Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE EYES HAVE IT (Revised Version)

Genre: Horror
 

THE EYES HAVE IT
By Daniel Skye

 
          Long Island, New York.
          It was low tide when the body of Fritz Zoller washed up along the jetties, his mangled corpse crashing against a wall of jagged rocks with each rippling wave. Just as twilight set in and the sky was a breathtaking canvas of orange and purple, John Calvin had trotted down to the jetties with his fishing rod for one final cast.
          John was the first to see what remained of Fritz Zoller when he cast his line into the water and gazed down at the sea.
          John Calvin promptly notified the authorities, who fished Zoller’s body out from the water and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
The Montauk police assessed the damage inflicted to the chest and face, and determined this was no accident. Fritz Zoller didn’t slip and fall into the water, or get snatched by a mammoth wave and dragged out to sea. This was a cold, calculated, deliberate act.
          Someone dumped the body in the ocean, hoping it wouldn’t row back to shore. They counted fifty-two lacerations to the torso. And most baffling was the fact that Zoller’s eyes had been scooped clean out of the sockets.
          It was unthinkable to even imagine that someone in their small, friendly community could be capable of such a grisly act. But they couldn’t deny the possibility or rule out any suspects. Fritz Zoller had many friends, but no known enemies. So finding his killer wasn’t going to be a stroll on the beach.
* * *
          Ted Jones was a reporter for the Long Island Post. He always fought for the big stories, but was always passed over by his editor in favor of other journalists. Instead, he was relegated to writing short, half-page articles about rescue animals or crystal meth lab explosions.
When Fritz Zoller’s body floated to Montauk shore, the article went to Ted’s colleague, Phil Johnson. The local police didn’t give Phil many details to work with. They just confirmed his death was not accidental and that they were considering all possible suspects at that time. Zoller never married, never had children. He didn’t leave much behind, but his minimal belongings were being donated to charity.
Other than that, they knew that Fritz Zoller was residing in Montauk for ten years before his death. He worked in construction and pitched in at the bakery part-time to make extra scratch.
That was three months before the disappearance of Dwayne Urig, the latest in a string of disappearances that had plagued the otherwise serene village of Montauk.
When it came time to write the article, Phil Johnson got first dibs. Again, there was little information to go on. Dwayne had not been declared dead, simply missing. But all the locals feared the worst.
It was June, Friday the 13th, 2014, when Ted Jones was summoned into Derek Stoker’s office. Stoker was a man that Ted despised with every fiber of his being. But Ted was an ace at masking his contempt. It’s the only reason he stayed on the payroll for so many years.
His editor was a fidgety man with a receding hairline. Stoker was always tugging at the legs of his pants or adjusting his silk ties. Every year that Jones worked there, he watched Stoker’s hair grow thinner, his bald spot grow wider, forming that classic horseshoe pattern.
“Yes, Mr. Stoker?” Ted asked as he entered.
“We’ve got a lead on the Dwayne Urig case,” his editor informed him. “An old man who claims to have new information the police won’t share with the press. I need you to go out there and see if this guy’s legit.”
“What about Johnson?” Ted asked, not even realizing he was basically trying to talk himself out of a job.
“Johnson is on his way out,” Stoker said. “He’ll be working for another paper by the end of the month. I need someone to step up and fill his shoes. You could be that someone. Don’t let me down, Terry.”
“Ted,” he corrected him.
“Whatever,” Stoker muttered, sliding something out from his desk. It was a blank check. Ben Loomis had failed to list a price. But if this business taught Ted anything, it was that everyone has a price.
The truth can be bought just as easily as it can be adjusted or exploited to sell a few extra copies. To people like Stoker, the truth was as flexible as a rubber band. You could stretch it as far as needed.
“Here’s a blank check,” Stoker said, passing it to Ted. He folded the check and placed it in his breast pocket. “The guy’s name is Ben Loomis. I’ve written the name and address on some stationary and reservations have already been made for you at the Montauk Manor. The next train leaves in three hours. I suggest you get packing. And whatever information he has to share, pay no more than a grand for it. But try and talk him down to five hundred or less if you can.”
Ted left Stoker’s office feeling a renewed sense of confidence. This was his big break. The information Ben Loomis had to share could blow this investigation wide open, maybe even solve the mystery of Urig’s disappearance. Or it could be complete horseshit. But Ted knew there was only one way to find out.
He returned to his desk, grabbed his notepad and windbreaker. “Why do you look so happy?” Phil Johnson asked, looking up from his desk.
“I’m on my way to Montauk,” Ted said. “Stoker’s got a lead on the Urig case and he’s sending me out to interview them.”
“You?” Johnson said in disbelief.
“I’m just as shocked as you,” Ted told him.
“Man, I never thought Stoker would give you a break,” Johnson said.
“Well, on the record, Stoker’s a prick,” Ted informed his colleague. “Off the record, he’s also a creep with a fetish for women’s shoes. He got caught red-handed one time in the janitor’s closet with his secretary’s pumps. Let’s just say he wasn’t polishing them.”
“I guess that’s why they call him Stroker,” Johnson laughed. “Well, best of luck to you, Ted. You deserve it.”
* * *
          Ted rushed home, packed, and caught the eastbound train from Dorchester station at one o’clock. He arrived in Montauk by three. He had Map-Quested directions with his phone and Ben Loomis lived a quarter mile from Montauk station.
          Seeing as his editor was a frugal bastard and sent him with little to no cash to cover his expense, he had the option of paying for a cab out of his own pocket or hoofing it. He figured the walk might do him good. A slight breeze had kicked in from the west and the weather was balmy and mellow, the perfect conditions for him to stretch his legs and enjoy the tranquil scenery.
          He passed Montauk Lake along the way. Then he crossed over at Industrial Road, the home of Riverhead Building Supply and other wholesale providers.
Ted thought about Phil Johnson leaving the Post. This being his big opportunity was the one thing keeping him focused. He was there to squeeze the truth out of Ben Loomis…and exploit it for his own personal gain.
This wasn’t about Phil Johnson or Derek Stoker or the LI Post. Ted was looking out for Numero Uno. And like many of his fellow counterparts, he viewed the news for what it really was: Mass exploitation. Keep people scared, confused, anxious, and enraged and they’ll keep reading the paper and watching the television.
On his walk, he stumbled upon the town post office. There was a bulletin board posted out front, but instead of fliers for guitar lessons or posters that advertised local tourist attractions, the board was riddled with dozens of missing person’s fliers; the fliers all overlapping one another.
Smack-dab in the middle of this bulletin board was a flier with a young girl’s picture on it. Fifteen years old, wavy brown hair, green eyes, braces. The flier said her name was Veronica White. It also claimed she was last seen walking home from school, in September of 1997. She was traveling west on South Federal Street, carrying a purple knapsack.
She could have been kidnapped, Jones thought silently. Sold into white slavery. Or maybe some creep snatched her up, someone looking for an easy target. Poor girl, he thought. They might find her body floating in a watery ditch someday…well, what’s left of her body. Won’t be much left after the birds, maggots, and earthworms have their fill.
Ted Jones didn’t want to think these terrible thoughts, but he was accustomed to them. His paper wrote of these events on a daily basis: Rape, murder, kidnapping, child molestation. Whatever sold copies.
Ben lived on East Lake Drive, in a one-story brick layered house with a small chimney stack and a semi-circular driveway, where Ben’s ancient Ford Deluxe was parked.
The porch was wooden and didn’t feel too sturdy as Ted ascended the stairs. Seeing as how there was no doorbell, Ted settled for an old-fashioned knock.
No answer. So he knocked again. Glancing down at his wristwatch, he realized that he had started to tap his foot.
It was an annoying habit he had recently developed. Something he would do whenever he started to grow anxious or impatient. When he was in meetings with his boss or his editor, his foot would tap like he was pounding a bass drum. He couldn’t control it unless he concentrated extremely hard.
The door open a smidge and two grey, tired eyes peeked out and examined Ted. “State your business,” a voice said, harsh and raspy.
“My name is Ted Jones,” he introduced himself. “I’m with the LI Post.”
“Just a minute,” Ben said and closed the door. A few seconds later, the door was opened again and Ben waved him inside.
Loomis closed the door behind him, locking it. He assured Ted it was only a minor precaution. Ted gathered that Zoller’s untimely demise stirred up a lot of concern in this quaint little fishing village.
He led Ted from the foyer to the living room, which reminded Jones of something his grandmother might throw together once Alzheimer’s sets in. The plaid couch was sealed in a plastic slipcover. The wool carpet was purple and made Jones ponder if Loomis was colorblind. So did the mustard yellow wallpaper, which proved to be an instant eyesore.
There was an antique armoire in one corner and an antique credenza in the other. Even the lamp that sat atop the credenza appeared ancient. Jones couldn’t help but wonder if Loomis arranged this place himself, or if he bought it as it was. But he didn’t dare ask. He didn’t want to offend a potential news source of this caliber.
The fragrance of stale cigarette smoke tainted the entire house. The whole place reeked like the bottom of an ashtray.
“Make yourself at home,” Ben said as Ted did just that and planted himself on the plastic covered couch. “Can I get you anything? Water, coffee?”
“Coffee would be great right about now,” Ted said.
“Excellent,” Loomis said. “I just put on a fresh pot. How do you take it?”
“Lots of cream and sugar,” Ted responded.
Loomis shuffled off to the kitchen and returned with two steaming mugs of coffee. He passed one to Ted and sat across from him in a red leather armchair. Ted waited for his coffee to cool down a bit before he took the first sip.
“I walked here from the train station,” Ted shared with Ben. “Passed the post office. A lot of missing person’s fliers tacked to the bulletin board. Dwayne Urig was one of them. Another one dated back to 1997. Veronica White.”
“Veronica White,” Loomis repeated the name with his raspy voice. His poor throat had been ravaged from years of smoking and health negligence. “I remember her. A sweet girl. Used to come into my candy shop every day after school. They never did find her. I felt sick for her family.”
“You said you own a candy shop?” Ted asked, scribbling along on his notepad.
“I did,” Loomis said as Ted continued writing. “Until I got sick, I owned three businesses in Montauk. The candy shop, the hardware store, and town’s souvenir shop. I sold the souvenir and candy shops a few years ago. The hardware store went last year.”
“And you saw Veronica White every day?”
“That’s what I said. Then she went and grew up on me and stopped coming in all the time. She’d still stop by once in a blue moon for chocolate fudge or black licorice.”
The coffee had cooled and Ted sipped it as he stared down at his notepad. So far, he wasn’t looking at Pulitzer Prize material.
“You said they never found her,” Ted read from his notepad. “Do you remember the day she disappeared?”
“That was so long ago,” Loomis said, thinking back. “It was September of 1997. She was walking home from school. I guess she never made it back. It always bothered the locals, never knowing what happened to her.”
“Do you believe Veronica White could still be alive?”
“Veronica White’s been missing for seventeen years. If that girl’s alive, it’s nothing short of a miracle. But I doubt it. She’s gone. And I doubt they’ll ever find her.”
“Do you think they’ll ever find her killer?” Ted asked.
“I don’t know,” Ben said, shrugging his gaunt shoulders. He finished his coffee and put the mug aside, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Only time will tell.”
“Let’s move on to Fritz Zoller,” Ted said. “Did you know him?”
“Sure did,” Ben said. “Used to see him in the bakery all the time. And he was a construction worker, so he did projects on the side for cash. I had him build a new shed out back for me for five hundred bucks. Can I get you some more coffee?”
“No thanks,” Ted shook his head, holding up the mug. “Still working on it.” He took another sip and wrote a few more notes down on his pad.
“Were you surprised when they found the body?”
“I’m sixty-eight years old,” Ben laughed. “Nothing surprises me anymore.”
“We don’t know much about his death,” Jones said. “Just that it was intentional. Perhaps you could shed some more light on the situation.”
“Fritz Zoller was murdered,” Ben said. “I can assure you of that. He must’ve suffered quite a bit from what I’ve heard. Fifty-two lacerations to the torso. And that’s not the horrific part.”
Now they were getting somewhere. Jones was writing like a madman. His pen was on fire as he jotted down every detail verbatim. His foot was tapping with impatience. He had to know more.
“What’s the horrific part?”
“His eyes were gone,” Ben told him.
“Gone?”
“Scooped clean out of his skull.”
“I thought I heard everything until now,” Jones said.
“You know I was once premed?” Loomis shared this with Ted as if it was a key aspect to his story. “I got booted out. Hand tremors. I don’t have that problem anymore. My hands are steady as a board. But none of that makes a difference. I’ve got the Big C.”
“The Big C?”
“Cancer. It started in my lungs. Spread through the rest of my body. It’s rotting me from the inside as we speak. That’s why you’re here. I need to clear my conscience before I’m dead and buried. I need to tell you the truth about Dwayne Urig’s murder.”
“Dwayne Urig hasn’t been declared dead yet. Just missing.”
“He’s dead. I can assure you of that as well.”
“How could you know for sure? Did you kill Dwayne Urig?” Jones scoffed just at the thought of this old man harming a hair on someone’s head.
“I most certainly did not. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t dead.”
“Prove it.”
“You want me to show you the body? I can’t. But I can tell you things nobody but the local police are aware of.”
“So please tell me. That’s what I’m here for. To tell your side of the story.”
“Save your patronizing attitude for the next schmuck. You’re here to do your job and make your bosses rich in the process. That’s all you’re here for. Now, as you’re aware of, Dwayne Urig isn’t the first resident of Montauk to be declared missing. Several residents have either vanished or died under questionable circumstances in the past six months alone.”
“Yes, I’m aware of this,” Jones nodded his head
“What you’re not aware of, because the police have been trying to keep a lid on it, is the fact that this is all the work of one person. They don’t know if it’s a man or a woman, but they’re leaning towards the idea it’s a man due to the vicious nature of the crimes.”
“Are you saying there’s a serial killer on the loose here in Montauk?”
“That’s precisely what I’m trying to convey. And that’s how I know Dwayne Urig isn’t missing. He’s dead. Nobody goes missing for four weeks in Montauk and turns up alive. Not these days.”
“Why haven’t the police notified the press?”
“They’re trying to keep it under wraps. They don’t want people freaking out. It’s all about controlling and containing the situation. Plus I’ve heard there’s some internal dissention in the department about what to call the killer. You know how all these psychos have a nickname? Half the department wants to call him the Surgeon and the other half is pushing for the Optometrist.”
“The Optometrist?”
“Yes, it’s a doctor who examines people’s eyes.”
“I know what it is. I mean, where’d they get that name from?”
“This killer… apparently uses a scalpel to remove his victims eyeballs. Carves them right out of the sockets with the skill of a professional surgeon. It’s not just a technique that limited to Fritz Zoller. It’s the killer’s specialty. His calling card.”
The images that flashed through Ted’s mind made his skin crawl. His fingers were clenched, digging into the plastic covering of the couch. His foot was tapping like he was playing a bass drum. He told himself to stop, but his mind was too focused on Ben’s words to listen to anything else. “Again, how could you possibly know all this?”
“I have a police scanner,” Loomis revealed. “I listen in on all their calls. Hey, what can I say? I’m an old man. I’ve got nothing better to do with my time. I’ve heard some pretty graphic details over the past six months. Let’s just say Fritz Zoller wasn’t the first.”
“Did you hear anything on that scanner about Dwayne Urig?”
“Yes,” Loomis assured him. “That’s how I’m positive Urig’s dead. His body was hacked, slashed, and his eyes were plucked out.”
Ted felt dizzy, nauseous, on the verge of losing his breakfast. This was the story he’d been waiting for, and now he wasn’t sure if he could handle it. But nevertheless, he continued to squeeze Loomis for all the information he could get. He just had one more question on his notepad. “Do the police know why the killer takes his victims eyes?”
“Trophies,” Ben said. “That’s the assumption. But they’re not entirely sure.”
“I think I have enough information here,” Jones said. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Loomis.”
“Wait,” Loomis said. “I have one more story to share with you. This is the closest I’ve ever come to crossing paths with the killer.”
Ted stayed put. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for this final tale, but he had to see this through to the end.
“Get your notepad ready… A month ago, I was walking down Montauk Boulevard. It was late, after dark. If I hadn’t almost tripped over her, I might’ve never seen her. She was sprawled out on the sidewalk, eight months pregnant. I screamed for help, but it was too late. Her throat had been slashed, eyes ripped from her skull. Should I continue?”
“Yes,” Jones said, gulping. He was parched, his throat dried up. He could feel his muscles growing tense. His anxiety was off the charts and his foot refused to stop tapping against the carpeted floor. “Please continue,” he said. Though he wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear the conclusion of this grim story.
“The miraculous thing was that the baby survived. The paramedics rushed her to the hospital and they performed an emergency C-section. It was a boy. They named him Ben, after me.”
“You’re shitting me,” Jones said in disbelief.
“Damned if I am. They hooked the baby up to an incubator. Tubes and machines nourished the baby and pumped air in and out of its tiny frame. It was only four pounds and three ounces. It fit in the palm of your hand, like a mini football. I’ll tell you, it was adorable though. Precious. It had the lightest shade of blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”
Ted saw Ben’s expression grow cold. There was a murderous glint in his eyes that Ted identified immediately. He leapt from the couch, making a run for the front door. But Loomis was closer and managed to get there first. Blocking the front door, he held Jones at bay with the same scalpel he used on Fritz Zoller, Dwayne Urig, Veronica White, and countless other victims.
“Powder blue eyes… just like his mother.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

THE THING OUTSIDE MY WINDOW (By James Darko)

Genre: Horror


Dear readers,
I was recently contacted by a young writer named James Darko who asked if I would allow him to write a short story featuring a character named “The Behemoth” that I created for a story I published last year. Not only did I grant him his request, but upon reading his story, I’ve decided to share his work on my blog with his permission.
It’s my pleasure to introduce a new young writer to you. So without further ado, I hope you enjoy his story and the Lovecraftian title as much as I did.
 

THE THING OUTSIDE MY WINDOW
By James Darko

 
          Robert Combs is my name, and by the time you’ve finished reading these hastily scribbled pages, you’ll understand why people think I’m insane.
          In fact, by the time you read this, I’ll surely be dead. Overdrawn and unemployed, this old house is all I have to claim. And soon, when I fail to keep up with the mortgage payments, the bank will snatch the place out from under me.
          But that’s not what unnerves me.
It’s the thing outside my bedroom window.
          Every night, it lurks outside my window. It conceals itself, hiding amongst the shadows, thinking it can fool me.
Every night, I hear the scratching of prodigious claws and the fluttering of its long, narrow wings. Every night, it waits patiently for me to sleep. Just waiting for me to slip up and let my guard down.
          As I jot all this down in a drug-fueled frenzy, it’s been four days since I’ve closed my eyes to sleep. The cocaine is still keeping me alert and responsive. But my supply dwindles with every passing hour and soon it will abandon me entirely, leaving a void that can only be filled by a bullet to the brain.
          The .38 Smith & Wesson was unearthed on my latest expedition to the attic. I found it in an old shoebox, still loaded. I forgot I still had the thing. It belonged to my late father. It’s the gun that ended his life. How ironic that the same gun will play a part in my death as well.
          Nevertheless, I will die on my own terms.
          This primordial creature… This retched abomination… This sin against nature…I will not allow it to take my soul.
          By speaking of this beast aloud, I have alienated myself from my friends and family. My sister thinks I’m having a mental breakdown. My so-called friends refuse to return my calls. My aunts and uncles think I should seek professional help. And my erratic behavior cost me my job at the steel mill.
          Many who were born and raised in Westlake have heard tales of the Behemoth. But few believe these tales to be more than small-town mythology.
          Judd Ballard believed the legends. He believed them so much that after a brisk encounter with this legendary Behemoth, he packed his car, fled Long Island, and never looked back.
          Judd resided in Mill Pond, three towns over from Westlake. He was there the night Victor Ward, Harold Dinsmore, Glenn Parker, and Drayton Sawyer were torn limb from bloody limb.
          For whatever reason, the Behemoth chose to spare Judd’s life. Perhaps so he could spread the word of the macabre incident and add to the mythology. Or perhaps because it assessed that Judd Ballard was an innocent man.
          Vic, Harold, Glenn, and Drayton all had something to hide. They all had a part in the death of Julian Campbell. Campbell, a registered sex offender, was under suspicion for the rape and murder of Victor Ward’s daughter, Mallory.
          It turns out Julian was innocent. The guilty party was none other than Drayton Sawyer. But Sawyer got what he deserved. All the men involved got what they deserved.
This monster, it punishes the evil souls, the wrongdoers. The ones who seek justice on their own terms. The ones who carry out their own wicked agendas. At least that’s what the legends dictate.
The Behemoth is a guardian, a protector. A purveyor of justice. So by now you must be asking yourself what horrible atrocity I committed to warrant its presence.
The .38 Smith & Wesson, I mentioned it ended my father’s life. I just never said how. It wasn’t suicide. I killed my father, shot him dead with his own gun. Then staged it to look like a suicide.
I was dishing out my own brand of justice. I felt my actions were justified. It was his infidelities that led to my mother’s alcoholism. It led her down a path of self-loathing and destruction that ended in a fatal crash that claimed her life.
Toxicology reports confirmed she was drunk at the time of the accident. She lost control, skidded off the road, and collided head-on with a tree. It was an ugly scene. Barely anything remained of the car.
We couldn’t even give her a proper service and have an open casket at the wake or the funeral.
If my father had kept his affairs private instead of flaunting his whores in public, mom never would’ve known. She still might be alive today.
          My father didn’t stand to speak at the wake or the funeral. He never even shed a tear. It wasn’t a week she was in the ground before he was out running around with his whores again. I couldn’t stand the sight of him anymore. Something had to be done. So I took matters into my own hands.
          I confess. I’m a sinner. I’ve done plenty of bad things in my life. And now this beast has come to harvest my soul. I deserve to pay for my sins, but not at the hands of this abomination.
I got a glimpse of it one night when it was hovering in the shadows. It could’ve been eight or nine feet tall for all I know. Its weight indeterminable. Its body was a crust of dry reptilian scales. Long, narrow wings flapped effortlessly in the breeze. Atop its broad shoulders rested the head of a triceratops, a prehistoric creature that’s been extinct for about two-hundred million years.
Three horns jutted from its misshaped skull. Two vertical horns protruded above its glowing yellow eyes and one curved horn above its mouth. Its sharp, prodigious claws looked capable of tearing through a steel vault. And did I mention its fangs?
Oh, sure, go ahead and say it. Robert Combs is crazy. He’s a loon. But be warned, citizens of Westlake. The Behemoth is real, and one night, you might find it lurking outside your bedroom window.
Oh, God…I see it now. Two yellow eyes staring back at me through the window. It’s closer than ever before.
Please don’t judge me. Please forgive me. I’d forgive you if you were faced with the same utter annihilation that awaits me outside that window.
The .38 is in my left hand. My finger is wrapped around the trigger. The barrel is pressed against the side of my head.
Please forgive me.

Monday, September 22, 2014

IN THE FLESH: PART ELEVEN


ROLL CALL
 

Alive:

Carson Ryder: Former marine/Former police officer/Suffers from retrograde amnesia/ Searching for clues to his past
Damien Albright: Found and saved Carson/Has no family or friends outside of the group/Doesn’t seem to have a care in the world
Kenny Sudrow: Former spa porter/Happy to be doing something else
Chuckie Razzano: His only concerns are his Rolex and his hair gel
Chase Crawford: Religious zealot/Loner/Keeps to himself
Willard Pickman: Scientist/Worked for the CDC/Knows of a cure
Eli Burton: Survivor found in Cherrywood Mall/Parents were rich and left him a large inheritance when they died
Vern Sheldon: New associate/Drives a box truck/Carries a badass flamethrower
Terry Watts: Proprietor of the Starlight Hotel

Deceased:
 
Arnold Vesti: A compassionate man who let the entire group stay in his underground shelter/Biters got him
Regis Whitfield: Abusive husband of Janice Whitfield/Biters got him
Devin Morris: Comic store employee from Long Island/Was found dead, strangled in his sleep
Darren Mays: Survivor found in Cherrywood Mall/Shot by Damien Albright/Claimed that Carson arrested him at one point
Trevor Virden: Comic store owner/Biters got him
Brent Blaze: Former Cherrywood police officer/Vern Sheldon shot him after he got bit
Ally Burton: Wealthy sister of Eli Burton/Attacked by a lone Biter
Janice Whitfield: Pregnant wife of Regis Whitfield/Committed suicide when her baby stopped kicking
 

IN THE FLESH
By Daniel Skye
 

PART ELEVEN
LIVE BAIT
 

1

            As the Biters continued to stagger down the ramp, the grey cement walls of the parking structure started to look more and more like their tomb. Once Damien had finished siphoning the last drop of gas from the vehicles, he joined Carson and Kenny. They all put their backs against the wall so they were facing the ramp and drew their weapons.
            A tall Biter ambled towards Carson. He pumped the mechanism of his shotgun and with a deafening blast, he tore its head from its shoulders. He pumped the shotgun, watched the shell pop out of the breach, and then he fired again. Damien had Andrea and Angela–his two pistols–drawn and was firing at anything that moved.
            Kenny’s semi-automatic was spraying bullets like the gun was set on auto-fire. Even Damien couldn’t argue that he was improving as a shooter. With each pull of the trigger, another looming Biter crashed to the cold pavement.
            Carson regretted not bringing his machete along when he ran out of bullets for the shotgun. Tossing his Remington aside, he drew the backup pistol tucked into his waistband and resumed fire.
            Damien stopped to reload his pistols, and it provided enough of a distraction for one of the Biters to creep up on him.
            His back pressed against the wall, Damien dropped his pistols and a struggle ensued as he tried to hold this snarling creature at bay. Its rotting, shambling face was mere inches away from Damien’s as its teeth chattered in anticipation.
            Kenny pressed his gun to its skull and pulled the trigger. It flopped lifelessly to the ground and Damien regained his composure. “Thanks, kid,” Damien said as he picked Andrea and Angela up.
            Other Biters wandering the area had heard the shots and followed the noise, shuffling down the ramp towards their newfound prey.
            “There’s too many of them,” Carson said. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it, boys.”
            “If we don’t, it’s been nice knowing you guys,” Damien said.
            Tires screeched as a black Ford Bronco came barreling down the ramp, mowing down every Biter that stood in its path. The truck stopped a few feet away from the wall the guys were back up against.
            The doors opened and a group of men climbed out, rifles and shotguns in hand.
            “I don’t think these guys came to help us or have a friendly chat,” Damien whispered.
            “No shit, Sherlock,” Carson whispered back. “That’s right,” he added, still whispering. “I just remembered who Sherlock Holmes is. But I digress…just do whatever they say for now. Let’s play their game for a while and we’ll handle them when they let their guard down.
            “Drop your weapons,” one of the men advised. Seeing as they were outnumbered four to three, they lowered their guns and let the men step closer.
            “Smart move,” the man spoke again, stepping forward to identify himself as the leader of this pack. “The name’s Lewis. These are my men. Todd, Roy, and Mason.”
            “The pleasure’s all yours,” Damien said.
            Lewis held his rifle in one hand and scratched his unkempt beard with the other. He kept scratching himself and twitching the way a junkie would shake.
            In fact, Damien noted that all the members of the group had hand tremors. They all had a slight twitch as they gripped their weapons.
            Damien knew the cause wasn’t drugs. He had read of this before in medical encyclopedias. And it didn’t bode well for him, Carson, and Kenny.
            “Mason, gather their weapons,” Lewis ordered him. “Roy, Todd, round these gentlemen up and find room for them in the truck.”
* * *
            Kenny and Damien found themselves chained up with bags drawn over their heads. They were knocked out for the duration of the ride, so they had no clue how far the men had taken them from the Starlight. But they knew they were still in Tennessee.
            Prisoners of their camp, Kenny and Damien whispered back and forth as they couldn’t see who was in earshot of their conversation.
            “We’re fucked, aren’t we?” Kenny asked.
            “We’ve faced worse,” Damien said. “Did you notice anything strange about these guys?”
            “You mean the way they twitch and shake involuntarily?”
            “Yes.”
            “You think it’s got something to do with drugs?”
            “I’m afraid not,” Damien said. “Ever heard of Kuru?”
            “Can’t say that I have,” Kenny said.
            “It’s a form of prions disease. Prions are mutated protein cells that are usually found in human brain tissue. Kuru can be contracted from eating these cells. In layman’s terms, our new friends are cannibals.”
            “So they’re planning on eating us?”
            “I would assume that’s eventually their plan. Shaking is a side effect of Kuru. But that’s not the worst of it. It destroys your entire body. Leads to excruciating pain before dementia sets in. Eventually, your body breaks down so much you can’t even walk without something to support yourself. Then you die.”
            “Sounds lovely,” Kenny remarked.
            “Since they’re infected, I say they’ve got a year, two years tops, to live. So if they do wind up eating us, just know we’re not the only ones that are going to die from it.”
            “Do you think they…do you think they’re eating Carson right now?”
            “I don’t want to think about that,” Damien said. “Carson is tough as nails. He can take care of himself. He’s a former police officer, a former marine. If anyone can make it out of this alive, it’s him.”
* * *
            Deep in the woods, just beyond the camp, Carson found himself bound to a dense willow tree. As he struggled to break free, his hands grazed flesh and for a moment, he thought he had made contact with a Biter. But this flesh was warm to the touch and very much intact, not rotted or decayed. It was then Carson realized someone else was bound to this tree behind him.
            “Hey!” Carson shouted out. “Are you alive?”
            “I’m alive,” a voice responded, female. “What’s your name?”
            “Carson Ryder. What’s yours?”
            “Valentina Jackson.”
            “Well, Valentina, do you know where we are and why we’re tied to a tree?”
            “We’re not too far from a campsite that’s set up just outside of town. There are four men in the group; Lewis, Todd, Roy, and Mason. Lewis is the leader. They’re using us as live bait.”
            “Live bait? Bait for what?”
            “Zombies. They lure them out from the woods, and then they kill them. And then…they eat them.”
            “They’re eating these things?!” Carson was ready to be sick.
            “I know,” Valentina muttered. “It’s awful. You can’t imagine the sight of it.”
            “I think I can,” a queasy Carson uttered. “So why are you here?”
            “I refused to partake in their buffets,” Valentina said. “Lewis is Lewis Jackson. My father. I didn’t agree with his ways, so he decided to punish me.”
            “That sicko is your dad? No offense honey, but your dad is a few cans short of a six-pack.”
            “None taken. Believe me, I’ve said much worse about him.”
* * *
            “What time is it?” Willard Pickman asked Chuckie Razzano back at the Starlight Hotel.
            Chuckie held out his wrist and flashed his gold Rolex. “Can’t tell you,” he said. “The thing stopped working a while back. I just wear it as a souvenir now.”
            “It got dark hours ago,” Vern Sheldon said. “I know it’s the winter, so it gets dark earlier, but still, they should’ve been back by now. I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I think we should go look for them.”
            Chase Crawford was absent from the conversation, so Eli Burton decided to interject.
            “Too dangerous,” Eli said. “It’s dark. We don’t know the area. We’ll get just as lost as they are. If they’re not back by morning, I’ll help you look for them myself. You have my word.”
            “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Vern sighed.
            They all sat in the lobby, warming themselves by the fireplace. Vern had spent the day chopping firewood and it looked as though they were set for winter.
But that wasn’t on anybody’s mind at the moment. They all found themselves praying silently for their comrades to return safely. All except for Eli, who had other things on his mind.
* * *
            “We’ll probably freeze to death out here before any Biters come along,” Carson remarked.
            “Biters?” Valentina asked.
            “The zombies,” Carson said. “That’s what my friends and I call them.”
            “Ah, gotcha,” she said. “Well, I’d rather freeze than be torn limb from limb.”
            Carson was momentarily distracted by a rustling noise. He looked over to see movement in the brush.
            “Valentina, I’ve got a small knife tucked in my boot. I can’t reach it, but I’ve managed to loosen the ropes a bit. See if you can slip one of your hands out from the ropes.”
            Two Biters stumbled out from the brush, their sights set on the vulnerable feast that had been presented to them.
            Valentina struggled and eventually managed to free one hand from the ropes. “I’ve got it,” she said. “Now let’s see if I can reach that knife.”
            “Better hurry,” Carson told her. “Two of them are heading our way.”
            Carson lifted his leg up and stretched it back as far as it could go. Valentina stretched down and failed at the first attempt.
            The two Biters sauntered over, gaining closer with each shabby step they took. They were frothing from the mouth with excitement, foam dripping down their chins.
            Carson pulled his leg back again and held it in the air. He was trying his best not to shake. On the second try, her fingers just barely grazed the blade.
            “I almost got it,” she said. “Hold completely still.”
            She snagged the blade and yanked it out from Carson’s boot. She started cutting through the ropes at lightning speed. She cut through the first layer, which was enough for Carson to wriggle his arms free.
            “There’s no more time,” he said as the Biters approached. “Pass me the blade, quick!”
            He reached around the tree and snatched the knife from her hand. He plunged the blade into the first Biters eye, pushing it up into the brain, and then retracting it.
            The second Biter growled as its black teeth tried tearing at his neck. Carson forced the blade deep into its skull. With the advanced rot and decay that had set in, jamming the knife through its skull was as easy as slicing through a warm stick of butter.
            He yanked the blade free and wiped the blood away. Then he picked up where Valentina left off and finished cutting through the ropes. The ropes fell to the ground and Carson tucked the knife away, rubbed his sore wrists. 
            They stepped around the tree and met face to face. Carson saw a slight twinkle in her green eyes when they first gazed at each other. She was a young woman with fair skin, curly blond hair, and a slim hourglass figure. For a second, Carson almost forgot for a second time that he was a married man.
            “Where’s the camp?” Carson asked.
            “Why?” Valentina asked. “Let’s just bail before one of them gets back to check on us.”
            “My friends are back there. I’m not leaving them.”
            Valentina detected the genuine concern in his statement. She recognized this was a man who didn’t leave anyone behind. So she volunteered to lead him back to the campsite.
            “By the way,” Carson said on the walk back. “You don’t happen to have a cigarette do you?”
            “I don’t smoke,” she said. Then she added, “Sorry.”
            “Don’t sweat it. Just help me find my friends and we’ll call it even.”
            Along the way, they encountered a lone Biter. But this one was virtually defenseless. Its legs had been severed from the waist and it crawled on its belly, snarling as it desperately tried to reach them.
            It was the first time Carson stopped to actually examine one up close. It was a male, mid-teens, a gold piercing that dangling from one rotting earlobe. The lower half of its face had rotted away completely, exposing its black gums and decaying jawline.
            The eyes were all iris, no pupils. For a moment, Carson almost felt sorry for the thing. That was before he bashed its skull in with a rock.
            It seemed cruel to Valentina. But Carson was doing the right thing by putting it out of its misery.
* * *
            Carson advised Valentina to stay back as he crept up on the campsite. He used his pocket knife to jab into Roy’s back, surprising him and getting him to hand over his weapon, which was actually Kenny’s semi-automatic.
            Not wanting to be responsible for any more casualties, Carson used the butt of the gun to smash Roy in the back of the head and knock him unconscious.
            Then he snuck up on Mason, who was warming up by a lit bonfire, and jammed the semi-automatic in his face. “My friends, where are they?”
            Mason pointed him right in their direction. He bashed Mason’s face with the butt of the gun, drawing blood from his nose and knocking him out like a light.
            Then he sprinted to the tent where Kenny and Damien were being held. He yanked the bags off their heads and they both breathed a sigh of relief when they saw it was him.
            “I knew you could do it,” Damien said. “So glad to see you, buddy.”
            “Save the dick sucking for later,” Carson said. “Where are the keys for these chains?”
            “That fucker Lewis has them,” Damien said. “Do me a favor, kill him.”
            “You can kill him yourself, just as soon as I get you out of here,” Carson said. “Hang tight. I’ll be back.”
            Lewis’s tent was pitched at the far end of the campsite. He blasted one hole through the top of the tent with Kenny’s semi-automatic. He knew the shot wouldn’t kill or even graze Lewis. This was merely a warning shot. The next bullet surely wouldn’t miss.
            “The keys,” Carson demanded. “That’s all I want. You get to live, and my friends and I get to walk away. Make the right decision.”
            Lewis staled for time as he fumbled around in his tent, pretending to search for the keys.
            Todd had heard the gunshot from his tent and was tiptoeing behind Carson, a garrote wire pulled taut with both hands. As he was just about to sneak up on Carson and wrap the sharp, penetrating wire around his throat, Carson heard the footsteps and turned, firing a single shot that went through Todd’s right eye.
            Lewis unzipped his tent and tossed the keys out. “Just take them and go, please,” Lewis begged.
            “I didn’t want to kill anyone,” Carson said. “But I’ve already come this far. And a man who is willing to sacrifice his own daughter for food doesn’t deserve to live as far as I’m concerned.”
* * *
            When Carson returned with the keys, his winter jacket was drenched in blood. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not mine.”
            When Kenny and Damien were set free, Carson introduced them to the newest member of the group, Valentina. The guys were more than pleased to make her acquaintance.
            They collected their weapons, gasoline, medical kit, and other supplies that Lewis and his men had confiscated. Then, at Valentina’s suggestion, they poured some gasoline around and roaring bonfire, and torched the campsite to the ground.
 

2
 
            “Where the hell have you guys been?” Vern asked as they returned to the Starlight Hotel around dawn, looking worse for wear. “And what happened to you? You look like you’ve been through hell.”
            “We have,” Carson assured him.
            “We were all so worried,” Vern said, exhaling a sigh of relief. “We thought you didn’t make it. And who’s this?”
            “Valentina Jackson,” Carson said, making the proper introduction.
            “Pleased to meet you,” Vern said with a smile.
            “Your man here saved my life,” Valentina said in regards to Carson. “I’ll do anything I can to help you guys.”
            “I like her spirit,” Vern said as he welcomed them in through the vestibule and sealed the doors shut behind them.
            Carson helped Valentina find a room for herself. Chuckie Razzano was wandering up and down the halls, shouting about his gold Rolex and asking if anyone had seen it.
            “I haven’t seen it,” Willard Pickman told him.
            Terry Watts had come down from the second floor to see that Carson, Damien, and Kenny were all right. When Razzano asked him about the watch, he said he didn’t have a clue. “Now that you mention it, I think two chlorine bottles are missing from the laundry room,” Terry said.
            “Who would steal chlorine?” Willard asked.
            “Yeah,” Chuckie said. “I mean, the watch I could understand. But what the fuck would anybody want with chlorine?”
            “Hey,” Damien called. “The bottle of rubbing alcohol we took from the pharmacy is missing as well.”
            “Maybe we left it back at the campsite,” Kenny said.
            “No way,” Damien said. “I definitely made sure to grab it along with the medical kit.”
            “Maybe this place is haunted like that movie The Shining,” Kenny said.
            “Don’t be silly,” Terry said. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for all of this.”
            “Well, I don’t have the answers,” Willard shrugged and wandered off to his room.
* * *
            Day One Hundred and Forty-Two.
            Chase Crawford had grown increasingly disturbed. The crucifix that never left his side had been abandoned by Janice Whitfield’s gravesite the way someone would leave flowers for a lost loved one.
            He refused to join the group for dinner, instead confining himself to his room and eating only when the rest of the group slept. He kept to himself, but at the same time, he kept a watchful eye over Eli Burton.
            He had a bad feeling about the kid. But Eli had the group under their spell. Carson was teaching him how to shoot and even Damien and Kenny were starting to warm up to him.
            Willard Pickman and Vern Sheldon pitied him for the loss of his sister, and Chuckie Razzano was so wrapped up in the loss of his Rolex, he hardly took notice to anyone or anything else.
            Chase was the only one who saw him for what he was. A monster.
            He just had to find a way to prove it.
* * *
            Valentina had become very comfortable with her new surroundings. The group welcomed her with open arms and made her feel what her father and his lackeys never could. They made her feel safe, secure. They made her feel needed.
            Carson had found her wandering the decomposed garden of the hotel that morning.
            “You shouldn’t be out here alone,” he told her. “At least not without a weapon.”
            “I just needed some fresh air,” she said. “But thanks for looking out for me.”
            “Don’t mention it. Hey, I was going to show you this earlier, but I forgot.” He removed the worn photograph from his pocket and unfolded it. “Do you recognize the woman or the child in this picture?”
            “Yes!” she exclaimed. “I saw them in town with a group of about three or four other people. It was weeks, hell, maybe months ago. It’s so hard to keep track of the days and months without a calendar.”
            “You’re sure it was them?”
            “I’m absolutely sure it was them,” she said. “My father and his thugs were out looking for fresh meat and I gave them an escape route, helped them flee the area before they were found. I couldn’t have that child’s blood on my hands. No way.”
            “Do you know where they went? What direction they were traveling in?”
            “I think one of them mentioned something about going to Arkansas. Something about a commune that was set up there. They said they were taking in survivors, offering shelter. Who knows if it’s really true.”
            Carson turned away from Valentina and folded the picture, tucked it back in his pocket. “Caroline,” he whispered. “If you’re out there, I will find you. You have my word.”
* * *
Like Chase Crawford, Willard Pickman was also isolating himself from the group, as he devoted more and more time to a special project he was working on in secret. He had the gold Rolex that belonged to Chuckie Razzano. The bottle of rubbing alcohol Damien had snagged from the pharmacy. The chlorine bottles that had gone missing from the laundry room. And he also had a plethora of other household chemicals and supplies he had accumulated over time.
His plan was simple. He was building a bomb.
Correction: Two bombs.

To Be Continued With Part Twelve: BLOWN AWAY