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  Table of contents Issue Twenty BEDLAM DAYS

Serial Novel Part 9

by
CHRIS CASTLE
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HOW IT STARTS



T

he smell of the food was what caught Mike as soon as they stepped inside. It was impossible not to be drawn in and for a second he almost closed his eyes to take it all in. The greetings were almost secondary and it was only the flatness of their voices’ that drew him back to reality. As Sarah set Mae down in the back, he saw just how drawn Nick looked and spotted a still simmering fury on Glenda’s eyes.



“Well?” He said, forcing himself to ask for the information and at the same time dreading it. The fact that Nick withdrew and Glenda drew breath almost told him everything he needed to know.



“McKenzie’s in charge now, with Jules and Dater in his pocket. The three of them pretty much called your badge a tin-toy and the folks lapped it up like he was handing out money.” Her lips were contorted and spittle ripped through her teeth. If Nick hadn’t put a hand on her elbow, Mike thought she might have drawn blood from her own lip.



“It’s a committee, or at least that’s what they’re calling it,” he said, his voice calm, trying to settle the Glenda. It worked to a point but there were still fireworks coming off her, even as she sat still.



“It’s martial law, in effect but with him at the helm. He’s bandied up a few of the locals into some sort of rag-tag army, patrolling the streets, guarding the bridge. We’ve been downgraded to security guards.” He rubbed his chin and Mike felt his chest tighten.



“But that’s not what worries you,” he said quietly. Sarah had come out of the doorway and sat next to him. She took his hand on the table but no-one even thought to look at them. All eyes were on Nick.



“I couldn’t give a damn about status, Mike, you know that. What worries me is how they were prepared to listen to what he was enforcing. No-one asked questions, no one raised doubts. They muzzled us and then sat in silence. I get the feeling what happened tonight was only part of it.” He sipped his coffee and it was Glenda’s turn to touch his arm.



“It was a first phase,” Tom said. Everyone nodded and Mike was aware they were thinking in the same way, attuned to what was shifting around them and being pulled from under their feet. Even in the midst of everything, it warmed him to know they were a team.



“We have to get out of here,” Tina said. There was no hysteria in her voice, in fact, she sounded as reasonable and at ease as Mike had ever heard her.



“What about the old folks, the teenagers left?” Tom said, but again there was no malice or edge in his words. Tina looked at him and smiled, not in bewilderment but in love; maybe she saw the last few people who actually cared for one another in the town.



Mike saw it for what it was; a group of people torn in two directions. On the one hand, wanting to escape but on the other, also wanting to protect those who were exposed and weak. No-one was fighting now. It was simply a case of trying to do what was best for everyone and not just themselves.



“We’ll speak to the people who are outside the pack; the ones with kids, the old folks who haven’t fallen under his spell.” Nick handed a sheet over with a list of names on it. It was a short list. Mike noted sourly there were more dead people than good citizens left in the town. Another thing: Nick slipped the paper to both him and Sarah, as if to say they really were a group now, rather than those in charge and those who helped.



“If it shifts up again, if no news comes through, then we’ll look to break out.” He sat back and let it settle. There was no finality to it; instead he waited for discussion. It was everything the town meetings lacked, Mike thought bitterly.



“We’re waiting for another tragedy to tip us over,” Tina said. “You’re telling us to wait for another bad thing, another atrocity, before we can leave.”



“I’m not telling you anything, Tina,” he said calmly.



“If anyone wants to leave, you can, but I won’t be there to help,” Tom said. Glenda fidgeted in her seat as Sarah squeezed Mike’s hand harder and harder.



“We’ll stay until the end of the week. I don’t agree with staying but I won’t let people…be sacrificed.” Glenda held Tina’s eye and then looked around the table.



“But I won’t stay here out of fear of being called a coward. When the time’s right, if nothing else can be done, I’ll leave.”



“So will I,” Sarah said. Mike nodded and raised one finger in support. Mike was grateful to Glenda in that moment; she had framed what they had been thinking. Tina sat back and shrugged her shoulders as if resigned but then broke into a simple, beautiful smile that took everyone aback.



“I guess I could spend some more time with you in the end,” she said. “I feel like we’re superheroes, or something. Just without any powers at all.”



“Speak for yourself, sweetheart,” Nick said standing up and gesturing over to the food on the portable stove.



“I second that,” Glenda said, patting her stomach and some of the drama crept away.



“The bridge?” Mike looked around. He was sorry to spoil the mood but was acutely aware he and Sarah were still not quite up to speed. He remembered Sarah’s words ‘don’t lie to me, tell me the truth’ and it compelled him.



“It’s going to be manned, three men at a time,” Nick said from the stove. “Armed, Heaven help us.”



“If it comes down to it being between them and us?” Mike asked, surprised at the starkness of his own question, though he noticed Nick wasn’t.



“If it comes to it, we’ll be fine,” he said with a gravity that belied the smile on his lips. Everyone felt it and Mike thought he saw a surge of reassurance run through them.



“We don’t have many but we have the best,” Tom said and smiled. Everyone smiled but Glenda. She was still on point and Mike again, felt comforted by that fact. She’s the one who will see it all coming, he thought.



“We’re thinking with town eyes again,” she said quietly. “We’re only thinking about breaking out. What if you’re the one walking out of the city and you step right into the barrel of a gun?”



Everyone fell silent.



The evening progressed that way. There were moments when laughter broke out, but then was brought back to reality with a word or some pause to make them realise what they had lost and what they were now left with. Mike accepted it for what it was and felt everyone else did, too. Each of them spoke with a smile, though they were clearly wounded; Glenda mentioned Dean more than once, while Tina made reference to friends in the city. There was no doubting the damage in them, Mike thought, but it was bolstered by determination, by spirit.



Tina, Glenda and Tom relocated to his rambling farmhouse. None of them had drunk and each of them left with weapons secured to their hips. Working inside the town, Nick had established their own agenda, working inside the parameters of the rules but all the while, ensuring the safety of those who needed it. Nick himself had committed to working on a project with the Dater woman, but negotiated room for Mike to deal with the real work at hand. Mike wondered how long such fragile bargaining could last. If memory served the last thing that offered stability was politics.



Nick cleaned down the office while Mike and Sarah read through the town notes and skimmed for the next day. An extra two deadbolts had been added and Nick was looking to re-enforce the windows the following day. Tom had mirrored Mike’s idea; ‘I’m thinking of trading up on a man’s home as a castle and thinking about a fortress, starting at dawn.’ Each of them had shifts for patrol, again shadowing the new council’s plans. Glenda had nick-named McKenzie’s group as ‘The New Town’ and the name had stuck. ‘If ever there was a paradox,’ she had said, without a hint of joy in her smile.



Mike sat watching Sarah sleep with Mae, while he sat on a stool in the office, readying up the spare pistols and bullets, with a nagging doubt it was nowhere near enough for what was to come. Tom had mentioned bringing ‘supplies,’ with a glint in his eyes that suggested re-enforcements were on the way. Upstairs, Nick’s light snoring carried down and Mike gently drew the door to Sarah’s bed close and out of his sight. He was surprised at how much it hurt him to be cut off from seeing the two of them but was glad for the pain too.



A noise came from outside.



Mike immediately spun from his stool and carefully padded to the window. The candle in the centre of the office was not strong enough to illuminate the whole room, only give him enough light to work by, so he felt covered. As he edged to the window, Mike drew the pistol and cocked it, ready, surprised at how calm he felt in the action.



Two men, Glen Willing and Fred McArthur, stood a few feet from the station house. Each of them carried weapons but in a sloppy way, as if they were waiting for a duck hunt to begin. Neither of them held a correct stance for the situation and looked as if they could have been drinking. Mike felt a flare of anger go through him and didn’t want to be crouching or peeking any longer. Instead, he took a step into full view, the top half of him revealed in the pane of glass, the pistol halfway but ready.



The two men froze.



Mike stared hard at each of them, but settled on McArthur, as he seemed the stronger willed of the two. The other man seemed in turn, scared and leery. Mike realised Sarah’s car was parked not three feet from where they stood. He wondered if they had come here to find her or were sent here to get them all. Either way, Mike welcomed the next flush of blood in his cheeks and remained still.



McArthur flicked his hand out, batting the other man roughly on the shoulder and then turned tail. The other man spat on the first step of the station house and cupped his groin for good measure. Mike almost broke rank and smiled, wondering how the idiot had not managed to shoot himself, let alone anyone else. McArthur hesitated for a moment as he dipped through the space in between the cars and brushed his hands against the side of Sarah’s car, pressing his waist onto it as he moved by. He looked back to Mike once, winked and then walked on, not waiting for his companion, who jogged to catch up. Mike went back to the candle and the gun and set his pistol on the table. So this is how it starts, he thought, and noticed his hands started to shake as he reached for the rag.



JULES IN REAL LIFE



Jules listened to the noise in the room and swallowed hard. He would have done anything for a drink right now, but knew how Mr. McKenzie felt about boozing and didn’t want to risk his wrath. Jules was a man of the world but even he had never met someone quite like his new boss. He was insane, clearly, but with a rationality to it that made him somewhat brilliant at the same time. It was his eyes that told the story, Jules thought. Both clear and blazing at the same time; no fog of madness visible but at the same time, no life, or engagement either. It looked as if robotic eyes had been fused into a human body. He had never been so terrified or clearly impressed by someone in his whole life.



So anyway, this project: Jules squinted down to the monitor and watched the three teenagers struggle against their restraints. Even though it was a grim scene, Jules couldn’t quite shake the smirk off his face to think the good folk of Honey Falls were sitting in the dark while up on the hill; ‘Mayor’ McKenzie was generating enough independent energy to run half the country, let alone half the town. To his credit, he kept the rest of the mansion austere, so to the naked eye, it appeared to be suffering the same fate as the rest of the men and women. This also extended inside; there were no luxuries to be had, no music playing. No, it was only the two rooms.



The small boxy control room, that he had already named ‘The War Room,’ was where Jules had his tools to work with and the bigger space, next door, which seemed like a rubber room straight out of the nuthouse, where the three sacrificial lambs were waiting to be experimented on, whether they liked it or not. Two of them, the hot little chick and the sap, were clearly petrified but the last one, the one with the dark eyes, seemed oddly eager to please. Merryweather was his name, and Jules wondered if the boss had found a soul-mate in the loony-tunes department there. Again it had almost made Jules giggle to think of them sitting side by side; the boss eating up the world step by step, while the kid looked to the heavens and waited for the raptures. Well, if things went according to plan, the poor guy wasn’t going to be able to do much else but go on a rampage, as per the bosses’ twisted wishes.



Three little piggies, Jules thought, as he tapped into the hardwires and waited for the thumbs up from the boss' driver, who was clearly a lot more than just a wheelman and about a million times more dangerous on top. Jules leaned in closer as the man applied the clamps to pry their eyes open - well for two of them at least - the Jesus-freak was practically eyeballing the screen from the moment he sat down; no fight against the straps either. After a few more seconds it was over and then Jules witnessed an oddly intimate moment when the man went around and mopped the brow of each kid and then finally, his own, before throwing up his thumbs.



As he heard the door unlock, Jules began to fire up each of the computers. As each screen popped into life, he looked away, almost a hundred percent sure it wouldn’t affect him, but still wary all the same. Jules was out of the age bracket and direct contact, but still… He saw the third screen crackle into life out of the corner of his eye and looked away to his mug of tea, which he slurped from with a shaking hand.



Jules flicked the sound to mute, even though there was no way he’d be able to hear a single thing with the gags in their mouths and the rubber walls and the rest of it. It was just…he liked it just fine from his War Room. The idea he would actually have to be involved, come into physical contact with them…them or anyone else, for that matter, left Jules cold. If anyone were to ask him why he was doing what he was doing, they wouldn’t hear the stock answers: wealth, women. It might surprise them to find out he was doing it because he could, because he craved information and data the way others craved drugs and debauchery. Before long he would be back on-line, he was confident about that, and then it would begin one way or the other. He was at the forefront of a new age, an era that would either propel the world forward or bury it back in the Dark Ages and he was the man with his finger on the trigger as well as the pulse. If there were any people left to ask him such questions, he thought and smirked.



The boss doesn’t just know where the bodies are buried, Jules realized, but he had put them in the ground too, on one level or the other. Soon, this town would either be kissing his feet or kissing dirt, and Jules didn’t care if it were either. If he was the only man left on earth, Jules would still delve into the web, search every site, no matter how banal, no matter how grotesque and…search. He would discover and explore, prepared to spend the rest of his life mining the information that was left in the world, whether it was still alive and beating or the remainder of the earth’s cracked legacy. It would be his to absorb, nonetheless.



The door opened and the driver come killer stepped into the room. Neither of them spoke, but the man came forward uncomfortably close and peered into the monitor. Clearly, any side effects were not a worry to him. Jules, happy for the other man to follow the actual event, leant back and understood the man was not even aware of his presence. Instead, the driver pressed his face to within an inch of the screen and stared. When it was done, Jules watched as he withdrew the handkerchief and ran it over his brow and then under his nose, into his face, totally un-self-consciously.



Another McKenzie disciple, Jules thought, with a mixture of revulsion and awe.



The man stepped out of the room and Jules hesitantly drew his eyes back to the screen, bracing himself. The three chairs were filled but the children had gone. In their place, three ink black monsters writhed inside their straps. When the driver stepped back inside, the handkerchief still in his hand, Jules looked away and clutched his tea cup with both hands, not wanting to see any more real life.



Such as it was.



Sparks



Mike woke up with a start as Nick raced into the reception room. For a second there was a moment of total confusion until he pulled himself out of the chair and focused his eyes on Nick. He was moving with a speed Mike had never seen before, as if his arthritis was simply a problem he had forgotten about for the time being.



“There’s something happening by Bill Grounds house. I can see sparks from my window.” His voice was low and atonal and somehow that worried Mike more than if he had been upset, or angry.



“Gunshots?” Mike asked, knowing the answer. The days of firecrackers and larking about were long gone. He watched the almost imperceptible nod come from Nick as he poured bullets into his pocket.



“I read three but they could have back-up.” Mike thought about the two men from hours before; the dumb violence in their faces, the leer in their eyes. His face was ashen.



Mike stepped to one side and let Nick open the door, snapping the locks as quietly as he could. As he slipped the gun into his hand, Mike looked back once to the door that was drawn to. He saw Sarah’s hand tilt over the side of the bed. It was an image he took with him, before stepping out into the freezing cold weather.



“Are we going to negotiate this?” Mike asked as they jogged down the road. The urge to break into a sprint was almost biting into the back of his legs but he knew the cost to Nick would be too great.



“Lay of the land,” he answered, staring down the street, as if the scene was already mapped out in front of them and ready to read. “Chances are it’ll be over by the time we get there.”



“Are we going in with weapons raised, Nick? I need to know!” Mike heard his voice carry inside the dead roads and was surprised to hear that he was almost shouting.



“Yes, raised,” came the reply, though this time, it was barely a whisper. The two of them reached the corner of the road and stepped into the chaos.



The first image that struck Mike was the dead body that sat on the pavement. It was McArthur, sat almost neatly against a garbage bin, as if he were waiting for a ride to pull up. The blood trailed out of him slowly, as if he were sitting in a puddle. No-one else was visible.



“Top window, front door,” Nick whispered breathlessly and Mike followed, seeing the former smashed and the latter open. Across the street, Mike thought he saw a shadow flicker across the front panel of a car and he swung his weapon over to the vehicle, thumb hovering over the trigger.



“Wait,” Nick said and Mike instinctively drew the gun down an inch, though not completely. “It’s over, whatever’s happened. We draw now; we could give someone an excuse.”



“We’re open,” Mike snapped back, following him into the wide expanse of the street, towards the open door.



“We have been since we stepped onto the street,” Nick answered as they came up to the porch. “This is the sheriff! Whatever’s happened, it ends now!”



They nudged the door open and the two stepped in. It was dark, but one candle still flickered in the centre of the room. Between that and the near dawn, there was enough to see the body laid out in the centre of the room.



Bill Grounds eyes were still open and his gun was a few inches from his open hand. The two bullets that had struck him around the heart were clear to see. Mike felt an odd sense of relief that nothing had struck him in the head. The air from the broken window tickled his neck and almost made him draw one hand away from his pistol. In the next moment, the inky black creature launched out of the kitchen and straight for Mike’s outstretched hand.



The next few moments were a blur. Mike was aware of firing his pistol and was aware also of the kick it gave to his wrist. The creature didn’t seem to stop though and he waited for the first bite, the first blow to invade the skin. He wondered, somewhere far away in the back of his mind, if he would become infected through contact. It was one of those questions that had been batted back and forth between him, Nick and Glenda, though no-one had the answers. He didn’t close his eyes: somewhere in the last few days, Mike had sworn to himself he would never do that, no matter what would happen. Instead Mike stared at it, squeezing the trigger again, though not quick enough, watching the havoc in the face as it bore down on him, inches from his eyes, his lips. It wore its new face like a mask and the detective in Mike wondered; how is all this possible?



In the next moment the creature catapulted into the air, spinning almost high enough to brush the ceiling, before settling in the corner of the room. Mike spun round, seeing Nick crouched, his gun still trained on the monster. He had hunched down to shoot it under the chin and send it away and up.



Everything stilled and Mike pulled himself up from the floor, peering down to his own outstretched arm in the near light. Nothing in him throbbed or pulsed, the fabric was not torn. As an afterthought, he remembered to breathe. He almost lost his footing and slipped, until Nick caught his elbow. The two of them looked out to the interrupted pool of blood that had once been the floorboards. Mike felt the slickness of the dead man’s blood on him.



“You okay?” The question was pointless but Mike still appreciated hearing it.



“You saved me,” he muttered and tried to make his heart slow. Nick’s hand stayed on his elbow and that helped.



“You can return the favour any time you like,” came the response. Mike felt a wave of madness run over him. It felt insane to be talking as two bodies lay prone before them, not five feet away.



“You think there’s any more?” Mike stared at the creature but saw it was done. From what he knew, they seemed incapable of being still and nothing about this one twitched.



“I can’t hear any movement. They don’t strike me as the static type,” Nick replied, edging over and prodding it. No last real thrills; it lay, unmoving and gone, the dark face a jumbled mess.



“We didn’t see that one coming,” Mike said, feeling adrenaline surge through him at edging past death by a matter of inches.



“We weren’t staring at a murdered friend before,” Nick answered, his voice low. “We need to go up these stairs. Are you ready?”



“I am,” Mike answered and followed him up the first flight.



The sight in the bedroom made Nick step back, leaving Mike to take point. The boy had been ravaged by the creature, his blood sprayed across the length and breadth of the room, some of his bones exposed and his features unrecognisable. It was not so much a crime scene as an act of pure devastation. Mike looked around to cover the body with something but saw nothing that was not tainted by blood or worse. Nick swept the bathroom as Mike checked the last bedroom and when satisfied, he brought back a blanket to cover him with.



“I think procedure’s finished with for now,” he said and saw Nick nod approvingly without speaking. What could be said? Mike stepped out of the room. No more attics, no trapdoors or surprises; just a home that had been desecrated by something beyond reason and horror.



As the two stepped silently down to the living room, Nick pointed left, to the small garden out back, while Mike stepped back out the front door and onto the porch. In amongst the chaos of the last few minutes, he had almost forgotten the original reason for coming here and immediately withdrew his pistol when the three men appeared standing opposite the house.



“Sheriff’s department, Identify yourselves!” he screamed and saw the three men slow down without actually stopping. He noticed all of them clutched rifles that were drawn across their chests.



“We’re the patrol,” one of them replied. Mike thought he sounded like one of the churchmen from the meeting. The other two stayed silent and Mike, inside a second, understood this was deliberate.



“Are you on your own?” The man asked and slipped the rifle down to his outstretched arms. Mike didn’t lower his gun.



“All three of you stop right there, right now!” Mike screamed and tightened his grip on the pistol.



“We just want-”



“He’s not on his own,” Nick called out, appearing from the right hand side of the house, up the small alleyway. His gun was drawn and he stopped in the street, with no protection or cover. This seemed to make the man swallow hard.



“Either side,” came a second voice and Mike flinched, fighting every muscle in order not to spin round to see Glenda’s face.



“Four to three now,” Tom’s voice chipped in and that made the three men visibly slacken. Slowly they placed their weapons to their sides but not on the floor.



“We’re not putting them down, if that’s what you’re thinking,” the man went on, sounding offended. He was clearly the spokesman and his pride had been wounded. The other two didn’t look willing or much capable if it fell to them.



“We want to know what in the name of Christ just happened here,” Nick said, his voice trembling with barely concealed anger and something else too; an undercurrent of shock.



“You kinda just answered your own question there, partner,” the man said and the lopsided grin that came to his face stiffened Mike’s grip on the trigger. If I did this now, who would know? Who would stop me? He shook the idea from his head. It was too easy a temptation.



Nick broke from his stance and paced over to where they stood and once again, Mike was amazed at how easily he seemed to be moving. In almost the next breath Nick was standing at arm's length from the man, his pistol not six inches from his temple.



“You tell me what I want to know, now!” It seemed as if it was the fury of the last word that made the other man wince even more than the prospect of the pistol being pressed against his flesh.



“We…we saw something, the black thing, from inside the house. We called out and the next thing we know, there’s Bill Grounds shooting at us, his kid too, so we returned fire. We went looking for help and came back when we heard the shooting.”



Mike stepped off the porch and over towards the scene. In the corner of his eye he saw two things; Glenda and Bill doing the same and a car appearing at the corner of the road, heading towards them.



“Now there’s this, with you pointing a gun in my face.” The man’s voice shifted in tone and Mike wondered for a moment if he was going to start crying. The other men stood, unmoved, as if this was just part of it. The car pulled up to the kerb and Mike saw McKenzie step out of it. He looked back to Nick who didn’t seem to notice anything other than the man trembling in front of him.



“You’re damn lucky that’s all I’m doing with it. Now, you want to stop lying to me, or shall I take you down the station for a chat?”



Glenda stepped up to try and confront McKenzie, who seemed to wave both her and Tom away. Jules was nowhere to be seen, although the driver stepped out and drew close to McKenzie, his eyes hovering first over Nick and then over to Mike.



“We don’t recognise your station house, no more, chief. There’s a new order, or did you forget already?” The man said as McKenzie came into view. Nick sensed him and slowly lowered his pistol, though it stayed over the flap of his holster and not inside.



“Did you authorise this?” he asked and Mike detected a new wave of anger in the pitch of his partner’s voice.



“The town agreed to a patrol. This patrol, as far as I can see, responded to a threat and acted accordingly.” McKenzie stood a few feet back from Nick, giving himself just enough room to pull one of the three slaves in front of him if Nick drew his gun, Mike thought. “I don’t see any of them pushing a pistol to a man’s head,”



“You haven’t seen anything,” Nick said, tilting his head back towards the house. His hands stayed at his sides, poised. “Not the man shot to death by your cowboys, not the young boy torn to pieces.”



“Both of whom were offered up protection, sheriff. Both of which declined.” His voice was controlled and made Mike’s raised weapon seem at best an overreaction and at worst, absurd.



He glanced over quickly and saw Glenda and Tom both nod his way. Collectively they lowered their weapons, though didn’t holster them. Mike suddenly became more aware of the surroundings, the other houses in the street and the flickering curtains. He’s planned this, Mike though and felt his heart plunge.



“I’ve also heard the man may have been harbouring one of these…ink creatures, his daughter, by all accounts? I assume that’s why the deputies saw activity inside the house.” Mike watched as the man shrugged, almost casually, goading Nick.



“I’ll need to take these men in for questioning,” Nick said flatly, obviously trying to shake the anger off. It wasn’t working as far as Mike could tell.



“After I discuss the events, along with the other heads of town, as per our new mandate, sheriff, as I’m sure you’re well aware.” McKenzie scratched his chin, the gesture almost beckoning Nick to respond. Mike stepped forward, close enough to make them both aware of his presence. In McKenzie it drew a thin, bloodless smile, in his partner; he noted a small notching down of the tension.



“Ah, sheriff. Maybe you could step in and let calmer heads prevail.” He switched his eyes over to Mike and almost winked conspiratorially. Mike felt his stomach thicken and fought the urge to puke.



“I think we’ll conduct an investigation and we’ll thank you to not use words like ‘harbouring,’ Mr. McKenzie.” Mike watched as the man’s gaze faltered slightly, before ramping back up to the previous stance of borderline sainthood. Mike saw the man tilt away from them both , just an inch or two, but just enough to be seen by each pair of eyes coming from the bedroom windows, the living room: to his audience.



“I trust there will be an investigation and one the whole town will be privy to and not just kept amongst yourselves, gentlemen.” His voice was clear and clean, as if he were standing on a podium and not a curb. Mike opened his mouth to speak but was too slow.



“I hope so indeed. I’ll speak to these gentlemen and maybe we could reconvene at a later date.” The three men shuffled towards him, almost saluting and Mike touched Nick on the elbow lightly, leading him away. The men disappeared into the car and it pulled away down the street. Mike noticed McKenzie didn’t even pause to look at the dead man, sitting on the street and wondered if anyone else in the street noticed it. Tom sighed and sparked his pipe into life, while Glenda looked over to the house and then back to Mike.



“They’ve just murdered in cold blood and got away with it clean,” Mike heard himself say, not quite believing the words that were coming from his own mouth. Nick shook his head and removed his hat, running his hand over his head, his hands shaking.



“It won’t be the last,” he said quietly and then began trudging back to the house. The rest of them followed, speechless.



THE BIGGER THE LIE



As the dawn broke, Mike, Nick, and Glenda went through the scene in the house, after Glenda had covered up the dead man in the street as best she could. Mike led Glenda up to the bedroom and stood back as she surveyed the bedroom. She said nothing, made no gasps and the only telltale sign of her distress was the balling of her hands into a tight fist by her sides. Mike noted each finger turned white and wondered if the nails at the centre had drawn blood. He left her to the awful room and found Nick in the small garden that led out to the alleyway and the street.



“The back door’s been broken,” he said without looking round. The two of them looked at the ground and saw a muddle of footprints in the dirt, though none were clear from the other.



“It looks like a stampede,” Mike said, crouching down to the unruly patterns that led to the door.



“Or something that couldn’t control itself,” Nick said and folded his arms as Mike drew himself up.



“You’re saying they brought one of the creatures with them?” He tried hard to keep the incredulity out of his voice but couldn’t quite manage it.



“They shoot Bill after he clips one of theirs. They bring the ink around to the door and set it free, so it hurtles upstairs and attacks the boy.” Mike followed the words and tried to imagine the scenes being played out.



“Why didn’t it just keep going and run amok?” He asked, remembering the frenzied movement of the face, inches from his own.



“It’s learning. Maybe it was sedated. Maybe it was waiting.” Mike felt an inner cold run through him.



“If what you’re saying is true, you’re saying it’s evolving? That within days of coming into life, it’s developing?” His voice trembled and he wasn’t sure if it was laughter or tears that were teeing themselves up inside his stomach.



“Would you rather think Bill managed to keep his daughter hidden? That he…’harboured’ her all this time? I don’t think for one second that creature is his daughter. I think McKenzie’s keeping them somewhere.” Nick’s voice was thinning and Mike put his hand on his elbow, at the same spot as before.



“I’m not saying anything against it, I’m just listening.” He watched the flush of colour drain out of Nick’s face and went on. “You’re thinking it’s coming from McKenzie? That he’s keeping some of them controlled and then letting them loose?” Mike had always heard about the experiments the Nazis did in World War 2 but had never had the stomach to actually read about them.



“It generates hysteria and keeps him in control. It also explains Jules and why he wanted to detain the teenagers. We can’t identify it outright because I…” Though he’d try to keep level, Nick’s voice finally cracked on the last few syllables.



“Glenda will be able to prove something…”Mike felt his words fall away; Glenda didn’t have the tools at her disposal to prove anything, not immediately, at least. The image of Sarah’s arm in the near light came into his mind. Mike thought of Mae, sleeping, innocent. “It’s so insane if we bring it to light; we’ll be dismissed as crackpot conspiracy theorists and grant him more power.”



“The bigger the lie…” Nick said. Glenda’s footsteps hustled down the stairs and they quickly filled her in. Her face paled but she held firm. At the end of it, she drew a cigarette and offered the pack. The three smoked without talking for a few moments.



“We have to let people know, somehow,” Glenda said at last and for the first time her voice sounded desperate. She waited for a response and when none came, she finished the butt and tossed it to the floor. “At the very least we have to get those other kids.”



“They’re already dead,” Nick said and the pain in his eyes was so clear, she went over to him and drew him into an embrace. He didn’t look over to Mike when he spoke. Instead, his question almost seemed to be directed to himself.



“Which one of those kids did I just kill?”



FOOT IN THE DOOR



The three of them moved the dead body from the street and set it inside the house out of a mark of respect. People still didn’t come to their doors and Mike couldn’t blame them. The fire-fight must have broken the back of some of them, where the last idea of order slipped away in a flurry of sharp cracking noises. For a moment he wondered just how many of them were now armed and how many of those weapons would be pointing straight at the door, no matter who was on the other side.



Mike pulled the crime scene tape out of his pocket and then realized just how pointless such an action would be. Nick caught him and smiled, shaking his head. In the end, they decided to simply run a single reel of tape over the front door and worked on the assumption that everyone would be too terrified to step out of their front door until Glenda came back in the car to collect the bodies. Before they headed back to the station house, the three of them walked over the Todd’s and knocked on the door. Nick spoke but no-one answered. Mike wondered what that meant, how badly Nick’s behaviour and his own had weakened them in the eyes of the people in this street and, by the way of gossip and rumour, the town. After all the violence that had occurred, it may have been Nick’s threat that had weakened them beyond repair. It was only when Glenda spoke that the door finally opened.



“We heard the shooting,” The woman of the house said quietly. The door was cracked open enough to see her profile and nothing else. The kids made no noise; the husband was out of sight. Even so, Mike could feel their presence and wondered just what sort of weapon it was that Mr. Todd had gripped in his hands right now.



“What did you see, Mrs. Todd?” Glenda was asking the questions and Nick deferred, stepping alongside Mike, looking a little like the world’s oldest shamed schoolboy; his head bowed, his shoulders slumped. Mike wondered how much it hurt him to be seen as the enemy now, or worse, the instigator and the threat.



“I heard noises, guns, glass. That’s all. I won’t say it in front of any meeting and I won’t be opening my door anymore after this conversation is over.” Her voice trailed in the air, as fragile as glass and ready to break. The fact that it didn’t falter made Mike feel an admiration for the woman that he wanted to express and knew he would not, could not.



“Did you see anything? Any of the…black creatures?” Glenda’s voice was quiet but the words seemed to hit the other woman like a slap to the face.



“All I know is that young boy is dead, along with his poor father. That’s all I know and that’s all I need to know. The men that did it, I never trusted them a damn.” She swallowed hard and then looked beyond Glenda to Nick.



“I saw you push your gun into his head, sheriff.” Her voice went small and her eyes widened. There was no filter in it and Mike could see the fear crawl over her as if it were inky liquid splashing her skin. “Are you going to do that to me if I don’t answer you?”



“Of course not, of course not.” Mike watched as the colour drained from Nick. For a moment, he rocked on his heels and Mike thought he might faint.



“I knew those other men had it in them, sheriff but…” She looked as if she was going to continue to speak but then bowed her head. She closed the door slowly as if waiting for one of them to stick a foot into the gap. When it didn’t come, Mike saw a sudden wave of relief come over her face, almost like joy and then the door closed and the three were left stunned on the porch.



“She’s wrong,” Glenda said as they walked back to the station.



“I know it,” Nick said and he almost sounded convincing.



“No you don’t, but you need to and right now, Nicky. We’re relying on you, even if the rest of this place can’t see what’s right in front of them.” Her voice rose and echoed down the empty street. For a moment Nick looked over stared nakedly into her eyes. She didn’t look away and again Mike felt another rush of admiration that he had no hope of ever expressing out loud. He got the idea that if he ever complimented this incredible woman, she’d floor him with a single punch.



“If you two and Tom hadn’t stepped out when you did, they would have shot me,” Mike said, and immediately the two broke away and looked over to him.



“It’s true; I could feel it, maybe even before they did. Maybe even after you stepped out Nick, they were still weighing it up. It was only the numbers that pushed them back.” He looked ahead and saw the station house come into view and thought of Sarah and her daughter inside. As long as I still have that, he thought and fought the urge to smile.



“I think you’re right,” Nick said finally. “I think that’s one of the things that worries McKenzie; his cronies acting out of turn. If they’d gone ahead, it would have damaged him. If anything scares him, it’s delegating control to fools like them.”



“Do you think he’d take out his own men?” Glenda said, finishing her second cigarette. She yawned as she did, sending a long thin trail of smoke into the air.



“Not while he still needs numbers,” Nick said, removing his hat. “But-”



He didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he gasped once and then tumbled to the ground before either Mike or Glenda could reach out and catch him.



BULL-BULL



“So it wasn’t a heart attack?” Mike rose up, along with the rest of them as Glenda finished talking.



“Not quite but it’s only a matter of time if he keeps pushing himself to this degree. It was almost a warning sign, a pre-quake, before the big one.” She lit a cigarette and no-one said a word.



“How long should he stay in bed?” Sarah brought Mae closer as the little girl squirmed underneath her. Glenda blanched, suddenly realizing the kid in the room and blew the smoke away from the corner of her mouth.



“In the real world, the patient should receive at least two to four weeks complete bed rest. Knowing Nick, he’ll try and be up and around before the end of the day. The least he should do is stay in bed for the next twenty-four hours and after that be kept inside for at least half the day because of the cold. I’ve set out medicine for him to take but…” she waved her hand and fanned the smoke away from the table.



“We need to take it out of his hands,” Tina said, folding her arms across her chest. “We’ve let him take too much haven’t we?”



“The first thing we need to do is get the bodies into some sort of order,” Mike said, accepting the mantle before anyone else spoke. “The scene was bad enough, the last thing we need is for Dater’s crew to be over there, conducting some half-assed service before the blood has even dried.”



“Or an exorcism,” Glenda added, stubbing out the butt and drawing the ashtray from the table.



“Any…interference. I’ll drive you over there, while everyone else stays here, looks after Nick and makes sure no-one else ‘patrols’ the station.” He had told all of them about the late night intimidation as they’d waited for Nick’s diagnosis. He noticed no-one seemed surprised, bar him.



“We’ll go back on patrols in pairs once the details are in place and keep an extra pair of eyes on the Todd house, bearing in mind what happened, okay?” He looked around and saw them all agree in one way or another.



“What about the bridge, Mike?” Tom’s voice was quiet and he sounded almost embarrassed. Out of all of them, the old-timer was the last one he’d have expected to bring up the escape route. The old man shrugged.



“It’s a witch-hunt now, isn’t it? No place for a woman with a young one to be living. No-one else with a right mind, either.” There was no fear in his voice and no panic either. It was simple reasoning.



“We wait for Nick to recover, speak to the Todd’s and then start planning for it.” Mike said it without thinking and then glanced round. No-one argued and no-one was shocked.



“If you want to go on ahead, I’ll wait with Nicky. Doc, if you write out the prescriptions, I can-” For possibly the first time in his life, Bob Cloud was waved down. Glenda’s hand came up and circled as if she was swatting a fly.



“Spare me the old cowboy bull…bull.” She flicked an eye to Mae and then Sarah, who almost laughed. “We leave you behind; you’ll never see sense and leave. We go together in a pack. It’s stronger and it’s safer. Mike’s right; we talk to the Todd’s and anyone else who we think might have a sane bone left in their body who won’t blab and then we take off. Maybe we should have gone earlier, but that’s by the by. We’ve seen what can happen today and it’s not going to get better. Agreed?”



“Amen to that,” Tom said, chuckling. Tina tried to look solemn, but there was no denying the relief that prickled around her eyes. Mike exchanged glances with Sarah and saw they were in agreement.



HOLIDAY IN HELL



“Tell me the truth about him,” Mike said as they climbed into the car. The snow was lightly spraying across the town. The sky above was that perfect washed-out grey that said the first heavy fall was days away, if not hours. He thought about trekking across the bridge in those conditions, the ice that must have settled. A thought of Mae in Sarah’s arms flashed into his head and he pushed it away for the time being.



“I was. The fact is that anything like a repeat of the last few days, even yesterday, could finish him off.” The car started first time, taking them both by surprise. As they drove down the empty road, Glenda reached down for the radio and switched it on, summoning up a gale of white noise.



“Sorry. Old habit, you know?” She smiled and for a moment looked like the old Glenda, the one who was in love and at peace. Mike didn’t know her well enough to miss that woman but he was glad for the battle hardened one that had stepped up in its place. With Nick laid up, she was as much in charge of the rag-tag brigade as he was.



“I sat in my house yesterday and saw how many electric things I had in my place without realizing it. It was scary really...all junk now, of course.” She took the corner and the car glided for a second on a patch of ice.



“It’s going to be hell driving-” Mike’s voice faded as he looked out to the street. Glenda glanced over, waiting for him to finish. “The house,” he whispered and watched as the smoke rose up into the air. He heard Glenda gasp and accelerate but it was clear they were too late.



Glenda parked at the end of the street and they jogged towards the burning building, both of them with their weapons drawn. Mike looked around sharply and saw no-one in the street. A mixture of emotions swirled up in him as he got closer to the blaze. First, there was a feeling of helplessness at facing the burning building and the knowledge that he could do nothing; that events were already out of his hands. The stronger feeling was anger; how no-one even dared to step out of their front door when their neighbourhood was literally falling down around their ears.



Realizing it was futile, he stepped back to the kerb and watched it burn. Glenda came up next to him, setting down her weapon and sitting on the concrete. The Grounds’ house was detached and even as it blazed, the building was self-contained. The cold and the snow would see it spread no further down the street. Mike decided to sit down alongside his friend.



“They’re eradicating the infected,” she said flatly. “Anything that’s diseased, anything that’s different, they’re putting it to the flame.”



“Strange how the new patrol have missed this one, isn’t it?” Mike said bitterly. “What odds do you want to give me they’ll appear in a few minutes?”



“I think the bookies are closed on that one, Mike,” she said, looking beyond him, to the other end of the street.



The scene itself would have been comical if it hadn’t been so hideous. The Dater woman marched at the front of the small group, her puffer jacket marked with hand drawn crosses in bright yellow marker. All of them were the same as if they had been tagged. Some of them were still fresh, so the crosses looked as if they were melting, which seemed oddly appropriate, Mike thought. One of them started shaking a bell as they paraded down the street.



“It’s like the public holiday from hell,” Mike said, staring at them in shock.



“If that guy doesn’t stop with the cow bells, I may have to shoot him,” Glenda replied, wearily getting to her feet. Mike ran an eye over them and saw none were armed. Thank heaven for small mercies, he thought and almost laughed.



“Do you know who is responsible for this?” Mike said as they met in the middle of the street.



“God,” the woman replied, in a monotone that infuriated Mike. It’s just one more thing, he thought. One more thing to show the world’s gone mad.



“Does He have witnesses?” Glenda asked and Mike once again felt the wild urge to laugh. She had obviously decided to throw in with gallows humour, now that all reason had been lost. It made him like her even more.



“He is our witness in all,” another one mumbled from the back. In unison, they began to mutter some sort of prayer. Mike stepped up, feeling lost without Nick to guide him.



“Look, this is a crime and an abuse of a crime scene, at that. I want you to answer my questions in a clear fashion.” His voice was tight and Dater seemed to falter a little under the pressure of it. She stepped forward and the rest of them quietened down.



“I don’t know who was responsible but I’d shake them by the hand if I did. By this evening quarantine measures will be passed and this action would have been carried out regardless. In a lot of ways, it is merely a time-saving exercise.” She looked beyond his shoulder to Glenda, who had lit another cigarette. Dater’s lips curled in disdain and Mike saw the similarity between her and the creature from a few hours before, the lips curving in the same hungry fashion.



“It is you and you’re…associates who are working outside the new laws: The New Town laws.” She stepped back defiant and a low chorus of ‘amen’ came from the rest of them.



“This is still a crime and if you are too damaged to see that I…don’t have a lot of hope for you,” he said. These people are lost, he thought and stared at the woman with kindness for a second, trying to get through. She recoiled and took a step further back.



Dater spat on the concrete, a few inches from his boots.



“You-” Glenda stepped forward but Mike held her back. He was suddenly weary and tired of the silly games the woman was playing. She was a danger, yes, but there were bigger players pulling the strings. In her most basic form, she was simply a mascot for the real danger, up in the hills on the fringes of town.



“I’m sorry you feel that way,” was all he said and stepped back. Glenda still trembled at his shoulder but he kept her at arm’s length. As they stepped away, the group began droning into the flames, but he didn’t have the energy to listen to their hateful tract.



“Forget the mascot,” he said to Glenda as they reached the car. “We have to set up a watch on the Todd’s right away. They are the ones in immediate danger and not from these freaks.”



“I think the men you’re talking about are coming in to admire their work, Mike,” he said and looked back. Mike turned and watched a New Town Patrol of four men walk slowly down the street, almost ambling, safe and smug in their new found status. Mike spotted the men from the shoot-out, accepting the hands offered to them and revelling in the shakes. All of them watched the house as it burned. Mike’s feeling of despair turned to horror as one door opened and an elderly couple stepped out from their house, looking for a moment like lost mice, before walking down their driveway to the middle of the street. They were welcomed and taken in by the group. Of course they were, Mike thought angrily.



Another house opened and then another. As Mike and Glenda got into the car Glenda’s unbelieving expression almost made him laugh again, though another part of him was ready to scream. The group had become a congregation. The service was in full swing, each of them lit by the flames, warm and joyous. Mike took one last look at the Dater woman’s face, bright in the flames and wild in ecstasy and then reversed the car out into the street.



AMEN



“We need a patrol on the Todd house until first light. If they’re not coming in with us, we’ll monitor Nick and as soon as he’s ready, we’ll look towards the bridge.” Mike studied them around the table. Tina had paled and both Tom and Glenda weren’t doing much better. Sarah had set down Mae and now her hand was firmly in Mike’s as he spoke.



“We’re…we’re not safe here anymore,” Glenda said quietly: the shock of the fire had filtered into her now and the humour was gone. Mike recognized it from his own early days in the job. The way the fear and agony slowly wormed its way into your bones, hours, even days, afterwards and slowly drained everything out of you.



“The bridge,” Tina said, suddenly becoming the strong one. This was why Glenda was right about staying together Mike thought and squeezed Sarah’s hand tighter.



Tom tapped his pipe and nodded out to the telescope.



“From what I can tell, it’s bottlenecked all the way through. If we’re lucky, we could navigate our way on foot to the end and then fire up a car that’s pointing towards the city. From there…” he raised his hand's palm up, spraying a little tobacco onto the table.



“If we’re not lucky?” Glenda asked. Upstairs Nick coughed and her ears pricked up. Everyone waited for a moment but no more noise came.



“The cars won’t start and they’ll be a patrol at the other end, just like the genius’ here are starting up. Plus, if we’re having problems in the small town of Honey Falls, then multiply that by at least a thousand…”



“I know safe spots,” Tina said, cutting across him. My place has food and even if it’s been…affected, I know a half dozen other viable places.”



“Unless we look to the mountains,” Tom offered up hopefully.



“The weather that’s coming, Mae and Nick the way he is…” Glenda let the words trail off, no ending needed. Tom tapped his pipe and smiled, trying to placate her.



“I mean as a plan B, or even further down the line. If we go to the city and it’s Sodom and Gomorrah, then we’ll have to high tail it regardless. I’m just saying it’s an option.” He looked back to the telescope. “It looks kind of peaceful out there, that’s all.”



“Is the city still burning?” Mike asked, a set of new questions and the doubts that went with them, running through his mind. “Why hasn’t anyone from the city come out here yet?”



“Probably for the same reason we haven’t left here yet,” Tina said. She cadged one of Glenda’s cigarettes from her pocket and lit it. “They’re waiting to see what happens next.”



“Or the government has set something into place,” Sarah said. “Some sort of quarantine measures, or a lock down on people traveling. They probably have doomsday measures in place, don’t they?”



“No doubt,” Glenda said, stubbing out her butt. “But then how many of them have been caught in the crossfire? Who will be left and who’ll be in charge?”



“We could be looking at a larger scale of what we have here,” Tina said and she sounded genuinely stunned at the idea of it.



“Or it could be secure,” Sarah said, settling her hand on the coffee cup to stop the temptation to grab a smoke. Mike realized he had already done the same.



“It’s a lottery,” Tom said finally. “But if the buildings are burning here and there’s no smoke left or right, now’s the time to bail out.”



“Amen,” Glenda said and looked at Mike, a little of the former sparkle coming back into her eyes.



“Don’t you start,” Mike said but felt himself smiling for the first time since the discussion had begun. “First look-out on the Todd house should start at five, when it gets dark. By then the fire will have extinguished and if anyone’s going to try again, it’ll be then.”



“Me and Tina will head out first and then we’ll switch in two hours, okay?” Tom said. Now the plan had been set in action, he seemed happier. Tom Cloud seemed like a man who was always better moving forward than standing still, Mike thought.



“Agreed. You take a crack at persuading them to move. We got shot down bad enough to not try again.” Mike looked at the old man and watched him nod. Glenda excused herself and headed up to see Nick. Everyone began to move. When Tom reached the door, he looked back to Mike.



“I’ve trained the telescope on the Todd’s house. I figure if anything happens the cavalry can get down there inside five minutes.”



“Good thinking, Tom,” Mike said and smiled. The old man winked and looked over to both him and Sarah.



“Take care of each other,” he said, smiling and held the door open for Tina to pass through.



PLAYING COWBOYS



“How bad was it?” Sarah asked him, as they set Mae down for a nap. When she was dozing they sat back on the bed, watching her sleep.



“I didn’t recognize them,” Mike said and realized that was the truth of it. “Not just as people from town but…people. It was like they’d changed into something else. That Dater woman…” he let out a whistle.



“She’s always been bitter, ever since her husband died. I think she’s kind of been forgotten about by a lot of people. She was always there, handing out her pamphlets and trying to chide people for the small things. All this,” she waved her hand in a general direction. “This is like manna from heaven for her, maybe literally. No computers, everyone back to candlelight and papers. For people like her, this is perfect.”



“Did she ever go after you? You and Mae?” Mike felt his throat go tight. He knew next to nothing about her, apart from the tired second-hand stories. In a way, he liked not knowing everything about someone, liked the mystery of it. Mike thought about the internet, the details everyone spills without a second thought, and felt himself being sucked into the Dater woman’s little slice of paradise and shivered.



“As best she could but I never let it get to me. I could see all the fire and brimstone working in her eyes but it could never get a rise out of me. Sometimes when she stared, I’d stare back and that would snuff out the lights.” Her body tensed as she spoke and Mike felt her flinch with the memory of it.



“Most folks didn’t care one way or another and before this, had other things to worry about, bills and jobs and everyday life. I bet folks would give a lot back to be bitching about stuff like that now, huh?” She looked over to him and her eyes were wide and beautiful.



“Sure. I just thought…I just thought people would look to each other when this happened. Some people would be weak; some would be strong, but with each other. I didn’t think people would…just fall in behind the ones who screamed loudest.” Mike had kept her eye her the whole time he’d spoken. Had he ever done that in his life before? Shared his feelings honestly and clearly, like that? He didn’t know. Mike kissed her. When it was over they began to giggle. In the next moment, a violent fit of coughing from above stopped them laughing.



“You go up, I’ll sit with Mae,” she whispered. Mike stood and walked to the doorway, before stopping and looking back to her. He didn’t say anything but smiled again and she did too.



“There you are,” Nick said as Mike stepped into the room. The coughing had subsided and Glenda was injecting something into his arm. Nick kept an eye on him, flinching momentarily as the needle struck, before winking.



“How are you Nick?” Mike asked, taking the seat on the other side of Glenda. She worked away, frowning but with colour in her cheeks, meaning she was either angry or hopeful. Either way, Mike took her blood being up as a good sign.



“The sawbones is taking good care of me,” he said and angled his eyebrows to Glenda. “She worries too much, though.”



“Enough with the cowboy act, Nicky,” she said but Mike was relieved to see a slight grin on the corners of her mouth. “He’s getting better. The coughing is a positive in this case. Means his system is reacting and staying alert. I’ll let you boys play soldiers for a few minutes but that’s all.”



“Coughing as an improvement…who knew?” Mike said, leaning forward and patted his hand.



“Storm in a teacup, Mike. Glenda told me about the arson.” His voice was dry but strong and his features actually did look rested. The ashen skin was gone and his eyes looked clear rather than haunted. There’s hope, he thought and tapped his friend’s hand harder.



“It’s out of control. We’re watching the Todd’s, hoping to talk with them and then shipping out.” Mike felt comfortable telling him the truth; he knew for a fact Glenda wouldn’t hide anything from Nick in the first place. The truth was what could save them and Mike felt the first glimmer of optimism in his body for what felt like a long time.



“Don’t wait for me, if the time comes early,” Nick said, and suddenly the old gravity came back into his eyes as if remembering the last few days in a rush.



“If it comes to it, I’ll carry you. Me and Tom, straight out the door,” Mike said and was relieved to see that got a smile. “Maybe we’ll slip out safe and start over, chief. Then all you’ll be doing is cooking us food for six months.”



“Sounds good to me,” Nick replied and his voice grew suddenly dreamy. Mike felt a stab of concern and then realized it was simply the drugs kicking in. He watched as Nick’s eyes grew heavy and his shoulder sagged. Even through all this, his grip stayed tight in Mike’s. He mumbled something and Mike leant closer, asking him to repeat what he’d said.



“Don’t…call…me… chief,” he muttered and Mike arched back, actually laughing. The old man slipped into a fog of a doze, his hand slipping away but the grin subsiding last of all. Mike sat with him, even after he began to lightly snore and didn’t let go of his hand until Glenda appeared at the doorway and ushered him out of the room.



THE HUMAN SNOWMAN



Tom and Tina sat in the cruiser, watching the snow gather around them. Tom followed the swirls, remembering how in years gone by, the first snow had always been a happy time for the town. The young ones had run around foolishly, playing games and building snowmen. Even the old folks like himself had watched them play, recalling memories and aching for the past when life was unmapped and unknown. Now, the snow seemed just one more danger, one more threat to contend with.



Tom had every faith in the sheriff and every hope for the young man, too. The women, too, were stronger than the fools who thought they ran the ship and smarter than any of the mob who called themselves the new order. No, what worried Tom Cloud the most was Tom Cloud. He was old, he was slow and where Nick still seemed adept in almost every way, Tom seemed a relic, lost in old ways of thinking, old ways of speaking. The others tolerated him, smiled at his half-assed homilies, but in the end, he was the one who could be dead weight if it came to it, and he knew this even if they didn’t.



The hope of hanging back with Nicky and making sure he recovered had been his main hope but that had gone up in smoke when the rest of them showed a solidarity Tom didn’t think still existed. They were good people, good-hearted and the idea that his stodgy actions may lead to any of them being hurt made his heart tremble more than he’d ever admit to the Doc. Hell, maybe his heart would give way and that would do for him before he had to make any more decisions. The smile he felt on his lips was a sad one but one more than he’d had since they’d parked there, almost thirty minutes before.



“I think I might make a go of it with the Todd’s before this snow gets too thick. What do you say?” He looked over to the pretty, tired woman and watched her nod.



“Good luck, Tom. If anyone could do it, I’d back you,” she said and winked at him as she cupped both hands around her coffee.



“Mighty kind of you to say,” he said and pulled the hat back onto his head. Old fool, he thought, feeling his pulse race at the wink she had given him. But underneath all that, he felt the same kindness in her the others had shown him, the same goodness that he savoured and feared for in equal measure.



The wind got up as he trudged over to the house. The one next door was nothing but a shell now, a husk of black ash and smouldering embers. He shook his head, trying to tell himself that people in this town, the town he’d lived in for over thirty years could not have been responsible for doing such a cruel, lunatic thing. But then who else could it have been? By all accounts, the monsters couldn’t so much as tie their shoelaces let alone start fires. No, all they did was kill, he thought and shivered in a way that had little to do with the latest flurry of snow.



“Hello there!” he called out, stamping his feet on the porch. He thought he heard footsteps on the other side of the door and arched his ear towards the door to could get a clearer sound.



“It’s Tom Cloud. I want to speak to you folks if you’d give me five minutes. I’d b grateful, seeing as it's cold as all hell out here.” He heard another rustling of feet and took some encouragement in that.



“Tom?” the man’s voice was thick, though Tom wasn’t sure if that was from drink or sheer exhaustion.



“That’s right. Tom the human snowman if you leave me out here for a few minutes more,” he said. After a few seconds delay, he heard the slow but steady snap of locks being removed. Bingo, he thought and turned round to give Tina a thumbs-up.



As Tom Cloud swung his head round, his thumb already in the air, a sequence of images flooded his eyes. The first was of Tina, who had climbed out of the car and was waving her arms at him, the gun in one hand. She was calling out to him but was standing downwind of the blizzard, so her words were hard to make out.



The second was in the corner of his eye as he swung back to the man of the house as the door opened just far enough to expose the man’s face. Tom frowned and peered in, wondering if the man was carrying a shooting rifle in his arms or some such foolishness. All Tom saw were his eyes going wide with pure, unadulterated fear at what was behind Tom’s back.



The last image came as Tom spun to his right, as best he could, to see what was there. He caught a flash of total darkness, a black smudge against the snow, as the monster careered into him and smashed both of them through the door frame and into the newly unlocked house.



   
   

 

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Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at chriscastle76@hotmail.com. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden, Butterfly Eater, Finger, and The Last House all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February, April, August, and October 2014 issues. Chris Castle's novel, Bedlam Days, is serialized in HelloHorror. Part 1 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 2 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 3 appears in the Summer 2015 issue, Part 4 appears in the Halloween 2015 issue, Part 5 appears in the Winter 2016 issue, Part 6 appears in the Spring 2016 issue, Part 7 appears in the Summer 2016 issue, and Part 8 appears in the Autumn 2016 issue of HelloHorror.



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