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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

A fugitive reaches out to make a bargain

THE SOUND of the bed pounding against the other side of the wall had him picture a construction worker swinging a sledgehammer back and forth at an impossible speed, his mission to punch clean through the thin plaster. He had been sat in the darkness, staring out of the window when the two had drunkenly rushed from the manager's office to reach the room they had booked for the night. A round man probably earning a living doing door-to-door sales and a woman dressed as if she were twenty years younger.

The fucking had started almost immediately after they had entered. The salesman- he must have been on some of Pablo's coke that was flooding the market or something; that was the only explanation for his stamina. It was easy for the First Lady to advise Just say No; she hadn't experienced its benefits firsthand.

“Louis!” the woman wailed. “Louis, you big-cocked angel! Slam me, Louis! Slam me straight on up to Heaven!”

In the uncomfortable bed of the adjoining motel room, Terry Bloch had to laugh at that one. This was his first trip to the United States. He had known he would be driving straight out to this motel in the middle of nowhere once he had landed, but he hadn't pictured it to run anything like this. He remembered sitting in Smith's office, watching the old man in his final stages of running Second Branch struggle to roll a cigarette with arthritis-cursed fingers. “Have you ever been to America?” he had asked.

“No,” Terry had replied. “Not even to holiday. It has never appealed to me,” he had explained, “knowing anyone and everyone around you could be carrying a gun... Stories of people being robbed at gunpoint for their shoes...”

“I don't know if it is quite that bad,” Smith had said, now struggling to work his lighter. “I went a handful of times- long ago, just after the war... Times change,” he had sighed.

“You'll be meeting one of our counterparts,” Smith had said, “one of the Deuxie?me Branche agents will arrange to meet you and let you know everything you need to know.”

Terry had raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I'm afraid I don't understand,” he had confessed.

“Of course,” Smith had smiled weakly. “This is a very delicate operation, Bloch... One that could have some serious repercussions if not handled most delicately. It's really quite... Off the books,” he had grinned as a schoolboy proud to know he was the master of some great secret, “and so I can't give you all of the answers because- officially- I never assigned this mission.”

“Of course,” Terry smiled, “so all blame is on me?”

“No,” Smith had answered as if offended, “no blame whatsoever- as long as you work to your usual, high standard.”

Terry laughed. “Of course,” he said. “And I suppose I'm not sitting here with you right now?”

“You're here,” Smith smiled, “of course you're here- we're discussing your previous assignment and the excellent work you did, if I may say. And it's only understandable you should finally take a holiday! You're only human, after all, and you haven't taken a holiday for almost three years. Why,” he had said- momentarily pausing to cough smoke from his ailing lungs, “you suggested you may be ready for a holiday and I insisted you take one!”

Terry had wanted to laugh there and then. Had he really been chosen for this because he was the best available man or simply because he hadn't taken a vacation?

“Louis!” the woman screamed. “I can hear the angels sing!”

The bedside telephone started ringing at a little after five A.M.

Terry had already started urinating and, given the noise he had endured, decided he would not be rushed. He had just flushed the toilet, was turning out of the cramped bathroom when he heard Louis hit the other side of the wall with the side of his closed fist.

“Answer the phone!” Louis called.

Terry snorted, sat down on the bed and answered the call while lighting a cigarette with a simple, “Hello.”

“Terry?” a voice with an American accent said back to him. “Mr Terry Bloch?”

“This is him.”

“Head straight on down the road and you'll reach a diner. I'll be the one wearing a baseball cap.”

The caller placed the receiver down on his end.

Terry left his room at the Kingdom Motel and made his way straight over to his rental car instead of going over to the office to pay for another night. He was more than willing to gamble that if he had to come back, there would be a room to spare.

Arriving here had been like reaching a forgotten outpost in the middle of nowhere. There had been nothing but the lone stretch of road he had travelled on for miles, tall trees standing at either side. And those trees looked to move back without end- covering land, hill and mountain alike. Terry had thought at home, in the UK, they would have said it was a forest. Out here, it was simply the woods.

He noticed there was only one other car parked outside the motel, and that belonged to Louis or the woman. Doubtful she was his wife. The man could have picked her up in a bar hidden away somewhere. Or out here, Terry mused, the two could have been cousins.

He climbed into the rental, fastened his seatbelt and started the engine. He tried the radio but didn't find anything. Lighting a cigarette, he moved back onto the road and started driving again.

The diner looked like something from a postcard of 1950s America. A couple of long- distance haulage trucks had parked outside it but no casual traveller. Terry smoked another cigarette before walking in- looked at the clientele and couldn't believe his luck... Or lack of it. Four men in total- two sat on stools at the counter, two sitting at tables near the windows- and every one of them was wearing a baseball cap. Terry looked beyond the single waitress, saw the cook reading a newspaper in the back and even he was wearing a baseball cap.

Terry walked over to the counter. The waitress reached her side of it before he did and had a wide smile on her face ready and waiting. “Good morning,” she said, “what can I do you for?”

“I'd like a coffee,” he said a little louder than necessary, hoping one of the men would hear his accent and soon join him to discuss whatever business was at hand.

“How would you like it?” she asked, still coming across as more cheerful than she had any right to be.

“White, please,” he said.

“Coming right up,” she said. “You don't sound like you're from around here,” she observed while pouring his drink. “Australia?”

“Man's from England,” a trucker spoke into his coffee.

“England!” the waitress gushed on placing his freshly poured coffee down in front of him, her hand moving over toward a small jug of warm cream. “How are you liking it here?”

“I don't know,” he shrugged, “jetlag hasn't left me yet but first impressions, it seems wet... Too much moisture in the air, mist seems to be coming from every tree- and there are a lot of them- sky looks like it could be threatening snow_”

“Always thought you people were meant to be polite...” the trucker voiced into his cup.

Terry smiled to the waitress and said, “I'm sorry- it's the jetlag talking. How much do I owe you?”

“Pay when you're leaving, darling” she smiled.

He nodded, turned away and walked over to a vacant table as far removed from anybody else as he could manage. Jetlag and listening to Louis pounding away on a woman into the early hours would sour even the pope's mood, he assured himself.

Nobody else appeared to be smoking but he decided to light up anyway. If anybody noticed, they didn't care. The second lungful- knowing it was permitted- was a lot more relaxing than the first.

The Volkswagen parked in a space outside before he had even finished his coffee. The driver- a man of around fifty years and dressed like he should have been manning the nearest gas station- walked into the diner without looking through the windows first; made his way to the counter without a glance to any of his fellow patrons. Terry watched the latest customer make conversation with the waitress and, from the way the two interacted, reached the conclusion they knew one another. But it wasn't any of his concern. He turned his head and focused on the quiet road outside.

“Sorry for what I told you,” the man said to Terry as he pulled himself into the chair on the other side of the table, “I hear you Brits appreciate a sense of humour,” he laughed.

He turned his gaze to the man but didn't utter a word.

“I said I would be wearing a baseball cap?” the man laughed again. “Like I said- just trying out a little humour... Place is a regular stop for truckers and I'm telling you- you rarely ever see a trucker without one!”

Terry finally responded. “You ready to make a move?” he asked.

“I just ordered us both something to eat,” the man replied, “I'm betting you haven't eaten since you landed; and this place does one fine breakfast. I should know,” he added with a smirk, “I'm here most days of the week.”

The waitress made her way over to the table with a new smile on her face, a coffee pot in one hand and a white cup in the other. She placed the cup down in front of the man facing Terry and filled it before turning to the Englishman to ask, “Can I get you a refill?”

“I'm good,” he assured her, “thank you.”

“Let me know if you change your mind,” she said before walking away.

“I'm sorry,” the American said on reaching his hand across the table, “name's John,” he revealed, “John Phoenix.”

“Terrence Bloch,” he said on accepting his hand, “Terry.”

“I want you to know,” John spoke in a hushed tone, “I requested you personally... Way you took down that laboratory in Russia will sure as hell keep the Red bastards from getting one over on us, let me tell you! Don't look at me like that,” he laughed, “you have nothing to be concerned about- believe me... I'm one of a small number of people who even know about that lab and what you did to it. Of course,” he said much more clearly, “if I had my way, you'd be getting a damn medal and a parade.”

Terry noticed his cigarette was wasting away between his fingers. He smiled politely, took one last draw of nicotine before stubbing it out.

“You're a quiet one,” John observed, “you guys tend to be. Few years back,” he said, “I was sent over to England to work alongside a couple of you and I swear, I must have only gotten around three sentences from the guy I was working with! Like you're trying to hold onto all the mystery when I know just about everything you do,” he laughed.

“You're probably right,” Terry said through a forced smile, assuming Mr Phoenix here knew full well he had been told to claim all of the research documentation the soviets had produced during their experiments before making sure the laboratory would never- could never- be used again.

Documentation most likely copied by Second Branch to be shared with their American allies...

The plate of ham and eggs hadn't come close to impressing Terry. The diner itself hadn't and he was glad as the two made their way outside, into a gentle rain, and climbed inside of the old Volkswagen. He mentally assured himself that his current mood was down to jetlag, his lack of sleep, and that he should try a little harder to come across as pleasant. Americans, he decided on fastening his seatbelt, weren't all bad.

“You don't get a radio signal for quite a stretch out on this road,” John said before clearing his throat and lighting another cigarette, “but I always make a point of carrying a couple of cassette tapes in the car.” He opened the glove box to reveal a dozen or more tapes. “You see anything you like?” he asked on starting the engine.

Terry moved the nearest tapes around with his index finger. He had never had any time for Queen; Pink Floyd fared little better. It troubled him that a man could no longer sit in a recording studio and have his guitar sound as a guitar... Everybody had to make it sound so unnatural.

“Anything?” John inquired, taking his time looking up and down the deserted road before moving the car out onto it.

“I'll take a proper look in a minute,” Terry replied to reduce the odds of him hurting the man's feelings. “What can you tell me of my reason for being here?”

The yank sniggered.

“First off,” he said, “I can tell you that you are not here,” he laughed and continued, “officially, neither one of us are here. I'm on vacation in a whole different state and I'm guessing the same can be said about you?”

Terry sighed audibly, reminded himself for the hundredth time that he was in a foul mood due to the hours that had been stolen from him due to crossing the Atlantic- not to mention the hours he had wasted listening to a couple screwing in the room next door at the motel. For all he knew, him and John Phoenix would get on like a house on fire under different circumstances.

“I'm sorry,” John claimed without dropping the grin from his face, “I was just told to be sure you had no misunderstandings on how things would be running out here...”

What had once been a gas station neared, a rusting shell with a concaved roof. Terry looked to the building as they drove past and thought it had been called Mountain top Gas for a moment before realising a letter had fallen long ago and it had been Mountain Stop. John took a breath before talking. “Place is haunted,” he said with the local landmark already falling back in the rear-view mirror. “Psychic looked into it, said it was just another spirit waiting for somebody who is never going to come. Said he picked up some strange vibes in the restroom around the back... I was told he said all kinds of creepy energy levels_”

“You were about to tell me what it is I am doing here,” Terry interrupted.

“You're right,” John agreed and he sighed in a manner that made it clear to see he was disappointed at the lack of conversation being presented him. “You're right,” he repeated and he paused before getting to the subject at hand. “You might remember- you might not- a woman in England some thirty-or-so years ago- name of Georgina Sophia. No? She was pretty,” he continued, “popular... Always getting invited to all the right parties. A number of your politicians were believed to be romantically involved with her... Some of their wives, too...”

“I think I know who we're talking about,” Terry said. “Resided at Blackfriar House, turned out she belonged to some obscure cult hoping to see a child of darkness born into British hierarchy to fulfil yet another ancient prophecy.”

“That's right,” John nodded. “But Second Branch pulled her away from all the people of influence. Of course,” he smirked, “she eventually took to claiming it was all caused by the house she lived in... Said voices in the dead of night had corrupted her, said she couldn't remember any of what had happened over the previous months.

“And you had rounded up all of the members of the cult in question,” John laughed, “had them all awaiting trial, so what could be wrong of giving the woman her freedom while you investigated her claims about a haunted house? Tell me,” he asked, “do you have any idea what happened next?”

“She disappeared,” Terry responded without pride. “The whole event is far from Second Branch's proudest moment... Popular explanation is one of the politicians that were so fond of her got her out of the country.”

“A couple of sightings over the years, but not many. We've kept our own eyes open,” John revealed, “just in case she was hoping to try the same stunt over here. Nothing to write home about... Not until a little over a week ago, anyway.”

“What happened?”

“She called a secure line,” John laughed, “told us exactly who she was, said she wanted to go home and face the music. Said she would only travel with a man of Second Branch- that we would never see or hear from her again if we tried sending somebody else to her.

“Mr Bloch, she made sure she stayed on the line long enough for us to pinpoint exactly where she was calling from. Now,” he grinned, “you see that marker up ahead?”

Terry looked down the grey and quiet road, saw a red traffic cone placed at the edge of the road a minute or so in the distance. “I see it,” he nodded.

John laughed. “We traced her call to a payphone that used to be right where that cone is placed.”

“What do you mean,” Terry inquired, “used to be?”

“Exactly what I'm saying. There was a payphone there... Once. Never got much use, tree branch fell on it during a bad storm. There hasn't been a payphone in that spot for near seven years,” John laughed, “but we have the evidence saying someone made a call from there just last week! How is that even possible?” he laughed, smiling at the mystery of it all.

Terry considered the information that had been shared with him as John Phoenix brought the Volkswagen to a gradual stop beside the cone. “Could your readings on the location have been tampered with?” He asked, “Could Sophia- if it really is her- have somebody on the inside, doctoring their reports?”

John laughed at the suggestion.

“Maybe you guys are all gushing over that kind of girl,” he said, “but to us, she's nothing more than another cooze with a silver spoon sticking out of her mouth and a bug up her ass. Anyway,” he grinned on slipping the car into neutral, “this spot is all we have to go on.”

“You expect me to just wait here?”

John shrugged, held up his hands to make it clear he had nothing. “She said little else than what I already told you; second we had this location, she said she'd be waiting and if anybody but a man of Second Branch showed up, we wouldn't see her.

“Now,” John said clearly, “maybe you want to bring her in, maybe- like me- you know that could be too risky, what with the people of influence she had ties to... But what I can tell you,” he laughed, “is a lot of us aren't comfortable with the impossible call she made. I mean,” he asked, “what- she has some control over time, or something? Don't you think that kind of capability goes beyond playing around with crystals by candlelight and borders on the godlike?”

Terry took a leisurely breath, rooted around his pockets until he found his cigarettes. “I still think you should take an extra look into whoever took her call.”

“Believe me,” John said, “we have but if it makes you feel better about being here, I'll look over it all again myself- I promise you... But if we do find something, it only means she has wriggled her way into another place where she could cause a lot of harm. Someone like her is too much of a risk to have on either side of the Atlantic, if you ask me.

He cleared his throat, turned his head to look at the road ahead. “There's a nine millimetre under your seat. Silver bullets, all blessed in advance.”

“You wanted me brought out here to kill her?”

“You're not here at all,” John laughed, “remember?”

Terry had a number of responses to give, not one of them polite. He reached under his seat in understanding, pulled the Beretta from the floor and slipped it behind his waistline before covering it with his jacket.

“There you go,” John said approvingly. “Now listen,” he said, “I can't stick around too long- just in case she's already watching- so I'm going to move on but I'll make my way back at noon. You're not here, I'll move on, come back every two hours on the dot.”

Terry opened the car door, preparing to climb out. “I have a rental,” he said.

“Couldn't leave it unattended out here,” John smiled, “wouldn't want to attract attention.

“Don't forget- noon and every two hours afterwards. Just stand here on the roadside and I'll see you.”

“I'll be right here,” Terry sighed as he slammed the door shut. John raised a hand, checked the rear-view and continued driving.

The last of the truckers from the diner had driven by over three hours ago; no other vehicle had been headed in either direction since. It wasn't even eleven o'clock yet.

Terry muttered another curse under his breath and lit another cigarette. The cold had turned his hands red, uncomfortable. The air remained in a permanent state placed between cold mist and slight drizzle.

“Fucking Americans,” he grumbled, already long convinced that John Phoenix had intentionally placed the Beretta underneath his seat so that he had to bend down to retrieve it. Phoenix had made Terry bow to him in some childish American display of power.

“Fucking America,” he growled, dragging smoke into his lungs at a slow crawl and looking over the unwelcoming wilderness he found himself alone in. He considered it likely that somewhere in the vast woodland there would be a party of rednecks decked in camouflage, downing cans of cheap beer as they carried rifles over their shoulders and searched for a deer or some other defenceless animal to gun down in some petty attempt of proving their masculinity and power.

He had hundreds of reasons to why he had never visited the United States and the ease of access to guns was but one of them.

The call came a second after he had heard a branch snap- the call of a cow. It was so unexpected, so out of the ordinary- surely- to hear a farmyard animal so far out here that Terry found himself doubting he had even heard it. He turned, albeit reluctantly, and saw the cow at the edge of the trees, staring right at him with a dented bell hanging from its collar. As taken aback as he was amused at such an inconceivable sight, Terry laughed and asked, “I don't suppose you're here to take me to the woman?”

The cow raised a front leg and tapped the ground twice.

“You have to be bloody kidding...”

There was something written on the dented bell around the animal's neck. Terry took a breath, moved forward a step and focused on the black lettering. A single word- SMITH.

Despite a lifetime of unlikely situations, it was this moment that struck him as the most unexpected. The cow stepped toward the edge of the road and looked both ways before starting to cross, headed for the trees opposite. Terry Bloch followed without hesitation.

The cow walked through the dense woodland with Terry always close by, the man of Second Branch constantly looking for others and wondering just how he would explain the sight if he saw any. He followed the creature until it stopped walking and released a loud call before dropping to the ground. The animal looked like it was deflating as a balloon with the air slowly being released from it. Something was moving from inside; fingers were pulling at the hide, the skin stretching like rubber. Terry watched; he had worked alongside men that had transformed into wolves at his side, worked alongside one man capable of recovering from the most serious of wounds within days and yet this was the first time he had seen a woman emerge from a cow. The stomach parted as if invisible stitches had temporarily kept it in place; the figure that emerged was beautiful and naked, her long hair the colour of straw kissed gently by the sun. She stood tall, looked to the crumpled heap of skin and hide behind her and smiled at Terry before darting through the trees.

“Wait!” he called on giving chase.

Her laughter was as heavenly angels. She was quick; she moved as gracefully as a gazelle, constantly looking back over her shoulder with a smile to be sure he remained in sight.

“Wait!” he called again, only too aware of how his right hand already had ideas of reaching for the 9mm. “The bitch,” he panted while his lungs burned.

Terry acknowledged the blur of movement as a large beast emerged from behind a tree and immediately found himself on his back, looking up at the sky. He tried to sit but a club struck his hand, causing him to drop the gun he had no recollection of drawing.

Terry rolled to his side, clutching his throbbing hand and growing fearful that the fingers had been broken. What kind of woodland animal used a club?

It wasn't an animal that had struck him- he realised that now. A large, imposing figure stood over him; a giant of a man with matted grey hair and blotchy red skin; his beard long yet sparse. The club in his hand was a thick branch, the look in his eyes was that of mild curiosity.

“I'm not out to bloody rape her,” Terry hissed, assuming the man was a local whose only crime was of misunderstanding what he had saw.

No words were offered, the look on the giant's face did not change as he raised the club and swung it to the side of Terry's skull.

The air was still too cold, too moist, when Terry came around. His surroundings remained grey, dull. It was impossible for him to judge how long he had been unconscious- be it hours or minutes- but he knew he had been pulled deeper into the woods. The blonde woman he had seen climb out from the inside of a cow was mere feet away, barefoot and dressed in a white dress, as she prepared a fire.

Terry knew he had been placed upon the ground, unrestrained, just as he knew the man responsible for his waking here stood close behind him without his having to look back and confirm this.

He rubbed at where the club had struck him, held his fingers out in front of him. No blood. With a groan he pulled himself into a sitting position and looked to his wristwatch. The glass face had shattered during his fall and the moving of his body, the arms frozen stuck.

The woman blew gently against the delicate flames she had brought into the world, raised her head and smiled at him. “You must have a number of questions,” she didn't ask but stated.

“I had a gun,” he responded.

The woman laughed. “It wouldn't do you any good,” she said, “not here.”

“If that is the case,” he said, “why don't you give it back to me?”

The woman smiled at him as if they were friends. “Your name is Terrence Bloch,” she said, “and you are here to murder Georgina Sophia.”

“Actually,” Terry said, “I hadn't quite decided on what to do with her... But where is she?” he asked. “Certainly not you,” he continued, “you're too young... Her sister? Maybe even her daughter?”

“I was her daughter, just as she was ours.”

“Please,” Terry said, “you aren't trying to tell me you've slept with the ogre behind me, are you?”

He sensed the giant move but a millimetre with desire to inflict pain on him before regaining his composure. Terry was relieved that he did. To provoke the man so soon after waking had not been the most sensible of choices.

“She will be here,” the girl said, “at the right time... You're welcome to stay for her.”

There was a rock within reaching distance. Terry judged it as being a good-sized rock; one he could beat the giant half to death with. Of course, it was all timing... Had he the time to recover from the blow to his head, or would throwing himself toward the rock merely cause the world to shake violently around him before he brought up the greasy ham and eggs he had eaten earlier?

Then there was the matter of his gun. Who had it- the woman or the giant? If the girl were in possession of it, she could easily have it held while Terry was still beating the ogre. And she was American, so it was best to assume she knew how to remove the safety and fire.

Something moved in the periphery of his vision. Terry turned, saw another beauty dressed in a similar white dress walking the grounds. A couple of metres away from her, there walked another. Terry scanned his surroundings. There must have been a good dozen or more of them, happily collecting wood for the fire or tying colourful bows to the trees. How had he managed to miss them all until this moment?

“Mothers of men,” the woman smiled, “daughters of the realms.”

Terry pulled himself to his feet- slowly. He tried convincing himself he moved in such a manner to keep the woman and-more importantly- the giant from thinking he was preparing to attack. It didn't work. He knew he was slow because he was still to fully recover from the giant's assault.

“What is this,” he asked, “some kind of… cult gathering?”

“You may stay,” she said, “and see why we are needed here- or you may turn and leave. You are here of your own free will, you are not our prisoner.”

He took out his cigarettes, the pack beaten and flattened by his fall and being brought here. “And Georgina Sophia is definitely going to be here?” he asked on lighting one.

“Maybe she already is,” the girl smiled.

“I'm sure I'd be able to recognise her,” he responded on looking over the young women at hand. “Seeing as I am your guest,” he said on turning back to her, “it's surely impolite that I don't know your name?”

“Sunset,” she smiled.

“Sunset,” he smirked. “And I'm assuming this is Bigfoot?” he inquired on pointing back to the giant stood close behind him. It was foolish. He knew it was foolish to risk provoking the large figure. That didn't mean he could keep himself from doing it.

“Adam,” she said, a small trace of laughter in her response.

“Adam?” Terry laughed. “Well, that's a little anti-climatic.”

It bothered him, being unable to know how long he had been with them.

Terry walked freely around the area of inhabited woodland with Adam always close by, always watching, always holding tightly onto the club he carried. And the man of Second Branch never quite managed to spot the sun- it always seemed just out of sight- and so he could not gather time from its movement across the sky. And yet it had neither brightened nor dulled; everything remained the same, steady grey.

The maidens of the woods were jovial; no longer gathering branches to feed to the fire but still placing brightly coloured ribbons to trees or singing merrily in a language Terry did not recognise. The language was not the only thing he could not recognise. Less than a quarter of the women had blonde hair and yet he was unable to decide on which one of them was Sunset. Were drugs responsible? He considered it likely. Why gather herbs and chant around a cauldron when the gains of a few collected prescriptions could be just as effective, maybe more so?

His hope was the fire. The smoke it released must surely have been visible from the road... Had John Phoenix managed to spot it? For all he knew, John and a whole unit were watching them now, automatic assault rifles at the ready...

The maidens stopped singing, stopped moving entirely, and stood with heads bowed. It was an unsettling sight, but more than that... Terry wondered how the presence had managed to go unnoticed for so long. He turned cautiously, saw the figure in the distance confidently moving forward; a man of clear wealth, the black business suit he wore made for him and him alone, the black overcoat the same. The man's hair was as black as the suit, as black as the polished Italian shoes on his feet, as black as the leather gloves he was already peeling from his hands.

Terry put the man at around forty years and would have tried to gather more information if the man hadn't abruptly stopped, slipping his hands deep inside his pockets. He looked through Terry entirely, seemed to look through everyone and everything, save the flames.

Adam released the club from his group and ventured on, leaving Terry behind as he walked to the burning flames while he removed his clothes without shame. Terry gasped as the giant stepped into the heart of the fire and turned, face expressionless, a deep scar running from his throat to his stomach. His pubic hair was the first to go up in flames, revealing a small penis resembling a robin's egg. At first the beard merely seemed to be singed by the flames and then it was ablaze, fire covering his face and scalp within a single moment, and still the giant was without expression, still the maidens kept their heads bowed.

“What in God's name_” Terry began with a mutter but did not finish. Words failed him as the giant pressed his fingers into his skin as if it were fresh dough and pulled the flesh apart along the line of the deep scar as if it were a shirt he was opening. His intestines spilled into the fire first. Terry felt a scream race to his throat but did not release it; the sound of many cheering women was all he needed to reclaim control.

He watched as they raced toward the flames now burning purple, reaching the fire just as Adam collapsed in a lifeless heap. It was difficult for him to see exactly what was transpiring but he knew what they were doing; he knew they were plunging their bare hands into the discoloured flames, tearing cooking flesh from the bones and devouring it.

The trees, the ground, the air itself appeared to vibrate. The images of the woodland maidens began to flicker; at times they were as flawless women and at others their skin was of green scales, black talons making it all the easier to pick Adam's remains clean.

“No,” Terry whispered, “no!” he screamed.

He turned to see the well-dressed figure already leaving, already close to disappearing over the nearest hill. Terry knew he couldn't let him go- not after all he had witnessed...

He gave chase.

It made no sense. Terry should have been able to see the man and yet he hadn't. There was no way he could have travelled such a distance, yet he looked to have disappeared entirely. And a name had come to mind, a name had presented itself to Terry without warning or explanation, and that name was Redmond.

Terry continued to run. He ran over the uneven ground without concern despite his legs begging him to stop, despite his lungs threatening to collapse at any second. He ran to find the well-dressed man; he ran to escape the scaled creatures devouring human flesh at a purple blaze.

And at long last, he spotted the road, not one hundred metres away.

The Porsche was at the roadside and Redmond sat patiently behind the wheel. He had him- Terry had caught the bastard.

Terry's legs collapsed from under him and he crashed to the floor like a choirboy who has downed the bottle of communion wine in its entirety. Small stones were embedded in one side of his face, dirt was in his mouth. Terry panted for breath and slowly raised his head. Redmond was looking to him, grinning from ear to ear. He took the time to blow Terry a goodbye kiss and then with a sudden roar of the engine, he was gone.

Terry knew he had lost consciousness because he woke with a start. How long had he been out? Everything was that same, dull grey... Impossible to tell. He pulled himself to his feet with difficulty, leaning on the nearest tree for support, and hobbled toward the road.

The traffic cone was to his left, just a short walk away.

But he was tired. It was all he could manage not to drop to the ground.

The Volkswagen appeared, heading toward the cone. Terry laughed. He could have Phoenix make a call, have people searching for the man he had seen. He stumbled out into the road, still laughing, waving his arms over his head to grab Phoenix's attention.

It confused him when the Volkswagen indicated, began to ease to a stop beside the traffic cone.

“Why hasn't he noticed_”

Terry watched himself step out of the passenger side of the vehicle, watched himself making sure the Beretta at his waist was covered by his jacket as John Phoenix told him he would return at noon.

Submitted: January 19, 2022

© Copyright 2022 A.C. Aerie. All rights reserved.

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