Three Dog Night was singing Never Been to Spain from the crackling, broken mono-sound speaker on the cheap clock-radio combo on the motel nightstand. Danny Oldham lay with his legs on the bed, the rest of his body sprawled on the scratchy green Berber carpet covering room nine of the Dixie Motor Lodge. His lips were blue, his flesh jaundiced and clammy. The only warmth was the pistol in his hand, the barrel still warm from the thirty-eight hollow point that had ripped through his skull when the whisky on his nightstand had run dry. The wall of his dingy little tomb was a dripping red-gray mess complete with fragments of bone for texture. Danny wasn’t unique in his death. A lifetime of pain and depression, sleepless, hopeless nights had led countless others to travel to that undiscovered country on the tip of a bullet. It’s what Danny did afterwards that made him stand out, even if no one knew it yet. Those were his brains splattered in a gruesome Rorschach pattern on the yellowed walls and ceiling but there was no hole in his skull.
With a sudden, violent gasp the corpse of Danny Oldham sat straight up and coughed. Cold blue lips turned pink and warm as color flushed over his body. The milk white of dead eyes clouded dark and cleared to emerald green. He ran a hand over the gore caked dome of his shaved scalp, felt a dimple, the scar from a previous attempt with a smaller caliber. He cringed, feeling the excess of bodily fluids covering him from where he’d basted in them overnight. No one had ever told him about that part of death, about the way mother nature likes to add insult to injury by making you piss yourself as your body lies dead in a heap. He sloshed in the putrid mess to the bathroom counter where he logged the time and duration of this death in a little black ledger by the sink. The pages were worn, yellowed from age and loose inside their weathered leather binding. In faded gold leaf across the front cover the words La Petit Mort were barely visible. He started the shower next and waited until the room was filled with a hot white steam. In the fogged over mirror he wrote a single thought with his finger and slipped into the shower to get himself clean.
His body was a pale tapestry of faded scars telling a long and tragic tale. Danny Oldham had been alive a very long time and, despite his best, sometimes nightly efforts to change that, he’d proven to be something close to immortal. To the world around him he was a stoic, inhospitable looking man in his thirties with a shaved scalp or the faint traces of a dirty blonde mane that never grew thicker than a fuzz over his scarified skull. His eyes were a mesmerizing green that drew attention away from a scarred, subtly mutilated face and horrible attitude. He’d earned every wound, wore them as a badge of honor, but found he was starting to resemble the horrors that had haunted him after so long and tragic a life. He was big and thick and imposing everywhere he went and had a way of getting into trouble no matter what he tried to do.
You were dreaming about her again, he thought as the shower head sputtered and sprayed against his neck. It was the nightmare he’d had for years about the woman. Last night it had ended with him as a corpse on the floor. In photo negative shades the little girl had started down the street, pleated skirt and backpack and hair up in pigtails on a gray, sunless day. She splashed in puddles by the sidewalk until one in particular caught her eye. She bent over to look at her face mirrored over the asphalt. The little girl grinned back from the rippling water in a warped caricature of innocence. Her eyes began to bleed, the blood streaming down her face and through the water until it began to wrap around the little girl’s leg. A black, rotting arm reached up from the water and grabbed at her thighs from under her skirt.
The pain was immeasurable as her eyes rolled back in her head, as she screamed silently at the sky above her. There was a squelching of meat as flesh peeled from her body, a stomach churning wet sploosh as all her insides fell into the water. Her skull collapsed into her neck, further into her chest until she’d been turned inside out and was sucked into her own reflection in the water. For a moment the world was silent, mourning the lost innocence taken so abruptly, so violently from existence. Hands reached up from inside the puddle, palms slapping down on the wet pavement. The woman pulled herself naked from the thin pool of water and stood on the sidewalk. Her body was curved, a perfect hourglass of hairless, unblemished skin. Her hair was shoulder length, black with streaks of something else mixed inside. She opened her mouth, parting her full lips to smile with shark teeth that spiraled down her throat into the abyss of her stomach.
I’m waiting for you, Danny. She said in a strange, disjointed voice.
Danny had woken up shivering, a cold sweat drenching him as he fumbled for the light on the nightstand. Somewhere, somewhere close, a child was missing, dead in a horrific way that would forever be a mystery to everyone but him. The visions were always grotesque and painful but nothing had ever addressed him by name. He’d grabbed his revolver and made a hasty, unscheduled attempt to shuffle off this mortal coil to avoid a conflict with whatever he’d seen. Now, free of the filth he’d marinated in overnight, he stepped out onto the linoleum floor and dried himself off. He looked at the question he’d written on the glass and shook his head, finding his question had been answered with a question.
If not you, then who?
Detective Van Novak sat on the steps in the breezeway of the G building of the Imperial Inn Apartments, cigarette dangling precariously from his bony fingers. He was thin and short and angular with pale skin, dark, wavy hair and dark eyes over his narrow nose. He was trembling, not noticeably but enough that it made holding on to the cigarette a challenge.
Through the carcinogenic gray cloud swirling around his head with every exhalation, the scent of his cologne and nicotine soaked clothes he could still smell the nauseating odor coming from the apartment at the back of the building. It wasn’t his first death scene. Far from it. He was a veteran, a former Army medic and a cop with fifteen years on the job. He’d seen people ripped apart by acts of violence, explosions and car crashes and horrors that even the most twisted minds could scarcely fathom. What he’d seen inside the little one bedroom apartment though had been beyond anything he had ever known.
The body had been laid out on the kitchen table, filleted and carved like so much beef on a butcher’s table. The cheap linoleum floor was filmed in red where the blood had cascaded from the open wounds and begun to congeal. The organs were gone, ripped out in a carnage that defied any logical explanation and had vanished from the scene. The rib cage had been ripped from inside and twisted into a pair of clawing hands reaching up helplessly to the stained ceiling above. The smell had been overpowering, copper and bile so overpowering that the maintenance man had vomited in the doorway as soon as he’d found the body. The motion had been repeated by the patrolmen who first responded, the medics who had felt it necessary to reiterate that the man was dead, by the crime scene technician who’d come to process the scene and, finally, by Novak himself who, after a few minutes inside with the corpse, felt confident that the smell was going to linger in his nostrils, in every pore of his skin, for the rest of his life.
One of the patrol officers helping to keep the scene locked down came up to Novak. His face was sheet white, a look of uncertain nausea written into every worried wrinkle and crease. His voice was shaking as he fought the urge to heave again on the pavement.
“Fire’s en route with that SCBA gear so crime scene can do their thing.” he said, fighting his own illness with every syllable. “Also, that specialist you wanted is here. Are you sure about this guy, Novak?”
Novak looked up at the patrolman. He was an older officer, gray starting to creep in at the edges of his hairline. He had the standard issue brushy cop ‘stache so popular with his generation of lawmen and the gruff looking demeanor of someone who had seen his fair share of hell over the course of his watch. He looked at the weathered name tag on the man’s uniform.
“Thanks, officer Bailey.” Novak said. He choked back his own sick as he spoke. “Just send him on up and keep everyone out of the scene until we’re done.”
The older cop nodded and headed back to the gallery of gawkers gathering in the parking lot. People had several basic presets, desires that had to be filled in order to survive. They ate and slept and shit and fucked and carried on with their lives for the most part like every other animal on the planet. But, unlike other mammals, they all had the need to witness violence. Boxing, cock fights, bar room brawls it didn’t matter to most. As long as they got their blood and their pain at someone else’s expense, their lust for carnage was largely satisfied. The ghouls who had been his neighbors, maybe even his friends, were all gathered outside hoping to see the mangled devastation that had been their fellow tenant. From this teeming sea of ravenous mankind Danny Oldham stepped forward and walked up to the building as if the smell of the abattoir was the sweetest summer perfume.
Unlike detective Novak who was dressed in a button down shirt, vest, and decent tan pants, Danny was wearing a ratty pair of jeans, a black t-shirt with a faded band name illegibly printed over the chest and a green cap with the bent, frayed bill pulled down to shade his eyes. Danny and Van were old friends who had met right after the war. Van had been a patient in a hospital where Danny was impersonating clergy. He’d seen firsthand the strange and terrible talents that the man had, a hint of the arcane knowledge hidden behind those haunted eyes.
“Thanks for coming out.” Van said, reaching for the other man’s hand. When the gesture was ignored, he quickly retracted and motioned to the back of the breezeway. “Victim’s name is Arlo Gustavson. Maintenance found him this morning coming to answer a service call. Guy noticed the smell, went in and called 911. First unit on scene arrived four minutes later. No evidence of forced entry and no clue where his…innards vanished to.”
Danny nodded, looked up at the door and back to the detective. “No use worrying about his guts.” Danny said, taking the cigarette from Novak’s mouth. He took a long, heavy drag and threw it to the pavement. “We’ll never find more than a couple of pounds of ‘em at best. Let’s take a look at what happened.”
Hesitantly the detective walked back to the door and the duo stepped inside. Almost immediately Novak doubled over and added to the steadily growing pool of vomit in the doorway. Danny stepped over it and walked to the edge of the room where the living room carpet gave way to the blood tinted linoleum of the kitchen. Already the gore was wicking into the berber, staining maroon onto the dull beige. He looked knowingly at the corpse on the table, at the gray eyes and pained expression forever etched onto the bloody, lifeless face.
Some guys have all the luck, he thought to himself.
He knelt down by the congealed crimson over the cheaply laid checkered floor and hovered his left hand a foot or so above it. An area the size of a bottle cap began to bubble and swirl until a tiny vortex of fluid began to spin up into the air. The pores of his skin were open and receptive as a few red drops entered into his body and began the psychic lightning storm that would give him the answers he needed. In black light flashes and photographic negative hues he watched as the woman carried the obese man from his bed to the kitchen. With the care that the butcher gives the cattle she cracked his skull and tore his throat open. Blood spurted up and sprayed the ceiling in streaks and slowly subsided as she continued ripping hunks of flesh from him until everything from his chin to his pelvis had been opened. Her jaw dislocated and fell into the open cavity of his torso. A black, spine covered tongue slithered up from a spinning column of razor teeth that circled from the top of her mouth to the inner core of her being and worked until there was nothing left inside the body but bones and sinew wrapped in loose flesh.
The excess of her meal trickled from the lower orifice of her body. To the casual observer they looked like genitals but it was nothing so mundane, so pleasant, as her jaw returned to a more normal size. Standing in the pool of human viscera the petite imitation of a woman went to work positioning the bones for the ritual she intended to observe. She broke the ribs until they resembled fingers stretching up towards the heavens and sucked the marrow from the few she discarded into the sink behind her. She looked up from in between the expression of agony she had created and, calling through time and space that had passed between them stared Danny in the eyes. He recognized her immediately and felt his blood run cold.
“You’ll never stop me.” she hissed. “But I’ll be waiting for you when you come to try.”
The Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb chirped behind Danny from Novak’s cell phone and brought him abruptly from his trance. Without a word he ran to the bathroom and heaved into the floor. Blood pooled as he expelled the horror and pain of the dead man’s last minutes into the cheap tile work in front of a shower stall. Washing his face and regaining his composure he walked back into the living room and looked at the detective who had been watching him expectantly.
“That was the chief calling,” Novak said. “He wants to know what I’ve got for him. Anything you can tell me?”
Wordless, Danny reached into his back pocket and threw a plastic bag of heroin into the carpeted floor between them. “Say it was under a table, partly spilled.” Danny groaned. “Guy was a mule who tried to screw someone over, maybe a cartel. They took back their merchandise in a hurry and then left him as a warning to anyone that might want to rip them off in the future.”
“Is that what really happened?” Novak asked.
“No. Not even close. But it gives us what we need for now.”
“And what’s that?”
“Time.” Danny said, walking towards the door. “I need you to find me a cold case. Missing person. Little girl, maybe about ten, who disappeared coming home from school one afternoon. Pigtails. Cute little kid.”
“Sure.” Novak said, nodding his head. “Small town. We don’t get many missing kids that don’t end up found within a couple of days. Know a name or anything else?”
Danny shook his head.
“Did this guy, I mean, was he involved in it?” Novak continued.
“Not directly, but his killer was.”
Danny Oldham and Van Novak looked more like confused strangers than old friends as they sat at a booth in the back of the diner. Danny, a scarred, terrifying looking hulk of a man compared to the diminutive Novak in his suit could have been almost anything to the casual observer but friends would have been a stretch. Both were staring disinterested at their BLT’s and iced tea and instead were glued to the detective’s tablet in between them. He’d accessed the case file that they had been looking for and, reading it, neither of them was excited by what they’d found. Denise Myers was nine years old, an elementary student who had lived a block and a half away from her school. Along with her twelve year old sister Anna, the pair walked home together almost every day. Anna had stayed after class to work on a project with other students in her class leaving Denise to walk home alone. The crossing guard had been the last person to see the girl before she had vanished and remembered her as a curious, excited child. Danny remembered her vividly from his nightmare and shared, in part, the details with Novak. The detective pushed his plate away from him afterwards.
“I could have lived my entire life without knowing that.” Novak groaned. “How do you do it?”
Danny took a sip of his sweet tea and looked coldly at his friend. “Well, most recently, I shot myself in the head.”
Novak was quiet for a moment as he thought about it. “Not quite what I was talking about.” he said. “I forget sometimes. So, I mean, nothing stops you.”
Danny laughed. “Everything stops me,” he said, still chuckling. “It just doesn’t stop me for very long. That reminds me, I may have a mess in my motel room that I’m going to need some help with. You still got that buddy with the cleaning crew?”
“Yeah.” Novak nodded. “Hank. He’ll come by and do it discreetly like he did last time. But it’s going to cost you.”
Danny sighed. Hank was a decent guy. Well, he was a decent guy now. In his early fifties he had been a “cleaner” for a mafia organization out in Nevada. He had been an expert at making murders and other violent crimes disappear as if they’d never happened. After testifying in front of a jury, the FBI had moved him under an assumed name to the small, bucolic Tennessee town where he had opened a cleanup and restoration service. Subcontracted by several apartment complexes and hotels in the area, he had made a beneficial friendship with the pair sitting at the booth. For certain favors, usually a heads up when a decent paying job came around, he took care of Danny’s failed attempts to end himself for free.
“Guy gives me the creeps.” Danny said.
“Beggars and choosers, Dan.” Novak scoffed. “Pick one or the other.”
“So, how long ago was the report filed?” Danny asked, trying to steer them back to the task at hand.
Novak skimmed the report.
“Nine years ago,” he said. “Anniversary is coming up soon. From the case notes it looks like her parents split up a few years after it happened. Mom lives in Nebraska now and the dad died a few years back in a car wreck. Sister is still in town though. Works over at the elementary school as a teacher’s aid.”
“Probably the place to start, then.”
“How do you figure?”
“Whatever this thing is used that little girl as a conduit to enter this world.” Danny said. “Waited until she was completely alone and took her. You know that violent crime is rarely random.”
“You’re talking about a monster from…well, from where, exactly? Hell?”
“Something like that. The point is, she couldn’t enter our dimension without removing something from it first. She needed something close to the source of whatever she’s after and, since she chose to mincemeat the kid instead of just possessing her or swapping places, I’d say that we’re dealing with something a lot worse than a simple curse or a bad deal.”
“Anyone else, Danny, and I’d have them committed. I mean, this is insane. You’re talking about some monster murdering a little girl and then waiting a decade to go out and kill a complete stranger. It’s insane.”
“Never said the victim was a stranger. Tubs McCoy definitely knew the thing. We just don’t know what the connection is yet.”
“Yeah.” Novak said, shaking his head. “What we don’t know could fill a book.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
The tablet began to chirp. Novak flipped to another screen and shook his head.
“The hell is that?” Danny asked.
“It’s a text message,” Novak answered, reaching for his wallet. He left cash on the table and grabbed his jacket from beside him on the bench. “Welcome to the 21st century. We’ve got to go. They just found another body out on the edge of town.”
“Is it her?”
“Only one way to find out.”
The crime scene tech was white as a sheet standing over the body in the woods. The man had been skinned, castrated and posed with sticks and vines looped through holes in his extremities until he dangled like a marionette from the branches, dancing with every breeze. Insects had already descended on the body making it crawl in chitinous patches of black larva and spawn as they feasted and nested inside the corpse. Standing there in his blue coveralls with his camera around his neck he’d never felt so relieved to see another living soul as he was when detective Novak came walking up through the brush towards him.
“What have we got?” Novak asked.
“A fucking mess.” the technician said, shaking his head. “A whole lot of nothing getting eaten by bugs. I don’t know what this guy did to piss someone off but I’ve never seen anything like this before. Really hoping I never see it again.”
The tech shook his head. “Nothing I can find. No clue where his skin went, or his balls, and there’s no prints on anything. No blood, either. Like someone siphoned every last drop from the place. No traces on any of the leaves, vines or anything.”
“Look like he was moved?”
The technician laughed. “He’s strung up like a fucking puppet. What do you think?”
“If you’ve got what you need, head on back to the lab and get to work on it. I’ll need those photos as soon as you can get them for me.”
“With pleasure.” the tech said, walking back to the clearing where the squad cars and crime scene van were parked. He passed Danny on the way and slapped the man on the shoulder. “Good luck up there, pal.”
Danny stopped beside Novak and whistled as he looked at the corpse. “So, what’s the deal with Pinocchio?”
“No clue other than gruesome death and no evidence to point to anything. Care to do your magic?”
Danny groaned. “Twice in one day? That’s an awful lot to try and do.”
Danny shook his head and walked towards the body.
“No, you don’t.”
He reached out over the corpse, over the head and closed his eyes. Novak had seen the practice earlier that morning, had witnessed it a few times before in years past. No matter how many times the blood spiraled through the air, soaked into his veins or erupted from his mouth when everything was done, it was a terrifying, incredible spectacle. The head of the corpse, barely clinging by a handful of muscle strands rocked as if it were nodding then toppled to the ground with an unceremonious thud before rolling into to nearby brush. A thin strand of red began to swirl, joined by another until the threads intertwined into a single string and entered through Danny’s open palm. As the last of that string wormed its way into his hand, the tall man began to shiver and convulse. After only a second or two he stepped away, backing up as if he were running from something terrible, fell to his knees and vomited. The spray was nothing but blood and bile, a red-black mix that gushed in a geyser from his lips. He rolled over onto his side when he was through and gathered himself together. In an instant he had witnessed the entirety of the man’s last minutes on earth.
“She’s feeding.” Danny coughed from the ground.
“What do you mean by ‘feeding,’ Danny?”
“She’s building up her strength. She’s gearing up for something. And it gets worse.”
“How could it possibly get any worse than this?”
“I know her name now.” Danny sighed.