a police car; the other half was of the same man, much younger, sitting in front of a computer with a bound and gagged woman in a chair behind him.
"Kenny Pierce?" The Major paused. "But―"
"He kidnapped, raped, and killed 172 people." Ben paused, letting the words hang. "Over a period of nineteen years. He's the deadliest confirmed serial killer in history."
The Major touched the screen. "You didn't stop him?"
"Not our job."
"Not your―" The Major shook his head. "Why? He destroyed families."
"It gave the locals something to do."
"He killed innocents that I swore to protect!"
Ben sighed. "You swore to protect your country. He wasn't a threat to the government, only a local menace."
The Major sagged in the chair, putting covering his face with hands that looked too delicate for killing.
Ben put down his pen. "That concludes the interview."
The Major looked up. "But―"
Ben strode around the desk and took him by the elbow. "It's a difficult job. Few make it."
"I'm fine. Just―"
Ben tugged on the man's arm. "Others are waiting."
The Major relaxed and Ben led him out the door. Ben returned to his desk, and poked two buttons on the phone.
Tom, head of the Removal Team, made the speaker crackle with his deep voice. "Yes, Ben?"
"Applicant 47 failed. Remove him, and store the body with the others until the position is filled. Make this one painless, I liked this guy."
"Make sure our condolences are sent out after the bus crash. We don’t need more awkward questions. The government isn’t supposed to make mistakes."