Tristan Davies held up a questioning hand, a dubious look drifting over his face.
“Wait… he ran eight miles… in twenty minutes?”
Agent Grace halted his speaking mid-sentence and fought to keep the twinge of annoyance out of his voice. “Yes.”
“That’s not possible.”
Senior Director McKie held out an explaining hand. “So you’re starting to understand the implications of this project?”
Davies scowled, just a little, more in surprise than anger. McKie turned back to Agent Grace.
“Please continue. We need to hear everything.”
Flesh split open in wide and wet shreds underneath the punishing assault of metallic claws…long claws…animal claws. Crimson sprayed as dirty teeth drove deep into skin, muscle, and bone.
So much red.
The screams were inaudible against the onslaught of inhuman color and texture. It couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be happening —
Strickland shot upright, his eyes squinted, his mouth pursed in a half scream, but the room remained silent. Stumbling from the couch, the young man braced himself with a muscular arm, squinting back tears that burned at the corners of his closed eyes.
“Just another damned dream,” he said in a half-whisper. Standing and stretching in his living room, Strickland saw the shards of light peeking through his curtains and realized it was early morning. Instinctively, his body seemed designed to wake him up at the crack of dawn, which was okay with him, especially when it interrupted the blood-soaked nightmare he had just been suffering. Venturing upstairs, he dressed for his morning jog and was soon easing under the rising garage door, breathing in the refreshingly cool fall Vermont air. Taking a few minutes to stretch, Strickland glanced up and down the dirt road outside his house, almost inadvertently checking his perimeter, when he noticed something unusual. Both his eyes and his nose locked on something. Something all the way across the street nestled in the dirt at the edge of the trees, at least a hundred yards away. It was something he shouldn’t have been able to notice, not from this distance, yet somehow he could see and smell it. A tiny brown stain. He couldn’t explain how this was possible; he just knew that it was. Filing the thought away as his eyes continued to scan the tree line he pulled up and broke into a slow-paced jog.
Agent Halifax looked back towards Burndock and Mathis, lowering his goggles. “All right, who’s chasing him this time?”
“Screw that,” replied Mathis. “Didn’t you see how fast he ran yesterday? Dude is scary quick.”
Burndock didn’t reply, instead pulling the goggles from Halifax’s hand and scanning the roadway as Strickland rounded a corner and vanished from sight.
He wasn’t gone long.
About an hour later, Strickland came back around, running at a relatively normal pace, and actually looking a bit more out of breath than he had the morning before. As he neared the crest by his home, Strickland recalled what he had seen and smelled as he left the driveway, and he reached into his pocket, plucking out the garage door opener. As he pretended to thumb the “open” button, the device squirted from his tight grasp, rolled aimlessly through the cool air, and landed on the gravel road with a soft thump. Strickland swore to himself and halted his pace, bending down to scoop it up.
This entire process was merely for show, as Strickland fished for an excuse to get down closer to the dirt road on which he had been running.
Just as he had thought, ground into the soft dirt at the side of the road was a tire mark. It was a deep, thick gouge; the type of mark left when a car had been sitting still, and then pulled out, spitting gravel behind it as it went. Someone had been parked outside his house. He wasn’t sure if this was malicious or not, but then he smelled it again. It had been clear enough all the way across the road, and now was even more obvious to his keen senses. A small brown stain covered the grass and leaves right by the dirt road. Coffee. Someone had spilled coffee.
His eyes tensed as he found the garage door opener and lifted it from the ground. Standing up quickly, so as not to look like he was searching the ground for evidence, Strickland made a clear show of pointing the recently discovered opener at the garage and heading towards the sliding door.
Burndock spun around, nearly losing his grip on the binoculars as he did it. “Pack it up, boys, we’re pullin’ out! Now!”
Halifax looked up, startled. “What’s up?”
“Subject is on to us, that’s what!”
“We’ve been made? How?”
“He pretended to drop his garage door opener, and then took a look at the road outside his house right where the watch car was sitting last night. He’s smarter than he looks.” Burndock ran the zipper up the side of his black backpack, and snapped the clasps closed, gathering all of his extra gear into one easy to carry bag.
“Dammit!” cursed Halifax. “Grace is going to have our asses.”
“Hell no, he won’t. This is on those security shmucks, not us. I told him he shouldn’t contract this one out.”
Halifax and Mathis swiftly swung their packs over their shoulders and double-checked the ground around them, making sure all was clear. The rushed cleanup had taken approximately thirty-five seconds, and still Burndock felt like it was too long. Strickland wasn’t an amateur, and he wasn’t someone to be trifled with; they had to play this by the book.
Burndock’s head spun on a swivel the minute Mathis uttered those words and he saw why. Strickland had emerged from his back door, still in his running shorts, and was looking throughout his backyard like a man on a mission. His eyes were narrowed and intense, but what Burndock especially focused on was the way his nostrils were… flaring? Like he smelled something? Burndock shook his head to himself as he turned towards the other two.
The rustling in the trees was about three-hundred yards away and nearly silent, so Strickland shouldn’t have been able to hear it, yet he did. His head snapped up towards the thick trees to his right as his ears flexed just a little bit.
The anticipation churned and boiled in Strickland’s guts, but his sense of self-preservation was equal, keeping him static. He had no desire to be drawn into some ambush against an enemy he could not see, or even worse, end up in conflict with some poor shlub just doing his job. Strickland had learned enough over the past few days to start piecing some things together. He took a step back, amazed at the sudden clarity of thought he experienced.
As Burndock had expected, Grace was not pleased. He got the call as he stepped out of his sedan, which sat in a lot on the nearby college campus. His head dropped in frustration as the field agent revealed the events of the morning, but he managed to muzzle his outrage into mere subtle head motions. He calmly told Burndock to take a break for the morning and consider reconvening in the late afternoon. Slowly traversing the parking lot, his fingers pulled the sunglasses from over his stern eyes and he stashed them away, causing a squint in the morning sun. Sliding open the glass door of the on-campus biomedical library, Grace entered the large windowed building and turned left to head down the hall near the main area. A door marked “Employees Only” was the second door on the left, and Grace slid his identification card through a slot, and the door clicked open. He walked down a few short flights of stairs, then through two sets of doors, and three men in lab coats approached him. Quickly recognizing him, they pushed aside, letting him pass into the room beyond. It was a large, rectangular room, mostly metallic gray in color with featureless walls and floor. A room built only for function, not for aesthetics. Tables were scattered throughout it with holding tanks, large-scale computer mainframes, and enough lab equipment to stock a dozen Frankenstein films. A slender, older man in a white coat stood draped over a computer console.
The man turned, his eyes glinting. “Agent. Welcome back.”
“We have some developments, Doc.”
Dr. Worthy pulled his hands from the keyboard, almost as if stuck there by some invisible adhesive, and glanced closer at Agent Grace.
“Strickland?” he asked curiously.
“What do we have?”
The NSA Agent went through the events of the previous two days in minute detail, with Worthy nodding every few minutes and scratching his chin when he wasn’t nodding. His eyes pried deep into Grace’s in a way that almost made the agent uncomfortable, but he continued relaying the tales as heard from the field agents.
“His memory is… recovering?” Dr. Worthy asked.
“They don’t believe so, Doc, no. Just the…I don’t know…the fog is lifting. It’s been two days, and he’s already a lot more focused and attentive. Less crazed and over-emotional.”
“Is it the cocktail?” Worthy asked, turning back to his computer.
“No idea, Doc. Certainly wasn’t the planned timeline.”
“Well, we’re still refining. Why did he get the treatment so early?”
“That’s classified, Doc.”
Worthy rolled his eyes. “Okay, so this is still a work in progress. And you say his emotional state has leveled out? Even considering his family?”
“Yeah. I can’t explain it either, Doc.”
“Okay. Watch this one carefully. He’s an abnormality, this one is. The other subjects have been sticking right to the formulary.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Too early to tell, Agent. My gut is this could be a good thing. If he can be controlled. Can he be controlled?”
“Controlled? Strickland? Heh. You didn’t know him before, did you?” Agent Grace chuckled to himself.
Dr. Worthy sat back down in his swivel chair and resumed hammering on his keyboard. “No, I did not. I prefer it that way.”
“Suit yourself, Doc. What else can I tell you? Anything else you want to know?”
“That will be fine, Agent. Same time next week?” Worthy looked up from his laptop screen.
“You’re the boss, Doc,” Grace replied and walked towards the exit, his brightly shined shoes squeaking on the smooth metallic floor.
As he went up the flights of stairs, Grace looked at his watch, happy to see the meeting was short and sweet. That gave him a few extra minutes to run across the campus green and grab the best cup of coffee in town. Maybe today would end up better than it began.
Stepping out of the shower, Strickland reached for a nearby towel and dried himself off, relieved to be free of the slick layers of sweat that he’d built up throughout the morning. His early morning run had been invigorating, and he’d made the decision to venture out, taking the car for a change into the neighboring town. He wasn’t convinced this would provide him with any answers about his family, but he felt a need to get out and clear his head further.
As the garage door crested to the top of the vehicle cavity, his Toyota Matrix gunned to life and navigated over the gravel driveway, swinging backwards and to the left, spitting rocks and dirt in its wake. Quicker than he realized, he came into downtown Norwood. He glanced over at the small general store that was now familiar, then turned his head left, and regarded the town hall, once again flagging that building in his own personal database. The paved road turned downhill towards a bridge that spanned the local river, and in a second, he crossed it towards the next town.
Agent Grace felt good. Yes, the news about Strickland’s discovery of the Night Watch team was disappointing, but his session with Dr. Worthy had been enlightening. The current project showed some real promise. Enough promise that if everything went according to plan, he was almost guaranteed a commendation and a promotion. This could be a game changer in the intelligence-gathering field, and he found himself wondering what he wanted to call this operation in his memoirs. Up ahead, the traffic light threatened to turn green for oncoming traffic, and he still walked briskly across the campus. He broke into a jog to try to beat the light and make it to his favorite little corner coffee shop.
The Matrix climbed the steep hill going up into town; white frat houses scattered the side streets, and Strickland found himself driving somewhat frenetically to avoid random street crossing students. Up at the crest of the hill, the light turned green, so he sped up a little, hoping to catch the light before it flashed back to red and left him stuck at the intersection.
“Shit, shit, shit,” mumbled Grace as he broke out into a run, looking at the traffic light ahead. There was a small gray car coming up the hill, and he thought it had accelerated slightly, but he was committed to beating the light now. The light hit green facing the hill, and the familiar blue ‘Don’t Walk’ symbol glared at him with menacing eyes even as his feet hit the smooth pavement of the road and defied the clear traffic signal. Grace glanced right, immediately cursing himself for not realizing how fast the small car… was it a Toyota… had been going. And then his eyes went wide.
“Dammit!” cursed Strickland as the well-dressed guy ahead of him suddenly ran into the road. As annoying as it was, he gave college kids a pass for their obnoxious traffic behavior. They were just kids. But this was a grown man, looked to be in his thirties. He was a businessman based on his look and dress, and he had no excuse for running out in front of traffic. Strickland pounded deep and hard on the brake pedal, to the point where the tires grabbed pavement and let out a loud shriek, leaving layers of rubber embedded in the road. Agent Grace jumped back a little and held out his hand, slapping the hood of the gray car as it screeched to a halt closer to him than he anticipated. He knew it was his fault, but instinctively his head turned and glared at the driver, and his mouth fell open in stunned silence.
Strickland’s face was screwed up, preparing to yell an obscenity at this dumbass who had just run out in front of him and nearly gotten himself picked off in the process. Luckily, both the driver and the walker seemed to have quick reflexes, and the result was nobody got hurt, but Bill had every indication to tell this dude what he thought of him.
Then the guy behind the sunglasses looked and stared him directly in the eyes. There was a flicker between them. It wasn’t a one-way flicker, it was exchanged, like two gifts. Two very well considered and intimate gifts. The flicker wasn’t just anger it was something more emotional…it was recognition. Strickland knew this man.
His face betrayed his thoughts, as his mid-scream rage evaporated into a questioning grimace. The guy looking back at him sure seemed to think they knew each other too. Almost too quickly, the well-dressed man nodded an apology and continued crossing the street, quickly hopping onto the sidewalk and moving away, almost at a jog. Strickland swung the car to the right and drove down Main Street, glancing out of his passenger window, trying to keep an eye on this mysterious new man. Certainly, he knew something.
Grace wove deftly between walkers on the sidewalk. He recognized me. I know he recognized me. Of all the stupid dumb luck! Of all the people to run out in front of, it had to be fucking Bill Strickland. The importance of this mission all revolved around control and containment. Now Strickland was out of control, and Grace could not contain him. The NSA agent skillfully looked to his left and noted that the gray Matrix was driving slowly down Main Street keeping up pace with him.
Up ahead, a small side road broke out from Main Street, just after the college bookstore, and Grace picked up the pace, turning a quick right to walk down the alley that had been widened to allow vehicular travel. The Toyota took advantage of this fact and turned onto the road as well, and this time Grace couldn’t help but glance backwards to make sure the car wasn’t following. He turned and went into a small shop, glancing out the front glass window to see what the Matrix did. Grace had been in this part of town at this time of day many times before, and he knew parking back here would be impossible, so he had at least made it difficult for Strickland to pursue on foot. He saw the small gray car take a right into another parking lot just after the store, so he quickly vacated, turned left and walked back out into the wide alleyway, hoping to put some quick distance between himself and his apparent pursuer.
He was halfway down the alley and approaching Main Street when he heard the voice.
There was no malice in the voice, nothing accusatory and no real anger. Grace knew if he made a run for it, he would only look worse. Maybe he could talk his way out of this thing?
Strickland walked at a swift pace now. The mysterious guy in the suit and tie stood still, just before turning onto Main Street, but he wasn’t turning around, and he wasn’t talking. Bill had pulled his car up onto a grassy median and left it there, honestly not caring if it was towed away or not; he had to find this guy and he had to talk to him. This guy, however, acted as if he didn’t feel like talking back. He had run at top speed after ditching his car and had almost lost him, but yelled out just in time to make him stop. So… now what?
“Excuse me… sorry to bother you.”
Grace’s heart slowed a little. Okay. It was definitely Strickland, but he wasn’t looking for trouble. At least not yet. Grace drew in a breath and turned around.
“Look, man, I’m sorry, okay?”
“Sorry. Sorry I jumped out in front of you. Didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
“That’s… that’s not why I’m here.”
“It’s not?” Agent Grace thought quickly.
Strickland panted slightly from running. “No. Do I know you? I think I know you.”
“I don’t think so,” Grace replied, shaking his head softly. “Never seen you before. Just thought you were coming after me to kick my ass.”
“I saw you look at me through the windshield. You looked like you saw a ghost.”
“Look, bud. I don’t know who you are. I don’t want to know who you are. You almost hit me with your car, of course I’m going to get spooked. I said I’m sorry. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”
Strickland wasn’t convinced and Grace was once again starting to feel uneasy. The bald man dropped his head and pressed his slick palm to the front of it. He had been feeling great all day; now suddenly the muddy red cloud of a headache had returned, and he could feel it pinching at the corners of his eyes.
Grace put his hands up in a defensive posture. “I don’t want any trouble, buddy. Let’s just move on, okay?”
“NO!” Strickland shouted suddenly. His hands clutched the collar of the well-dressed man and pushed him roughly against the building next to them. Grace’s sunglasses cartwheeled from his face and slapped onto the sidewalk next to him as his breath exploded from pursed lips.
“You’ve seen me before,” hissed Strickland in an almost growl. “I know you have.” The wild ocean waves of emotion over the past two days had finally begun churning to the surface, and William Strickland was now on the verge of a sudden breaking point.
“L…look,” Grace stammered as his mind raced to explain his way out of this. People walking down Main Street were starting to glance over at them. The NSA Agent’s muscles tensed slightly as his weight shifted.
“Buddy,” Grace choked again, trying to sound more physically threatened than he actually felt, “probably we’ve met, I don’t know. I think I’ve seen you around town. Norwood, right? You live there?”
The bald man’s grasp relaxed just a little. “Y– yeah. I do. Norwood.” His head bobbed up and down almost excitedly. “You’ve seen me? You know me?”
Grace smiled, just a little. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve seen you. I live out Church Street and come out here to work every day. I think I’ve seen you in town.”
“With my girls? Did you see my girls?” excitement permeated the word girls, made it almost a shout of joy.
“Nah, man, sorry. Never saw you with any girls. Just you. Sometimes walking, I think I saw you jogging once.” Grace coughed just a little bit, trying to accentuate the fact that he was in a state of discomfort.
Strickland lowered his head again, then his eyes raised slightly, looking into Grace’s, no longer protected by mirrored glass. Something in those eyes was not trustworthy.
Grace decided to jump in first. “Brother, I don’t know what’s going on here. Look, I said I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again. I’ve seen you, but I haven’t seen any girls with you, I don’t know what the hell else you want with me.”
Bill lowered his hands and clenched them into tight fists.
“I… I don’t want to call the cops, man, but I will…”
“No. No cops,” Strickland murmured. “I don’t want trouble.”
“Okay. Look, I’m sorry, man. I don’t know what you’re going through, but I hope you get through it.”
Strickland remained speechless, and just turned around and walked back down the alley from where he had come. Grace stooped down and scooped up his sunglasses, which had miraculously survived the fall onto pavement. Someone emerged from the bustling crowd on Main Street.
“Everything okay, friend?” asked an older gentleman, extending his hand.
“It’s all good,” Grace replied, striding right past him, while glancing back at the retreating bald man in the t-shirt. His stomach rolled, his head screamed, and the rage gestated deep in his core. Strickland had thrown him to the wall and threatened him in public, in front of all of these people. Made him look like a total fool. As he rejoined the crowd walking down Main Street, his brain was already working, trying to isolate who would get the payback for this. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be Strickland himself… they needed him. Grace needed him. Nevertheless, someone would have to bear the brunt of this disaster, and Grace wanted to do it personally.
About twenty minutes later, he returned to his office, and the rage had not subsided. He had considered calling Lewis and Breer directly at first, personally chewing them new assholes for their rookie mistake out in front of the Strickland home, but that thought quickly passed through his mind. Like it or not, he needed these guys too, and needed them to be committed to him and to the project; he didn’t want to waste those resources quite yet. He plucked up his phone receiver and quickly dialed a series of numbers.
“Brooklyn Security,” a thin, New York-infused female voice answered on the third ring.
“Dottie? This is Rick. Is Reggie in?”
“Hey, Rick, howaya?” Dottie replied. “Lemme get Reg for ya, honey.”
“Thanks, Dottie.” Agent Grace desperately hated the whole useless small talk routine, but thankfully Dottie’s question had been rhetorical. She knew her job, to patch important callers through as quickly as possible. At this point in Brooklyn Security and Protection’s brief life, they didn’t come much more important than Richard Grace.
“Rick. What’s up?” A thicker, but still New York classic voice responded not sixty seconds later.
“Developments up north?” Reggie Moreno stuck his old-fashioned corded phone between his ear and his perched shoulder as he leaned back a bit in his office chair. His dark wood wall was covered in various pictures, commendations, and newspaper articles from his celebrated career as a New York cop, which had come to a stop when he ended up on the wrong side of an armed robbery and took four bullets. Now he ran a firm with guys who were some of the most highly trained and capable private dicks in New York. Grace had been so profoundly disappointed that the two men assigned to Strickland’s Night Watch had been so careless.
Grace nodded into the phone. “Yeah, you could say that. I need some more guys.”
Reggie’s brow furrowed. “How many you need?”
“Can you spare ten? I’ve got a 24-hour watch going on this guy, and I need to spell some of my guys more. Get a deeper rotation going.”
“Damn, Rick. Ten would pretty near break me. If anything local came up, I might not be able to fill a contract.”
“It’ll be worth your while, Reg. You know what my bankroll is.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, Rick. But it’s more than bankroll. I can’t afford to be tellin’ customers down here that I can’t fill their needs. That’s bad for the reputation, ya know?”
“How about this? How about I pay you for ten, but you send… eight?”
This brought a sly smile to Reggie’s lips. Nothing made him happier than free money. “Ya convinced me, Ricky. When you need them?”
Agent Grace donned a sinister, knowing smile on the other end of the line that would have immediately caused Moreno to cancel the contract if he had seen it in person. “Tomorrow work? In time for the night shift?”
“Sure. Any special requests?”
“As a matter of fact… the guy they’re tailing is a spook. Ex-Special Forces, black ops type of scary shit, you got me?”
Reggie was taken aback slightly in his chair, and he sat himself forward just a bit. “Okay… you expectin’ trouble?”
“No, no… not at all. But just in case. Maybe get me some guys with real combat experience? You got anyone like that?”
“Well, yeah, of course. You’re lucky, man, this time o’ year isn’t huge for protection gigs. I’ll get you my best guys, but hopefully it’s not a real long shift.”
“Thanks, Reggie. We’re hoping to have this wrapped up in the next three weeks.”
“Good. Okay. I’ll get my guys ready.”
Both men killed their respective calls and down in New York, Reggie put his hand to his mouth. “Yo, Dottie!”
Dottie came shambling in, easing the door open with a thin left arm and looking accusatory.
“We need Irizarry and his boys. Could be a four-week assignment up north. Get ‘em for me, will ya?” Reggie typed away at the computer in front of him, checking Outlook for his scheduling calendar and the contract schedule for the next month. Dottie rolled her eyes slightly and backed out of his office.
Gary Irizarry lowered his head and shifted his broad shoulders right to left as the crotch rocket he was driving dipped dangerously close to the road and swept around a tall building, then surged forward down the mostly vacant side street. The Kawasaki’s engines screamed in the late morning air, bouncing off the walls of the two rundown brick apartment buildings he flew between at faster than safe speeds. At his hip, his smartphone thrummed with a warning of an incoming text message.
Irizarry stepped his massive frame from the bike seat, and slipped the helmet off his dark, skinned bald head. The orange flames on the helmet almost exactly matched the dark black flame tattoos he had going across each side of his head, just above his ears. His mouth, surrounded by a thin goatee, snarled as he pulled the phone from the clasp on his belt. He glanced at it and smiled questioningly. Four-week assignment? In Vermont? The fuck was in Vermont? But the two words at the end of the text really got his attention. Big Payout. Okay, he liked those words. He knew he already had a few security bookings in the next four weeks, but that was Reggie’s problem, not his.
After over a decade in ESU, the Emergency Services Unit (New York’s version of Special Weapons And Tactics), Irizarry had decided the real money was in the private sector, and he took his military-grade talents out for hire. Brooklyn Security and Protection had been his best contract source by far, and he and about ten of his closest buddies worked for them almost exclusively. Most of the gigs were straightforward and easy… nightclub security, protecting a visiting actor or music artist, that type of stuff. Nobody had been hurt on Irizarry’s watch, and he never planned to let that streak be broken. Slipping the black helmet back over his bald head, Irizarry swung his tree trunk leg over the motorcycle, causing it to sag slightly as his full 235-pound muscular frame eased down on top of it.
Four-week rotation? Guess I’d better pack my bags. He gunned the throttle and the bike shot forward into the warm morning air.
Strickland wasn’t sure exactly how much time had passed; all he knew was that his arms were aching and the tops of his feet were humming and red from repeated strikes against the hard canvas surface of the heavy bag. He’d returned from his trip to an overwhelming urge to work out some frustrations, so he had alternated workout routines and more internet research. Amazingly, he felt like he still had plenty of energy, but he knew he had been battling the punching bag for several hours at this point and it was time to take a break. He rotated his right shoulder a bit, wincing as the joints rubbed against each other, and glanced out of one of the basement windows. Surprisingly, the sun was already setting, and another day in this bizarre new life was almost over.
As he toweled himself off, part of him condemned himself for not trying harder. But what was he to do? He couldn’t go to the authorities; that much he was sure of, though he wasn’t sure why. He had assaulted the internet with his laptop several times throughout the past few days to no avail, and had torn apart whatever paperwork he could find. Absolutely no indication appeared to exist as to where his family might be or how he could possibly find them. Not one to give up, Bill returned to his basement office, and once again continued the arduous task of filtering through whatever paperwork he could get his hands on. At the edge of consciousness, the red cloud of his nightmares once again formed.
Burndock glanced up and noticed the sun turning red and lowering towards the horizon. He twisted his head, cracked his neck softly, and stretched his arms above his head.
“All right, boys, about time to call it a day.”
Agent Halifax emerged next to him, his binoculars bouncing on his thick tactical vest. “Another day in paradise…”
“I can’t freaking believe he punched that damn bag for almost four hours straight,” groaned Agent Mathis shaking his head. “Dude is a robot.”
“NSA hopes so anyway, right?” Halifax interjected.
“Zip it, Agents,” Burndock snapped. “Just count yourselves lucky that we’re not already flying back to Meade with our tails between our legs. We dodged a bullet.”
“C’mon, boss. It wasn’t us who left tire tracks out front,” complained Mathis.
“You think Grace cares? We’re still on the job, and it’s a damn easy one, so count your blessings and let’s roll back to home base. Shift starts again bright and early tomorrow.” Burndock stood and adjusted the shoulder strap that held his silenced submachine gun and double-checked to make sure his pistol was in his holster. He scanned the grassy surface where he had been kneeling and made sure all traces of their existence had been nullified.
Halifax copied the senior agent’s motions. “Are we getting some back-up soon?”
Burndock nodded. “According to Grace, they’re pulling up eight more guys from New York. Mostly contractors.”
“So wait,” Mathis started, screwing up his face, “Grace gets pissed that the contractors screw up surveillance, so he calls in more contractors?”
“It’s a money thing,” Burndock informed. “Their daily rate’s cheaper than paying our salary. I’m sure he’d rather get all government boys in on this, but the tax payers would be pissed.”
Mathis shook his head incredulously, but continued his own cleanup, then joined the other two and walked back towards their car.
“So when does the night shift start?” asked Halifax as they crossed through the trees.
“They should be coming up any time now. They’ll be here until about three a.m.,” Burndock said.
“We’re not on tomorrow until eight, right?” asked Mathis.
“Affirmative,” replied Burndock, “but once the new group of guys gets here, there won’t be any more lapses. It’ll be true 24-hour coverage. Something about this guy is making Grace squirrelly.”
“He ain’t the only one,” grumbled Mathis as he glanced back over his shoulder while they walked low through the woods. He remembered the look on Strickland’s face when he’d walked out into the backyard that morning after spotting the tire tracks in the road. Mathis wasn’t quite sure why, but that look had haunted him. There was something intense about it. Something beyond anger. He tried to shake it loose from his mind as the yellow truck came into view ahead.
Several hours later, the car rolled over the dirt road and came to a stop just down the road from the Strickland residence. The tires caught and grabbed on the dirt and gravel. Inside, Breer and Lewis peeled back the small plastic tabs to reveal the steam emerging from their coffee cups. Breer closed his eyes slightly as the wonderful smell engulfed the inside of the car, and sighed. It was all downhill from here. There was something invigorating about the first hour of a stakeout. Not knowing what was going to happen, cracking that first cup of coffee, and shooting the shit with your partner while the night was still fresh. Once that first sixty minutes passed, though, it became exponentially less and less fun as the night wore on. This particular assignment was especially dull, being stuck out in the middle of nowhere without even any city noise to keep the men in the car company.
“You hear from Reggie?” Lewis asked, tossing back his first swig of hot, black coffee.
“Yeah. Eight more guys, huh? What is up with this gig?”
“Who the hell knows, but if the government’s paying the bill, why not?” Lewis sipped again from the steaming cup. “Who’s comin’ up, you know?”
“I heard it was Irizarry’s crew.”
Lewis lowered his cup uneasily. “For real? They expecting some shit? Irizarry and his bunch are usually the knee-cappers. So far this has just been a watch-and-see op.”
“They don’t pay me to ask those questions, bub.” Now it was Breer’s turn to take a sip from his hot coffee cup. He winced. “Damn I could go for a Starbucks right now.”
In his dreams, Strickland once again faced the monster.
He’d had the most productive mental health day since he’d awoken with no memory of his past, yet when he closed his eyes, his subconscious mind was still under attack. It was a swirling black and red whirlwind tonight, tearing apart his house and scattering debris to the wind. As he felt himself consumed by the torrential downpour and circular barrage, he could see familiar artifacts hurtling past his open eyes. The family pictures from the upstairs hallway passed before him for brief seconds, then exploded and evaporated into the surrounding debris cloud. He could only curl into a ball and hope for the storm to pass as the wind hammered at him.
It never passed, but it did get softer and quieter, and he could move slightly, forcing himself to walk forward against the onslaught. As the wind noise died down, a low growl grew louder. Deep and guttural, it was a cross between a wild animal and a low scream of rage, all too human. His skin broke out in goose flesh and he could feel the hair on his body standing up on end with every inflection in the creature’s voice, as it bored deep inside of him. Walking determinedly forward, he could see the canvas punching bag ahead, and he clenched his fists as twin green slits emerged in the darkness beyond. Thin streams of liquid oozed from those faded green eyes, running down the creature’s cheeks like slimy tears of puss.
Still Strickland continued walking forward.
The growl grew louder and below the green eyes, a sinister bone-white smile emerged, like the Cheshire cat from Wonderland, only deeper, wider, and angrier. It was less of a floating smile than it was a faded, blood-specked sneer. Eyes and mouth came closer and he could see the canine teeth growing more pointed, long, and jagged, towering over the other small fangs encased between the separating lips.
“What are you?” Strickland’s dream-self asked, as if he expected a serious response from such a creature.
Another deep growl answered him, surprisingly forming actual words. “I am everything you know. I am everything you are and everything you have been.”
Strickland walked forward again, and the disembodied eyes and teeth repeated the action. The growl was almost deafening now, overcoming Strickland and dropping his dream-self down to one knee as the monster loomed above him, blood seeping from between his sharpened fangs.
The man forced his eyes upward, though it was an immense struggle. “Did… did you take my family?”
As if yanked back by a chain, the creature stopped moving, looking almost amused. The growl shifted into an equally disturbing, rattling chuckle that nearly turned into a choke. Looming above the kneeling man, the creature reeled back, his teeth separating into a gaping cave of menace, with a thick blood-red tongue whipping back and forth inside. The growl raised in volume and trembled just slightly as it rolled over into another choking shriek and the mostly invisible monster bore down on Strickland, its teeth gnashing. Closer and closer, until all he could do was leap forward and thrust his clenched fist out at those hideous teeth not realizing that his own voice mimicked that of the monster, shrieking and growling and choking on the wet gristle of –
“RRAARGH!” Strickland screamed as he sat up, once again interrupting his much needed night’s rest. He could feel his lips still twisted into a feral snarl, and a slick wet liquid rolled over his bottom lip. Pressing a finger to it, he pulled away a thin string of red. Standing and walking into the bathroom, he locked his arms on the sink and stared deep into the reflective glass. Closing his eyes, his mind fell backwards into the world he had just inhabited, and he longed to somehow find a way out.
“Rough night in there tonight,” Lewis mentioned, adjusting the volume of the recording device slightly. Strickland’s rude awakening from his nightmare had come through loud and clear and now, they could hear his ragged breathing in the bathroom as he tried to recover from an especially soul-jarring nightmare.
Other than that moment of vocal fear, tonight was a quiet one through the first several hours for the two men from Brooklyn Security and Protection, as if the entire section of forest had been enclosed in a three-square-mile coffin and buried deep within the earth.
Breer broke the silence that had been pressing down on him. “Have the woods always been this quiet?”
“I don’t think so,” replied Lewis, digging out the night vision goggles from between his feet on the floorboard of the car. Instead of pressing the goggles to his eyes and watching the house, though, he turned them in a lazy arc through the woods to their right. “Ain’t nothing moving in there. Nothing.”
Breer looked at his watch. It was just shy of midnight. “Only three more hours,” he muttered. For some reason he couldn’t quite explain, he felt spooked all of a sudden. He suspected the vicious and aggressive nightmare that Strickland had just suffered through was a large part of that. Lewis lowered the goggles he had been using to scan the forest. “Damn, I don’t think I’ve seen it that peaceful out there.”
Breer held out his hand and Lewis handed the goggles to him. He pressed them firmly against his eyes and turned slightly to his left to scan the house once again. And he stopped.
“Where did he go?”
“Strickland?” asked Lewis, a dark rock suddenly dropping deep in his guts.
“Who the hell else would it be?!” Breer desperately scanned the house with the goggles, but still could not track down a human signature. He had just been there a minute ago. A weird metallic haze filtered through the viewfinder of the goggles, but it was clear that the heat source in the house was no longer there. Or something was… blocking him?
Lewis spoke the fear that was in Breer’s mind. “Think he’s coming at us?”
“Grab your piece, buckwheat. Let’s get outta this tin can, just in case.”
The two men locked their fingers in the car door releases, and slipped pistols from their holsters. As if part of a synchronized swimming routine, they both tossed the doors open and slid out of the car with smooth fluidity, lifting their weapons all in one motion. Breer didn’t dare move. He didn’t know every little detail about William Strickland, but he suspected he was ex-Special Forces, probably a nasty case of PTSD and they were watching him to make sure he didn’t do anything stupid.
“Breer? Anything?” a tight whisper from the other side of the car.
“Not a damn thing, Lewis. Eyes haven’t even adjusted yet.”
“Give me the word and we can pop the flashlights.”
Breer took one last look over the road and eased the car door open, then reached his arm in the car, pulling out the night vision goggles. Yeah, they wouldn’t strap to his head, but he could at least get some mileage out of them.
“Come around to this side,” he said to Lewis. “I’ll use the NVG. You cover me.”
Lewis duck-walked around the car, his automatic pistol held in a firing position, slowly crossing the barrel of the weapon over the road to verify nothing was sneaking up on them.
“I’ve got your back, Breer.”
He lifted the goggles to his eyes and looked back at the home again, still not getting anything concrete. Just for the hell of it, he turned left and right as well, scanning the edge of the woods on each side.
“Still dead silent. What is up with that?”
Lewis cocked his head. The silence was more than just silence. It was a black void of sound, with no insects, birds, or nocturnal sounds at all. Oppressive silence was almost a more potent assault than a barrage of noise, and the two detectives felt isolated. Deep, dark night draped over them, and this black curtain seemed to be blocking out all outside stimulation, leaving the two men very alone.
“Anything, bud?” Lewis asked as Breer slowly moved the goggles throughout the night air.
“Nothing yet. Quiet as a… holy shit–!”
“What?!” Lewis spun towards him, his pistol raising.
“Damn… something just darted through those trees over there. Something big.”
“Human? Is Strickland coming up around on us?”
“Negative. Thing was running on all fours… looked like maybe a… a bear?” Breer eased the goggles down, squinting into the trees.
Lewis relaxed slightly. “I can handle a bear.”
Just as Lewis said that, the trees suddenly shook and rattled, and his heart jumped in his chest, drawing his pistol in a quick and clumsy motion.
“S…something’s over here, man. Get me those goggles, would ya?” His sweaty fingers slipped on the trigger.
“Stand fast, amigo. I’m coming,” said Breer and turned towards the car. His head lingered, facing the Strickland home, but as he walked back towards the car, he spun his head around and stopped cold. “Oh shit, man. Shit.”
Lewis didn’t like the sound of that. “What? What do you see?” he took a single worried step backwards.
Breer held the goggles with one hand and lifted his pistol with the other. “Back towards me, Lewis. Carefully…”
“What the hell do you see?!”
The deep green pulsating figure inside the goggles’ viewfinder had been coiled on all fours, lying near to the ground, but had been slowly easing forward, plodding on four softly settling paws. Yes, Breer had been right, it was the size of a bear, but now that he got a look at it, the figure was not bear-shaped. It was… well, he couldn’t quite tell, but bears were not that slim and angular. Hind legs pushed slowly up, raising its back in the air, and thick spiked hair rose from its spine like fins of bone. Breer could see a massive heat source throbbing in its chest and coursing throughout the entire creature, and a low, deep, guttural rumble of death emanated from where it coiled.
“Is it a fucking bear?!” Lewis asked, with not a small amount of panic in his voice.
“Slow, bud… move slow. There’s something right in front of you,” Breer whispered, not wanting to panic the other man any more than he already was. Lewis lowered his pistol slightly as he backpedaled.
“Am I aiming at it?”
“Little lower buddy, keep coming.” The green figure turned its head straight towards Lewis, who continued to slowly back away. The pistol in his shaking hand lowered just enough and was pointed almost directly at the creature on all fours, which growled again.
“Fuck me, Breer, that doesn’t sound like a fucking bear!”
“Lewis… stay calm…”
The car seemed like it was ten miles away, but Lewis didn’t dare move any quicker. His entire body trembled with every menacing growl and it seemed as if the creature could be on him at any point. His arm was shaking violently now, desperately trying to hold the pistol still.
“Keep coming, Lew…”
“I… I….” Lewis stammered and sweated. As he reached behind himself for the car door, he realized how far away the car still was. “Breer… what the hell is the thing doing?!”
Breer didn’t have the heart to tell his partner that the creature was still on all fours, pacing slowly towards him, its mouth opening … into a smile? The thing was fucking smiling? Breer raised his own weapon, and Lewis saw him do it out of the corner of his eye.
“Ahh, shit, man, shit!” Lewis screamed, and Breer knew it was all over. The gun barked four quick times, shattering the silence of the night with swift orange fire and four punches of bullets breaking the sound barrier. The pistol kicked back in Lewis’ sweaty hands, and perhaps that’s what threw his aim off, but all Breer could see was that the creature slid swiftly to the left, didn’t appear to be hit, and was then in motion.
After firing the first four shots, Lewis spun around to make a mad dash for the car, but he really had no chance. Breer spun his gun up and around towards the running figure, but had a hard time focusing with the night vision goggles and could really just see a multi-tiered green blur hurl itself from the tree line and land squarely on his partner’s back as he neared the car. The creature’s hind legs struck behind his knees as the front legs drove deep into each shoulder, forcing Lewis frontwards and slamming into the sedan with enough force to rock the car on its tires.
“Dammit, Lewis!!” Breer shouted as his own weapon discharged three quick times towards the green blobs, but he missed wide, as he tried too hard to avoid shooting his partner. If he had hit Lewis in the head, it would have been a gift as in the next two seconds, the beast opened its wide maw and the forceful bite nearly decapitated the security agent pinned to the car. Lewis’ screams choked out almost immediately as Breer saw in sickening detail exactly what a fountain of blood looks like within the scope of an infrared viewfinder. Breer dropped the goggles to the pavement, running straight for the driver’s side door. As he ran, the creature leaped up and hit the roof of the car then bore down on him.
Suddenly he was face to face with a beast straight from the bowels of Hades.
Its eyes were narrow and glistened in the dark like a coyote… it had a long, pronounced snout with two widely flaring nostrils at the end of a thick black nose. Pointed ears came down into a rough jawbone, which split with rows of what looked like hundreds of jagged, pointing fangs, now smeared red with Lewis’ blood. Deep black hair covered every inch of the creature, over its shoulders, through its back, and down its arms to where Breer saw massive, horse hoof-sized paws curled into almost fists. The claws at the end of these massive paws were actually piercing the metal surface of the car’s roof, and the weight of the thing had caved it in.
“Easy, boy,” was the only stupid thing that came to Breer’s mind. As dramatic last words go, they pretty much sucked.
To Be Continued in The Fog of Dreams on Amazon.com!