The little cabin was nestled so far back into the trees that Grover Petersworth could barely make out the light from the two windows built into the log framework on either side of the cabin’s front door. Grover’s shiny new 1962 business sedan crunched over the gravel as he rolled the car to a gentle stop directly in front of the packed-earth path that led up to the porch. There was a single, use-worn rocking chair resting on the wood slats that formed the porch’s floor, but no moving shadows in the windows which might indicate that anyone was home.
It had been a long day of searching, and Grover wondered if he shouldn’t turn around and head back into town. But now that he was finally here, an almost irresistible curiosity tugged him forward. Robert Jackson Lee Hill was a rather infamous figure in these parts, for the country folklore that swirled around Hill’s youthful adventures. If anyone had ever shaken hands with the devil, it was said, that person was Bobby Jay Hill.
Grover turned off the engine to his sedan and waited, staring at the yellow glow that filtered through the trees. Who knew how long it might take to ask all the questions he’d written down? And there was no telling whether or not Bobby Jay would be in any mood to talk about his past. The country-bred teenagers who’d finally put Grover on the right path, had said that Bobby Jay was notoriously private. He might not like the sight of a stranger from the city walking up to his home. If Grover spotted anything that looked even a little bit like a rifle or a shotgun, he was running for the car.
There. A tiny bit of movement through one of the windows—the barest rustling of what looked like curtains?
Grover pulled a little liquor flask from his jacket—draped across the passenger seat, where it had been resting for the past three hours—and took a swallow. For courage. Then he opened the driver’s door, slipped his hat and his jacket on, made sure his notepad was tucked securely in one hand, and began to walk slowly and deliberately toward the house of the man who’d supposedly gone to the land of the living dead and returned to tell the tale.
The porch slats creaked as Grover’s black leather loafers touched the wood. He stopped for a moment, waiting to see if there was any additional movement from inside. The glass was filthy, to the point that the windows were translucent instead of transparent. The front door was partially shadowed in the lowering evening light, with only a simple wooden handle where a knob might have been.
Grover stared at the handle and felt his hands grow sweaty. Wiping them quickly on his slacks, he straightened his tie, breathed deeply three times, then rapped politely on the wood.
Nothing. No sound, nor any movement beyond the windows. Grover frowned, and politely rapped a second time. Then a third.
Grover sighed, and determined that he’d just have to retreat and make some additional inquiries. He turned on his heel to step off the porch.
The muzzle of the double-barreled twelve-gauge was a horrible shock. The man holding the weapon was stooped by age, with a face so wrinkled he could have passed for a dried-up apple. Bright, small eyes stared unblinking at Grover, while Grover instinctively put his hands up, palms facing forward.
Two hammers clicked back, and Grover felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.
“Damned bank,” the old man with the weapon said, using a mouth that was missing too many teeth. “If I told you fellers once, I told you fellers a thousand times: my daughter’s got the payment on the loan, and if anyone has a problem with it, they can go talk to her.”
“No sir,” Grover said, hating the tiny crack in his voice. “I’m not from any bank.”
“You came from town, didn’t’cha?” the old man barked.
“In a roundabout fashion,” Grover said, marveling at the inky blackness he could see down the mouths of the two barrels.
“On’y men from town got the nerve to come out here,” the old man drawled, “are the kind wantin’ money. And in case you ain’t noticed, money’s somethin’ I don’t have a lot of these days, you hear?”
“I hear,” Grover said, suddenly sensing an opportunity. “Which is germane to my reason for visiting you tonight, Mister… Hill?”
“You callin’ me a kraut, son?”
“No, no,” Grover said, taking a reflexive step backward, and bumping into the closed door. “I’m sorry. What I mean is, I’ve got a business proposition for a certain Robert Hill, who’s rumored to reside at this location. Would that be you? Or should I head down to the main road and try a little further north? I’m so sorry to intrude at this time of the day. I’ve driven a long way to talk to Mister Hill, and it’s important that I make sure I’ve got the right home.”
The old man still hadn’t blinked, nor had the hammers been lowered back into place. For all Grover knew, he was mere seconds from receiving two shells of buckshot between his front teeth.
“What kinda business you got with Bobby Jay?”
“I’d like to interview him.”
“Interview? For what?”
“My name is Grover Petersworth, but you might know me better as G.P. Grayson, from the All-American Weekly.”
The old man’s eyes didn’t register any recognition.
“I don’t suppose the papers circulate this far from town?” Grover asked, again hating the tiny crack in his voice.
“Nope. And if you don’t want things gettin’ unfortunate, son, you’d best get off my porch and go back to your automobile, and get gone, you understand?”
“Absolutely,” Grover said, “and I do apologize again for the intrusion. I imagine a man such as yourself values his solitude. So, if you don’t mind lowering that shotgun, I’ll be on my way.”
The twin barrels slowly but surely dropped, until they were pointed at the porch.
“Git with ye,” said the old man, who turned and spat off the porch and into the weeds and grass that grew along the edge.
Grover stepped carefully—but quickly—around the old man, noting the threadbare nature of the old man’s bib denim dungarees. Very possibly they were the only ones the old man owned? Grover decided to try one more time to get a bite, and set the hook.
“If you don’t mind,” Grover said over his shoulder, “please pass the word that I’m very interested in meeting with Mister Hill, and that I’m paying generously for the opportunity—as well as for solid leads on Mister Hill’s whereabouts.”
“How much is ‘generous’ to you, son?”
“The All-American Weekly is world-class, sir. To get an exclusive interview with Mister Hill, I’m putting five hundred dollars on the barrelhead. More than that, if the interview is truly in-depth.”
For the first time, the old man’s eyelids fluttered closed, and then opened quickly again.
“That’s a lot of money in these parts,” the old man said…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
That is not dead which can eternally drive
And with strange eons even death may not arrive
1. Midnight Rider
It was just past midnight when our—well he ain’t exactly a hero, a man called The Squid—pulled off the highway in Wendover to get himself some coffee and diesel. His big black Mack truck rumbled into the Flying K with all the subtlety that a pair of brass knuckles has for a glass jaw. The anthropomorphic chrome octopus hood ornament on his truck held a deck of cards in one hand and a mud flap girl in the other. It’s an awful strange ornament, but then The Squid is one strange dude, and the ornament was probably how he got his handle ’cause he sure wasn’t in the Navy, leastways that I know of. Despite his being a long-haired weirdo outta Shakey City—that’s Los Angeles for those of you that don’t speak Trucker—The Squid’s a pretty congenial fellow. He’s forty-something and dresses for comfort in shorts and rock-&-roll T-shirts along with a favorite cardigan sweater from his longtime girl, Jeanie. The Squid’s a generous tipper, he picks up hitchhikers and ain’t afeared to give anyone that Nazareth or Deep Purple T-shirt off his back. Quick with a joke or a song, he’s the kind of guy that always gets free pie and an extra smile from the waitresses, but he never lets it go to his head neither. Always on time with his loads, The Squid is always “Truckin it up.” That’s just the kind of trucker he is. You’d like The Squid, he’s good people.
Anywho, it fell on April 30th or Walpurgis Nacht—that’s “Witches Night” for a quick translation—back in 1986 that The Squid and his good buddy Ogre got themselves into a bizarre mess of trouble with a heap of near-impossible-to-believe repercussions, and this time it weren’t The Squid’s fault neither. You see, when he stopped off at that Flying K, he had no idea what was heading his way from so far off, and a man can sometimes get mighty surprised. But I’ll take a step back now and just let the story unfold for you in its own way.
After fueling up, The Squid went inside the diner and sat himself down on a ripped vinyl stool at the counter. A waitress in a teal uniform with shockingly red hair looked him up and down. “What can I do you for, hun?” A lit cigarette dangled from her lips with a long cherry of ash teasing that it was about to drop.
“Java, darlin’. I gotta get to Denver by tomorrow afternoon.”
She winked and poured him a cup. The fading cherry from her cigarette fell into the steaming black coffee. The Squid’s eyebrows raised. She turned to walk away.
“Uh, ma’am? I’m gonna need a fresh cup.”
“What, ’tain’t good enough for ya, sugar?” she asked with a red-stained smile.
The Squid squinted, wondering at her teeth and deciding it must be lipstick. “No, I mean, yes. I need a fresh cup; your ash went right in the java. I don’t mean to be picky, but come on.”
“So? So, I need fresh java. Come on, I got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”
“Uh huh.” She pushed the soiled cup a couple spaces down the counter and grabbed another from somewhere beneath. The Squid peered inside to inspect the potential lack of cleanliness as she poured it full. “Here you go, Your Majesty.”
She snorted at that and walked away.
Ogre, a tall beer-bellied trucker with a Dixie-flag ball cap, walked in, slapped The Squid on the shoulder and sat beside him. “You made her mad. Gotta watch out how you treat people, Squid. You can’t go getting personal about how people run their business.” He grinned wide, his smile framed with a Fu-Manchu mustache beneath tinted aviator shades that he never took off.
The Squid turned and shook Ogre’s hand, answering, “The thought did occur to me, but I wasn’t gonna drink that.”
Ogre laughed, reached for the tainted cup and swallowed it, ash and all, then loudly belched.
A full body shiver wracked The Squid. “You’re a sick man.”
“Like Sun Tzu said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”
The Squid shook his head, “Never mind, I ain’t even gonna try and correct that.”
“How’s the highway been treating you?”
“Good, good. I gotta burn rubber to Denver and then pick up a load and get it to Tucson.” He leaned up off his stool looking for the vanished waitress. “Where’d she go? Fix her weave? I need to order some grub.”
Ogre nodded. “You catch more flies with honey than liquor, Squid. Plato said that.”
“You have got to get your white-trash facts straight, my friend.”
Indignant, Ogre spouted, “White-trash facts? Squid, I am the most well-read trucker on these highways. Don’t make me draw you a picture.”
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Like Sun Tzu said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”[/pullquote]
The waitress returned and Ogre smiled at her. “Evening, ma’am. I’d like a dozen eggs and a side of bacon and do you have any…” Ogre glanced out the window and noticed the flagpole. His demeanor darkened. “Squid, do you see that?” He pointed an accusing finger outside.
Ogre grimaced and sputtered, “Out there is a gold-fringed flag on that flagpole! That is the flag of an Admiralty Court and here we are in god-fearing, five-wife-loving Utah!”
“Nevada,” corrected the waitress, with the cigarette stuck to her heavy lipstick.
Ogre frothed, standing up and shouting loud enough for the handful of other patrons inside to pause and look their way. “Last time I checked this was still America! Not a U.N. Charter stop-and-shop. Take that flag down now!”
The Squid put a hand on Ogre’s shoulder. “You can’t go getting personal about how people run their business. It’s still an American flag. He’s had a long day,” he directed the last sentence at the waitress.
Ogre slammed the counter shouting, “No, this will not stand. I’m gonna give my diesel back! I’m taking my business elsewhere! You Commie sons of bitches!”
“Ogre, calm down.”
“Am I wrong here?” asked Ogre, his breath coming in angry spurts.
Dark as it was outside, a bright flaring light arced overhead accompanied by a wretched grating noise akin to colossal nails on a titanic chalkboard. It turned everyone’s attention away from Ogre’s tirade. Appearing to be some type of rocket or craft, it tumbled violently in a downward spiral through the night sky. Green and orange flames backlit the grey smoke trailing behind like a twisted comet. The waitress’s cigarette fell from her slack-jawed mouth.
Holding fingers in their ears, The Squid, Ogre and others stepped out the café doors to watch. The weird light sparkled and fizzed, turning a variety of colors as it cascaded eastward. It looked like it would hit just a couple miles away. Then there was a thunderclap and blast of brilliant green light. Dust fell from the eaves as tremors rippled through the truck stop.
Ogre slapped The Squid on the back. “That’s right down I-80! Let’s go take a look!”
The Squid glanced back to see the waitress picking her nose while pouring another cup of coffee. “All right, let’s go look. We’ll find somewhere else to eat…”
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
Her entrails still steamed in the cool March air. Franklin Mercer wiped his eyes for the thirteenth time since he had walked into the house with his bouquet of flowers.
The woman’s name was Rebecca Mercer, and she was his wife.
Franklin pulled a pocket watch from his jeans and checked the time. Nearly two in the morning. Which meant it was officially their anniversary. Ten years.
Her beautiful red hair now lay thick with blood where it had pooled around her in a crimson halo from her cut throat. So much blood. Franklin wasn’t any stranger to blood, but it still shocked him how much had escaped from his Rebecca.
When he’d walked into his home with the flowers, he’d hardly crossed the threshold when the smell assaulted him. Blood, yes, coppery and thick in the air, mixed with the indignities of death… but under it, the familiar smell of sulfur. Franklin knew that smell, an odor that spoke of old rites and summonings. He and his brothers had witnessed more than their fair share of “normal” atrocities in Vietnam, and then some. Most members of Franklin’s family could see things. They could sense when the Elder Gods’ own were near. Many had taken up the cloth in some form or another to warn humanity against the things of the night—things even the night was afraid of.
But not Franklin. And not his brothers.
What was the point of warning people when you had the means to send evil back down its hole?
Besides, Franklin knew that as terrible as the Elder Things were, human beings were just as capable of evil and selfishness. He knew he wasn’t free of those failings either.
Franklin crossed the room to the kitchen table and sat down. He carefully placed on top of the table the flowers he’d cut from outside. His eyes were drying up; he was running out of tears. For a moment he was glad their children hadn’t lived to see this. No child should see their mother in this state.
After a few deep breaths to steady his nerves, he pushed himself back to his feet and retrieved a sheet from their bedroom to drape over her. He paused only long enough to close her eyelids. Those green eyes had looked so terrified and shocked.
He went back to the room and opened the closet—he’d built the armoire himself, just like the rest of their home—and pushed aside the shoes on the floor of the closet. Using the small hole in the back, left corner, he pulled up the floor board to expose the false bottom. Snug in the recess was a box, the top inlaid with carved stars and runes.
Franklin pulled out the box and opened its lid. More stars and old, arcane symbols covered the inside surfaces. The only thing inside was a single Colt Peacemaker.
Franklin knew what would be coming his way, and there wasn’t much time. Blood and sulfur always called the Old Ones and their minions.
He ran his fingers over the runes—ancient words from a dead language—carved into the grip of the Peacemaker and etched along the barrel. It could kill what normal guns couldn’t. As he walked out of his home, he spared a glance to the shrouded form of his wife.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Franklin knew what would be coming his way, and there wasn’t much time. Blood and sulfur always called the Old Ones and their minions.[/pullquote]
He’d go to Hell and back for Rebecca. Do anything for anyone or anything for her.
Franklin took one step outside his front door, pulled the lever back on his pistol, and fired it into the air. There weren’t but five homes in the vicinity—all built by him just three years ago—and that gunshot would bring their occupants running. And they’d come armed. He expected no less of his brothers.
Franklin Mercer didn’t have to wait long. His brother came—guns ready—into the clearing in which his home had been built. They each carried a pistol similar to his own, all passed down from the Lieutenant.
“Heard the shot, Franklin,” Jeremiah said. He was the youngest of them, with dark hair that had no chance of ever being tamed.
“It does my heart good to know you still know the sound of this here gun.” Franklin held up his pistol, then flipped open the cylinder to pull out the empty casing and replace it with a fresh one.
“What happened?” asked Henry, only eleven months Franklin’s junior. Henry looked a bit like a bulldog. He’d been the only one of the brothers to inherit their father’s looks.
Franklin gestured inside. “You’d best go see.”
They knew better to question him. After all he had done to get them through the war, they accepted his words without a fuss.
Franklin waited outside as they all filed in silently. He didn’t plan on going back in there himself until this was all finished.
Stephen came back out first, followed by his twin, Alan. They weren’t much for talking, but Stephen put a hand on Franklin’s shoulder. He didn’t say a word. Didn’t need to.
“Condolences,” Alan said. He did most of the talking for the twins. His eyes were wet, and Franklin figured this was the first time he’d seen his brother weep. “Any idea who did it?”
“Oh, I think I have a general idea,” Franklin answered.
Jeremiah and Henry followed the twins out. It was a few more minutes before Daniel walked out, his brow furrowed in concentration. Daniel was the smart one, the one that people had to be careful around because he never missed a trick.
“How much time we got?” Daniel asked.
Franklin pulled out his pocket watch and examined it in the moonlight. “Half-hour or so.”
“I don’t get it,” Henry said. “Who’d want to kill Rebecca? And why?”
“That ain’t the question,” Jeremiah said. “Why are elderspawn involved? That’s what we should all be asking.”
“Indeed,” Daniel agreed. “But now’s not the time to ponder on it.”
“And I don’t intend waitin’ here for the things to converge on us,” Franklin said. “I plan a lot of death this morning.”
“For Rebecca,” Alan said. Stephen nodded his agreement.
“For Rebecca,” Franklin echoed, looking each brother in the eye in turn. He had their attention, just like back in the war. If they did what he said, Franklin knew everything would be all right. “Here’s what we are going to do…”
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
“There she is, Cletus. Ain’t she a beauty?” Skipper waved his hand over the top of the battered steering wheel. In the distance, a ramshackle cabin crouched on the side of a hill as if it expected to slide into the gully below at any moment. The accompanying outhouse looked much sturdier and more securely positioned, straight and tall on a flat spot of ground surrounded by shaggy pines. Skipper gunned the engine, ground the gears, and let the pickup roll down the rutted dirt road.
“You sure the still is up there?” Cletus sucked the gap where his left bottom bicuspid used to sit.
Skipper bounced the truck through a series of potholes before answering. “Sure as shootin’. Got me a batch of ’shine just last month from it. We got us enough corn to cook up a double batch this time. My granpappy knew what he was doing when he built it. It’ll last ’til Judgment Day and then some.”
The truck slalomed through the gully at the bottom, spewing sand from beneath its tires before lurching up the bank on the far side. A plastic grocery bag slid under Cletus’s foot.
“What’s this, Skip?” Cletus hefted the bag and its load. “A book? This don’t look like your usual reading material.” The book was thick, bound in strangely delicate pale leather. Arcane lettering flowed across the front, penned by hand in dark brown ink. Discoloration from an old water splotch spread like leprosy from the bottom corner.
“It’s for the outhouse. Feel that paper. Ain’t that the softest you ever felt? I grabbed that from a dumpster behind that university what done closed last winter. They had a whole pile of old books just tossed back there. I got more in the back, but that book’s got enough pages to last us the whole season.”
Cletus flipped the cover back. A faint odor of decay and rot clung to the pages. He ran his fingers over the title page. The letters were strangely shaped, square and full of odd angles, as if the person who had penned them suffered from some strange affliction of the musculature system that caused bizarre twitches. Almost as if terror were infused in every pen stroke.
Cletus whistled. “That is the softest I ever felt. Better than that Charmin paper Lucie Mae is always after me to buy.”
“We’re living like kings this weekend. No women, no rules, and plenty of ’shine to keep us warm.” Skipper pulled the truck to a stop in front of the cabin.
Rosebud, the hound who had patiently waited out the bumpy ride in the back of the truck with the bags of feed corn, bounded out before the dust had time to settle. She woofed once before relieving herself on the nearest patch of meadow grass.
Skipper and Cletus banged their way out of the truck, doors slamming and shedding more dust from the rusted body of the vehicle. They grabbed the bags of corn, hefting them over their shoulders as they headed behind the cabin to the hidden shed half-buried in the hill.
“Let’s get her fired up,” Skipper said as he pulled the door open on the shed. “We’ll get the ’shine cooking then do us some hunting. Steak for dinner?”
“Long as it ain’t possum or squirrel again.” Cletus dropped his bag on the floor of the shed. “I got to go test out that new paper, if you catch my drift.”
Cletus headed back for the truck where he pulled the book from the front seat. He crunched his way across the loose grit to the door of the stately outhouse. Rosebud bounded up to him, wagging her tail until she caught a whiff of the book. She backed away, a whine building in her throat.
“Just an old book, girl. Don’t you worry none.” Cletus waved the book at the dog.
Rosebud broke into a long howl before disappearing into the underbrush next to the porch of the cabin.
Cletus studied the hole where the hound had fled. “Huh. Just old paper full of dusty old words. Nothing to be scared of.” He stared a moment longer before answering the increasingly urgent call of nature. The outhouse door banged shut on his heels.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Just an old book, girl. Don’t you worry none.”[/pullquote]
He checked for spiders before sitting on the wooden seat, polished by several generations of bottoms. Sunlight drifted through the obligatory crescent moon cutout in the door. Dust motes danced in the beam. The light shone on the ancient text. The lettering on the cover beckoned, tempting Cletus to explore the pages within. He hefted it into his lap. His fingers strayed over the odd words. His lips moved as he attempted to sound out the name scrawled beneath the title.
“‘Mis-ka-tonic.’ Huh. Sounds like an imported beer.”
He flipped to a random page. His fingers picked out words as he stumbled his way through the unfamiliar lettering. The syllables fell from his mouth, awkward and angular and unfamiliar. The afternoon air stilled in the outhouse, as if a giant beast held its breath. Though the autumn sunshine was bright and warm, a chill slithered up through the hole beneath.
Cletus finished the final syllable. The invisible presence loosed a sigh, a breath of frigid air that stirred the dusty motes and set them dancing. Cletus gave a final grunt before ripping the page from the book. He slammed the book shut, then shoved it onto the ledge beside the seat before he put the soft page to good use, dropping that into the hole when he finished.
The door banged shut behind him leaving nothing but a lingering odor to indicate his recent visit. The dust motes settled to a slow drift. An icy chill rose from the dank hole beneath the seat. The words had been spoken. A portion of the man had been given to the Elder Gods. Not the most desirable portion, but it had been many long years since their slumber had been disturbed by anything mortal. Any sacrifice was better than no sacrifice…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
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Chief Larry Delafontaine stood beside Detective Stephens and looked through the one-way glass into the interrogation room at Tommy, sweaty and fidgeting. Larry could feel his revulsion tugging down the corners of his mouth and working in the muscles of his chin, and for the first time in years he was thankful Louisiana still had the death penalty.
“Has he said anything?” he asked Stephens, who couldn’t take his eyes away from the twenty-seven-year old taxidermist on the other side of the glass.
“Nothing. Except he did say he’ll only talk to you,” the lanky man shifted his weight.
“He ask for a lawyer?”
“No, and thank God, ’cause then this whole f—” Stephens bit his tongue in mid-word and looked down. Larry knew Doug’s new girlfriend hated the crude language used by Atwood County’s entire police force. Some habits are nearly impossible to break.
“…This whole insane thing would just drag out longer,” Stephens said.
“Can you do me a favor?” Larry asked as he reached for the interrogation room’s doorknob. “Get me a Diet Coke and two Advils. My knee’s killing me.”
“Sure thing, Chief. I thought your knee was doing better.”
“It was, but everything’s fu—” Larry cut short the profane word in a show of solidarity. “Since this morning… well, a lot of things have changed.”
Larry’s hand was on the doorknob when Stephens said, “I… heard a little about all this at Tommy’s shop from Neil Tarbet. Is it…”
Larry closed his eyes, trying to shut out the images that mention of “Tommy’s shop” brought up. He fought to keep them buried. “Doug, it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Ever.” Larry hoped that the note in his voice with which he ended the sentence would forestall any further questions.
“I’ll go get your Coke and Advil.” Stephens left Larry to do his job.
Larry opened the door and stepped through.
Tommy started from his chair. “Oh, thank God you’re here!” Tommy said he blurted. Larry motioned him back into his seat. There was a small second table against the wall, near an electrical outlet, and Larry pressed the red button on the tape recorder on top of it.
“Tommy, you just sit tight.” Larry pulled a cheap, government-issued chair out from the black linoleum table and took a seat across from the younger man. When he spoke again, his tones were measured and constricted. “And Tommy, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. It is taking everything that makes me human to not pull my gun and blow your damn head off right now. Do you understand?”
Tommy nodded, his breaths coming his short bursts. His lower jaw twitched and he eyes bore into Larry’s. Larry knew the man across from him was terrified, but he didn’t think it was because of what he’d said. He thought Tommy had brought that fear in with him.
“I do, sir. But I didn’t do anything! I swear! It wasn’t—”
Larry held up his hand.
“Tommy…” Larry took in several deep breaths. “Have you been read your rights and do you understand them?”
“Good. Then you just start at the very beginning. Tell me the story, front to back. I’ll stop you if I have questions. Understand?”
Tommy nodded again.
“Okay then,” Larry said, and he could feel and the pain that pulsed in his knee begin to be mirrored by an equal sensation in his head.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“And Tommy, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. It is taking everything that makes me human to not pull my gun and blow your damn head off right now. Do you understand?”[/pullquote]
“The beginning,” Tommy muttered, his eyes darting back and forth across the tabletop. “The beginning… I guess it began two nights ago. Pete Johnson and Clyde Flatts just dropped me off—we’d spent some time at Lucy’s Bar. We got home around 2 A.M.”
“How drunk were you?” Larry asked.
“Just a little buzzed. I was expecting Dave Stoker to drop off a ram in the morning—he wanted a rush job and was going to pay top dollar so I didn’t want a hangover to slow me down. You can ask Pete and Clyde if you don’t believe me.”
“I will. Then what?”
“I got up around 8:30, had breakfast and waited for Dave. Well, I wait for another hour, hour and a half, and he doesn’t show, so then I check the drop-off box to see if he left the ram before I got up.”
Tommy stopped talking and took several short breaths. His eyes darted around the room as if he expected something to attack him.
“Yeah. Yeah.” Larry saw Tommy’s hands begin to shake and wondered if Tommy was about to confess. If so, Larry wasn’t sure if he was prepared to hear it. “Just give me a second,” Tommy said.
“Take your time.”
After a few moments, Tommy spoke again. “I saw that the latch had been tripped so I knew something was there. I thought it must be the ram and I opened the box.
“Except it wasn’t no ram. I don’t know what the hell it was—still don’t.”
This wasn’t the story that Larry was expecting, and in spite of the fact that he believed the man across the table from him was a murderer, he found himself intrigued by what Tommy was saying. Here was a taxidermist, after all—young, but experienced nonetheless. He’d probably seen everything that had flown, swam, walked, galloped or wiggled across south Louisiana.
“What did it look like?” Larry asked after Tommy failed to speak.
“It looked like a squid-thing. I mean, it had a squid head, but it had limbs almost like arms and legs.”
“So, human?” Larry reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a small writing pad and a pen that hooked to the spiral binding. He wrote the word squid, then crossed it out and wrote meth lab? He made sure Tommy couldn’t see what he had written.
“Almost—kind of like a baby, but more grey, like the primer color on my dad’s Jeep—imagine what you’d get if you crossed a person and a fish, but with… you know, arms and legs.”
A knock on the door made Tommy jump. The door opened and Stephens came in with a Diet Coke and two Advils. “Here you go,” Stephens said and put them on the table, keeping his eyes off Tommy.
Larry looked at Tommy. Something had changed in the past few minutes. A small crack appeared in the hard shell of hate he had for the taxidermist.
“Hey,” Larry said to Tommy. “Ah, you need anything?”
“No, no. I’m good.”
Larry nodded to Stevens and the officer left, closing the door behind him.
“So, you found a squid-human thing,” Larry said as he popped the pills and took a drink. “Then what did you do?”
“I took it in the shop and cut it open.”
“You did what?” Larry said, stopping the second Advil halfway down his gullet.
“Yeah, I thought maybe Dave changed his mind and wanted this thing stuffed instead of a ram. So I skinned it, threw the innards in the trash and built the form. I had never built anything like it. It wasn’t like any animal I’ve ever seen. The hide was like rubber, all slimy and tough. I was going to tell Dave—or whoever dropped it off—that I was going to charge him extra, just for the pain-in-the-ass project he’d given me.”
“This animal, you don’t know who sent it? Was there a note or anything?” Larry asked.
“No, but that’s not unusual. Everyone knows that they can drop off a raccoon or boar and I’ll get working on it. They usually stop by that day or the next and let me know it was them that dropped it off.” Larry remembered seeing the drop-off box just outside Tommy’s taxidermy shop, even remembered opening the hatch and looking inside.
“We didn’t see any squid-thing in your shop. What happened to it?”
Tommy stared at Larry and bit his bottom lip. He then began to nervously tap his fingers on the table…
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