Скачать fb2
Doppelgänger

Doppelgänger

Аннотация

    James Taylor has always had strange dreams.

    Sometimes they are just that: dreams. But sometimes, the dreams come true.

    Now a new terror has entered James sleep, bringing wit h it visions of a death and carnage.
    Visions of a beast that stalks human prey and slaughters without remorse. Visions that soon become a reality for the residents of Newton, Texas as the creature's victims are discovered.

    Like it or not, James knows it is up to him to act. Alone or with the help of local law enforcement, he plans to use his special talent to stop this monstrous Doppelganger before it strikes again.


DOPPELGÄNGER
by
Byron Starr

PRAISE FOR DOPPELGÄNGER
    “Byron Starr seems to be the potential heir to the uniquely East Texas horror crown presently worn by Joe R. Lansdale.”
— Ardath Mayhar
    “Byron Starr follows the trail blazed so famously by writers like Stephen King; put average people in an everyday situation, then introduce a supernatural element and watch the sparks fly.”
— Jeff Edwards, The Harrow.
    “Vivid and suspenseful, this is a great take on the classic tale of a monster terrorizing a small town. The pacing and action are excellent, the monster a real piece of work, and the townspeople likable and believable in the situation into which they’re thrust. Don’t miss this taut thriller.”
— Kim Paffenroth, author of Gospel of the Living Dead and Dying to Live.
    “Doppelganger is a good old fashioned rip-out-your-throat monster novel with a furious spirit and a lot of heart. Byron Starr brings his main characters to life with careful strokes, only to run them through the pain mill and make you feel it with them. A strong beginning, a powerful end, and a creature to remember for all time — if you’re a fan of fast-paced horror with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, dig into Starr’s latest offering and have yourself a feast.”
— Christopher Fulbright, author of When it Rains and Of Wolf and Man
    For Ardath Mayhar
Acknowledgements
    I would like to thank Shelly for putting up with me, Abby for being so much like me, and J for being the calm one in the family at the tender age of one.

    Thanks to those who have been with me for the long haul: Chris Philips, Pete Allen, Lavern Harris, Pat Payne, Adrienne Jones, Megan Bulloch, Bret Jordan, and Ardath Mayhar.

    And to some of the new friends I’ve met along the way: Patricia Esposito, Mike Stone, Gabrielle Faust, Kim Paffenroth, Marcy Italiano, and Chris Fulbright.

    DOPPELGÄNGER

PROLOGUE

    The October wind whispered softly between the tall pines. In hushed tones it spoke of secrets long hidden from human eyes. There was a sharp chill in the air which spoke as well. It told of the coming of winter.
    There were no moon or stars out, but the beast had no trouble seeing as it lurched through the underbrush. It loped on all fours, propelling itself along with its legs and powerful arms like an ape. Coming to the edge of a clearing, the beast stopped, raised itself on powerful hind legs and sniffed at the wind. Its sense of smell was amazingly keen. The smell of pine was strong here; however, there was another faint odor in the wind.
    The beast lowered itself to all fours and continued into the freshly logged clearing, bounding over stumps, fallen trees, and broken limbs, until it came to a set of tracks in the mud. The prints were large and flat, not unlike the impressions of the beast’s own feet when it walked upright. Lowering its head to the ground, the beast inhaled deeply, bringing to its nose a strange odor, unlike anything it had ever smelled before. Raising its head, the beast began following the tracks, which seemed to move almost at random throughout the clear-cut, finding five other similar sets of tracks. These prints all began and ended at a set of ruts in the ground. Like the prints, these furrows were present in seemingly random pattern throughout the area, before they finally merged at a wide path in the trees that leading out of the clearing.
    Then another smell caught the beast’s attention. It rose on two legs and sniffed again, then set off in the direction of the smell. It moved at a faster pace than before, stopping frequently to raise its snout to the wind and sniff the air. After loping through the woods for several hundred yards, the beast came to a stop and once again stood upright and raised its nose to the wind. The scent was much stronger. It was close.
    Still standing erect, the beast shut its eyes, yet could still see. All its senses �� sight, vision, hearing, smell, and even taste — seemed to leave its body and float forward into midair. Then, flying at an incredible speed, its detached senses passed through several hundred yards of woods and underbrush before coming to a slender doe timidly munching on grass, completely unaware that it was being watched from a distance of less than twenty feet by a creature that was almost a half a mile away. The beast watched the deer for a few seconds, then its detached senses moved closer, circling toward the deer’s head as it approached, until it was directly in front of the deer’s face. The beast’s senses paused briefly, a mere two inches from the doe’s face. A tuft of hair was raised just above the deer’s nose where a tick had burrowed in for a meal of its own. Unaware of any presence, the doe continued the meal that would prove to be its last. The beast’s senses slowly continued forward until they passed into the unsuspecting doe’s right eye.
    Once inside, the beast briefly saw the world from the doe’s eyes, then it began to sort through scenes in her memory — sights and smells of the woods, other deer, other creatures of the forest, a long grey path with a yellow stripe running down its center, large objects with a pair of lights cutting through the darkness ahead of them flew along this path at amazing speeds. All of these scenes flashed by rapidly until one of a small fawn with white flecks along its back appeared.
    This memory froze in place for a moment, then, two hundred yards away, the beast opened its eyes. In an instant, its vision returning to normal, the beast lowered itself to all fours and started in the direction of the deer at a much slower and more cautious pace than it had traveled earlier.
    As the beast drew near, the doe could occasionally be seen through the gaps between the trees. Her ears were perked and she was intently looking in the beast’s direction, but she did not flee. Soon she was in full sight. The beast stopped a mere ten yards from her.
    The timid doe took a cautious step forward, pointed her nose in its direction, and sniffed. No alarm. The scent was familiar and registered as friendly. She took another step and continued inching closer until she was right in front of the beast.
    As soon as she was within reach a powerful, clawed hand lashed out. The blow landed on her neck, the claws ripping out her throat and the impact driving her to the ground. Mortally wounded, the deer still tried to rise, but a powerful hand was on her shoulder, holding her down as a set of jaws descended to take a savage bite out of her side.
* * *
    James Taylor jerked upright in bed, his heart pounding in his chest and his body drenched in sweat. The sudden movement woke his wife, Angie.
    “Honey, are you okay?” Angie asked groggily.
    “Yeah, just a bad dream,” James answered, lying back down.
    Beside him Angie shifted her position a little, and said nothing else. Unlike James, Angie never had any trouble finding sleep.
    James lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. He stared into the darkness, barely able to see the outline of the ceiling fan slowly cutting the darkness overhead. After gathering his thoughts, James turned to his wife, who was little more than an outlined shape beneath a pale blue blanket. Only the blond top of her head was visible. James listened to the regularity of her breathing until he was sure she was asleep, then he slowly and carefully climbed out of the bed.
    In the bathroom, James shut the door behind him before turning on the light. He ran some water in the sink, splashed it onto his face, and looked up into the mirror. His face was weary, his eyes bloodshot, with bags under them, and he needed a shave. He looked like he had one hell of a hangover.
    It had been a long time since he’d had a dream like the one he’d just experienced. In high school, he dreamed about Marsha Schubert losing her cherry to Josh Stevens long before Josh’s bragging let the cat out of the bag. He dreamed about Matt Garret and Bubba Saunders’ wreck the very night Bubba’s truck tried to straighten a curve on Highway 87, killing both boys. In another dream, he’d seen old Charles Wellman, the town’s retired night watchman, come home and kill his wife, then kill himself — the same night the old drunk did just that. The last dream of this nature was about a year and a half ago, when he had dreamed that Michael Salter and Ruby Keinzel were having an affair — months before the gossip started floating around the small town of Newton, Texas. There was no doubt that tonight’s dream was the type of dream Angie referred to as his visions. These strange dreams were all seen through the eyes of someone else, and they had a certain reality to them, a certain unmistakable feeling not in sync with the surrealism of normal dreams.
    But this vision had been different from any he’d had before. For one thing, most of these dreams were brief, some very brief. His dream of Doris Crawford dropping her baby out of its highchair had lasted only around five seconds. The night Charles Wellman was driving home drunk and tried to outrun Jack Cooper’s patrol car gave him the longest vision James could recall, and it lasted only around three minutes. But tonight’s vision lasted over thirty minutes, possibly closer to an hour.
    That wasn’t what bothered James, however. What bothered him was the fact that this dream hadn’t been seen through the eyes of a human.

CHAPTER 1
The One Who Sees

    It was only after much tossing and turning that James was able to get back to sleep. When the alarm went off the next morning, he felt as if he hadn’t slept a wink. He rolled out of bed and ambled zombie-like to the bathroom where he brushed his teeth and combed his hair. James put on a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, then made his way toward the kitchen. In the hall, a sandy-haired little boy wearing a backpack zipped by, the backpack bouncing and rattling as the boy ran.
    “Hi, Daddy,” the energetic child said without turning.
    “Hey, Squirt.”
    Jimmy Taylor had just started first grade. Jimmy was blessed with his mother’s good looks and social abilities, and — if his straight A report cards were any indication — his father’s intelligence.
    Stopping only long enough to give his mother a quick peck on the cheek and grab a Pop-Tart, Jimmy scampered outside to wait for the school bus.
    When James entered the kitchen, Angie was watching Jimmy from the kitchen window. She was holding a cup of coffee in her hand and was dressed in her version of a housecoat — a huge white tee-shirt that came down past her knees, and on the front it said in bold black letters BACK OFF! The shirt, a gag gift from a birthday two years ago, couldn’t have been more incorrect about Angie’s early morning disposition. Her shoulder length blond hair was in a ponytail. Angie wore a minimum of makeup, but even this bit of lipstick and powder was absent in the Taylor family early morning ritual. It didn’t matter. Her complexion was flawless. James noticed how the sun coming in the window made her seem to glow. She’s even beautiful in the morning, he thought.
    “Morning, Honey,” James said, plopping into a chair at the kitchen table in front of a plate of eggs and toast.
    Keeping her blue-green eyes glued on Jimmy in the front yard, Angie smiled sweetly and replied, “Morning.”
    James and Angie had been married for seven years now. Not coincidentally, only about a half a year longer than Jimmy had been alive. Their marriage had been a shock to the small town of Newton. At the time she was a senior in high school, Homecoming Queen, and one of the most popular girls at Newton High School. Her parents owned Lambert’s Furniture in Jasper, and her father was on then Newton City Council. Angie Lambert was real Newton County nobility.
    James Taylor, on the other hand, was anything but. He had lived in Longview until his parents died in a car accident when he was twelve. James was taken in by his grandmother, who lived in Newton. The move didn’t agree with James in the least. He was a smart kid, but he wasn’t outgoing and had a difficult time making new friends. Halfway through his senior year, James’ grandmother died. Only a few weeks later, James dropped out of school and went to work as a carpenter’s assistant.
    Two years later, Angie and James met when the Lamberts decided to build an addition onto their house. They struck an instant friendship and soon they were dating. At first Angie wasn’t serious about James, but she soon found she was becoming more and more attached to him. What really clinched their relationship, however, was Angie’s father, George Lambert. He strictly forbade Angie to have anything to do with this “no-good dropout.” So like any other rebellious teenager, Angie promptly fell in love.
    There were hard times at first, but a few months later, soon after Jimmy was born, Matt Garret’s untimely death opened up a job at Baldwin’s Garage, and, although James had no prior experience as a mechanic, he managed to get the job. James learned his job quickly and soon realized he had a bit of a knack as a mechanic. In no time he had developed a reputation as the best mechanic in the county. Two years after James first started to work for the garage, Ike Baldwin — one of the two brothers who owned Baldwin’s Garage — was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Ike sold his half of the garage to James at an unbelievably charitable price. Soon James had paid off the note and was even able to buy the small two-bedroom house just outside of Newton where they were currently living.
    James ate his eggs and toast while Angie continued watching Jimmy from the kitchen window. It was not until James heard the sound of the bus’ air brakes, followed by the squall of its unoiled side door, that Angie turned her eyes away from the window.
    “You didn’t sleep very well last night,” she said. “You tossed and turned all night.”
    James was a little shocked by the statement. Angie was normally such a heavy sleeper that she wouldn’t know if a train wrecked in the front yard. “No, I didn’t,” he answered briefly.
    “Did you have a nightmare?” she asked.
    “Yeah, sorta,” James answered, washing down a bite of toast with a swig of milk.
    Angie gazed at him for a moment then, hesitantly, she asked. “Was it one of those dreams?”
    “Sorta.” James mumbled through a mouthful of eggs.
    Those dreams were a touchy subject for James. Although most of those dreams, or visions as Angie sometimes called them, were simple, unimportant things that he saw through the eyes of other people while he was asleep, he all too often saw something that he would rather have not seen. In fact, the dreams, or visions, were never of a positive nature.
    After James finished swallowing his mouthful of eggs he changed the subject. “How do you feel today? Any morning sickness yet?”
    Angie let the other subject drop.
    Smiling, she patted her still flat tummy (only two months’ pregnant, she hadn’t started to show) and said, “No, not yet.”
    James washed down his last bite of eggs and got up from the table. He gave Angie a kiss before leaving for work.
* * *
    Angie watched him from the kitchen window much as she had Jimmy. James was not attractive by any stretch of the imagination; neither was he unattractive. In fact, he was somewhat nondescript. He was slightly short — about five-foot seven inches tall — and fairly thin. He had brownish-green eyes and brown hair that always seemed to be hidden by an old baseball cap. Angie smiled as she watched him stop to toss a stick for their black lab, Lady. It wasn’t James’ looks that had caused Angie to fall in love with him.
* * *
    Every night for the next two weeks, James continued to have the dreams. Like his previous visions, James would ride along, an inactive observer seeing the world through some strange beast’s eyes. Almost every night the beast fed on some sort of animal, sometimes more than once a night. It always caught its prey in the same strange way. First it would smell them in the distance, then it would separate its senses from its body and send them forward. The beast’s senses, for lack of a better word, entered its prey’s mind through one of their eyes (even if the eye was closed, James noticed), then the beast would approach its prey without causing any alarm whatsoever. Throughout the next two weeks the beast killed a number of small animals, mostly squirrels and rabbits, although it did manage to kill a small dog and another deer. Once it even managed to kill an owl that swooped down to land on a branch well within its reach.
    Over the two-week span, there was one noticeable change in the dreams — they were getting longer. At first they had lasted a little less than an hour. Now James found that the dreams seemed to be going on for around four or five hours. Even when he woke in the middle of one of these visions he found that when he went back to sleep he would be back in the woods almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.
    The dreams were also taking a physical toll on James. As the dreams increased in length, it felt as though he was getting less and less sleep. All in all, this lack of sleep was what troubled James the most. Although the dreams seemed like the visions he used to have, they were all too strange to be real.
* * *
    Greg O’Brien had just finished the 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. shift and was still in his sheriff deputy’s uniform when he walked through the open doors at Baldwin’s Garage. In the back of the shop Guy Baldwin, a stocky man with a bushy, grey mustache and hair to match, wearing dirty blue overalls, raised his head from under the hood of an old Ford pickup. “You come to arrest James?” Guy said in the gravelly voice of a heavy smoker, a filterless cigarette bobbing in his mouth as he spoke.
    Greg grinned. “Yeah, where is that no-count punk?”
    “Down here,” James said, rolling on a creeper from under a car he’d been working on. He was covered head to toe in grease.
    “We still on for football tonight?” Greg asked.
    “Sure, you bring the beer. I’ve got the food,” James said, then added, “Is Sandy coming?”
    “Well, hell no. You know she can’t stand football. She’s going to call and see if Angie wants to bring Jimmy over to the house.”
    “That’ll work. No one to gripe if we get loud.” James propped his hands behind his head. “You think Dallas can beat Minnesota tonight?”
    “Of course.” To Greg, a hardcore Cowboys fan from way back, this question was borderline blasphemy.
    “I don’t know. The Vikings lead the league against the run and Emmitt is listed as doubtful.”
    “We don’t need the run tonight. Aikman’ll eat ’em alive, you watch. He’ll have a three or four-hundred yard night.”
    “Not if the line don’t pick up their game. Last week they gave up five sacks.”
    “They won though.”
    “Yeah, by two points against the Patriots.”
    “The Pats aren’t that bad.”
    “They aren’t that good, though.”
    Without raising his head from the engine he was currently working on, Guy commented from across the garage. “Let me know when you two girls grow up and start watching a real sport and we’ll talk some baseball.”
    Greg and James exchanged a smile and Greg turned in Guy’s direction. “Let’s see, baseball. Is that where they hit some ball with a stick then run around in a circle, or am I thinkin’ about golf?”
    Guy’s deep laughter echoed from under his hood before it turned to a series of choppy, unhealthy sounding coughs.
    “Well, I guess I’d better get back to work,” James said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
    “Later,” Greg said with a smile, then he put his foot on the edge of the creeper and pushed James back under the car.
    Greg was one of the few close friends James had made during his high school years. If it wasn’t for Greg, James probably would have dropped out of school during his sophomore year, and Greg certainly wouldn’t have passed algebra without James’ help. Greg was the only person other than Angie who James was truly comfortable around. James and Greg were just as much opposites as James and Angie were. In contrast to James’ fairly small stature and his quiet ways, Greg was a tall athletic kid with curly red hair who always seemed to be smiling or laughing. And Greg had one other attribute that helped him tremendously in the day-to-day dealings of small town life; unlike James, Greg was a native, born and raised in Newton, Texas. Everybody in town liked Deputy Greg O’Brien.
* * *
    James and Greg sat on the couch in front of James’ television. Greg was decked out in a white and blue striped Troy Aikman jersey and blue Dallas Cowboys jogging pants with a grey stripe running down the leg. James’ attire was his usual blue jeans and tee shirt. The only change was his customary faded non-descript baseball cap had been put aside for a blue Dallas Cowboys cap. On the coffee table in front of the two fans sat a now empty football-shaped bowl that had contained cheese dip earlier in the night, a scattering of tortilla chip crumbs, and twelve empty beer bottles.
    On the TV, Troy Aikman was sacked for the sixth time of the night, this time coughing up the ball, which was scooped up by Minnesota linebacker Dwayne Rudd and run thirty yards into the end zone for yet another Minnesota touchdown.
    “Damn it!” Greg shouted, jumping to his feet.
    Sandy poked her head through the door from the kitchen. “Greg! Watch your mouth. The kids’ll hear you.” The girls hadn’t gone over to Greg and Sandy’s as planned.
    Greg grinned and replied, “Sorry, Hon’, but that play deserved a good cussin’.”
    Sandy rolled her eyes and returned to the ladies’ gossip session.
    “That’s game,” James said, shaking his head. “Twenty-three to nine with less than three minutes left in the fourth. I don’t think Staubach could even pull this one off.”
    Still standing, Greg turned to James and replied, “Aw, sure he could.” He then picked up the football-shaped dip bowl and drew back like he was going to throw it. “Ol’ Roger-Dodger would just look for Drew Pearson in the corner of the end zone and drop one right in his arms.” Over half the empty beer bottles on the coffee table belonged to Greg — nine, to be exact.
    James yawned and then said, “And what about the other touchdown they need?”
    “Well, Roger would get out there with the special teams and recover the onside kick, then look for Drew in the end zone again,” Greg replied, going through all the actions with the football-shaped bowl as he described them, including a clumsy attempt to leap over the coffee table that almost landed him in James’ lap.
    While Greg was going through his act, James stretched his mouth for a tremendous yawn.
    Greg plopped down beside him, and, with a serious look that didn’t look altogether at home on his never-serious face, he asked, “Man, you been sleeping good lately?” Then the familiar grin returned and, nudging James in the side, he added, “You really look like shit.”
    “I’m just a little tired, that’s all.” James said with a weary smile.
    “If he’s tired, Greg, we should go home and let him rest,” Sandy called out from the kitchen.
    Still grinning, Greg said to James. “I swear, that heifer’s got radars for ears.”
    “What did you say?” Sandy immediately replied.
    “I said I’ve got the sweetest wife in all Texas, didn’t I, James?” Greg called out to the kitchen, while nudging James in the side.
    Fighting back another yawn, James added, “Heard it with my own two ears, Sandy.”
    Sandy came into the living room with Carissa, their two-year-old daughter, asleep in her arms, and said, “Now I know we need to go. You’re beginning to rub off on James.”
    Angie came into the living room behind Sandy, with Jimmy right behind her. Jimmy was wearing a Dallas football helmet that Greg and Sandy had given him for his birthday. The helmet was too big for him, making his head look comically larger than his body. It reminded James of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts characters.
    Greg made a few more light-hearted jokes at Sandy’s expense, then picked up the dip-bowl and did a few more Roger Staubach imitations for the girls’ entertainment. When he finally put the bowl down, Jimmy picked it up and started his own football player show. With his balance thrown off by the enormous helmet, it was no time before he fell, almost breaking the chip bowl. Angie scolded Jimmy which in turn caused Greg to be scolded by Sandy for setting a bad example. Jimmy’s bottom lip popped out and he plopped down on the floor, but Greg was only slightly subdued when Sandy led him to the car.
    Returning from seeing Greg and Sandy to the door, Angie was laughing and commenting to James on how Greg gets “wound up” after a few beers when she noticed that James was asleep. He was sitting on the couch with his head back and mouth open. He was even snoring, which was something he hardly ever did.
    Angie tucked Jimmy into bed then returned to the living room. She sat down beside James and shook him lightly. “Honey, don’t you think you should get in bed?” she said softly.
    Angie had to shake him several times before he woke, and when he did, he was so groggy that she had to support him down the hall. Once in the bedroom, he practically collapsed on the bed and fell asleep without even undressing.
* * *
    James’ head hardly hit the pillow before he started dreaming.
    The beast was on the move again. It loped through the underbrush, frequently raising its head to sniff at the wind. Every now and then it would raise itself to its full height and take in the scents of the surrounding woods, but it wouldn’t do so for long before returning to four legs and ambling along. It continued on this way for some time, not like it was simply prowling for food, but like it was on the trail of a distant scent.
    Soon the beast came to a barbwire fence that marked the border between the dense woods it had been traveling and the beginning of an open pasture. It stopped at the fence for some time and smelled the barbwire and posts. After finding that the strands of wire were too close together for it to squeeze between them, the beast stood erect in front of one of the posts, and began repeatedly pushing the post forward and pulling it back. It continued to work the post rapidly until there was a loud snap and the post broke free from the ground. When the cattle heard the post snap they began running away from the sound, toward the front of the pasture. The beast stepped over the sag in the fence created by the fallen post and into the pasture.
    Once inside the fence, the beast stood on its hind legs and its senses once again left its body. They sped forward until they caught the fleeing herd, which was now gathered near the front gate. Its senses then entered one of their eyes, rifled through its memory like a high-powered computer sorting files, then exited the cow’s eye. The beast’s detached vision then continued the process with every cow, calf, and bull in the small herd.
    The beast then reopened his eyes and slowly advanced on the herd. When it was near the middle of the pasture, just behind a low hill, the beast stopped and stood on its hind legs. It then began walking toward the herd.
    “Wooo! Cow, c’mon! Wooo! Cow!”
    The herd stopped lowing.
    “Woooo! C’mon!”
    The herd started lowing again, but this time not in panic. They began moving again, heading for the familiar sound that called them to their meals every morning. Soon the beast could see them returning back along a worn path that led over the hill. Some were actually running. The beast watched them come in a ragged single file line.
    “Wooo Cow! C’mon, cow!”
    One curious cow made her way right up to the beast. She was hit with a powerful blow that almost severed her head. The rest of the herd scattered immediately, and the beast lunged for the second cow in line. This cow managed to turn and flee, but the beast swung and sank the claws of its right hand deep into the cow’s rear flank. The cow let out a deep, panicked low. Froth surfaced at the edges of poor animal’s mouth and its tongue whipped out as she frantically pawed at the ground trying to escape. Using its claws like meat-hooks, the beast hung on to the frantic cow. The beast then raked its other clawed hand across the belly of the poor creature, causing her warm guts to spill onto the ground. The disemboweled cow continued struggling even as the beast brought her down and began to eat. The beast took several savage bites out of the struggling cow before it finally died. Then it returned to the first cow, removing a few bloody chunks of flesh.
    Having eaten its fill, the beast left the partially-eaten cows and disappeared into the woods.
* * *
    Just after dawn, Sheriff Bill Oates' cruiser sped down Farm Road 2626 at just over eighty miles per hour with its headlights on, but its emergency lights off.
    Now in his late sixties, William Oates had been the sheriff of Newton County for almost fifteen years, and had been a deputy there for twenty years before that. Tall, thin, and rough-looking, Bill was the very image of the proverbial "long tall Texan." His face was weathered and stern; he sported a thick, grey, western style mustache, and, to top it all off, Sheriff Oates always wore a white Stetson cowboy hat. Sheriff Oates had a reputation throughout the county — and throughout the state in law enforcement circles — for being both honest and tough. Although Bill was getting up in years, his reputation as a rough customer had not diminished at all with his increasing age. The drunks and rogues of the county might mouth off when one of the local deputies arrived to keep the peace at a petty fight or civil disturbance, but if ol’ Bill himself showed up, they invariably became as docile as lambs. And everyone in the county knew that when Bill’s temper flared, when his cheeks grew red and he started ending his sentences with “by God,” the shit was going to hit the fan, and whoever was the target of his anger was going to catch hell.
    Earlier that morning — just before sunrise — Bill had just walked in the Newton County Law Enforcement Center (commonly called the County Jail or the Newton County Hilton) when Clara McClellan, the little old lady who served as Newton County’s nighttime dispatcher, told him that Edgar Harvey was on the phone, demanding to speak to him. Edgar was an old friend of Bill’s, but the sheriff found that the old man was in no mood for small talk.
    “Somethin’s been at my cows,” Edgar had said.
    At first Bill suspected it was something minor, like a dog or some drunk teenagers had chased Edgar’s herd until one of his cows ran into the fence and got tangled in the barbwire. He told Edgar, “Greg’ll be on duty in about thirty minutes. As soon as he gets in I’ll get him to run out and have a look around.”
    “Bill, I think you’d better take a look at this yourself.”
    Bill had known Edgar Harvey all his life. In fact, over a half a century ago the old man had taught Bill how to fish. But there was something in Edgar’s voice Bill had never heard. Edgar sounded scared.
    “I’ll be right there.”
    On his way out the door Bill had rattled out orders to Clara. He instructed her to contact Carl Price — the deputy on duty — on the radio and tell him to drive directly over to Edgar Harvey’s pasture. Bill also told Clara to tell Greg to get all the camera equipment and come straight out to Edgar’s. He also told her to page Emilio Rodriguez, a local game warden, and get him on the way.
    When Bill turned in at Edgar’s pasture, he could see Edgar’s pickup parked on top of a small rise in the middle of the field. Bill got out, opened the gate, and drove through. Seeing Carl pull in behind him, Bill motioned for Carl to close the gate behind him, then continued slowly into the pasture. The cruiser bounced and jostled its way across the pasture. Bill stopped the car behind Edgar’s pickup and got out.
    Edgar Harvey was leaning on the side of his truck. He had a huge wad of tobacco in his mouth that swelled his right cheek tremendously. A twelve-gauge pump shotgun was resting in his arms.
    “Did deer season slip up on me again?” Bill asked the old man.
    “Don’t know ‘bout deer season, but some critter sure thinks it’s cow season.”
    Bill walked up and shook hands with Edgar. Behind him another car door slammed and he heard Carl say, “Mornin’ sheriff. Mornin’ Mr. Harvey.”
    Bill turned and replied. “Mornin’ Carl.”
    Edgar nodded. Bill knew the nod was for his benefit, not Carl’s. Edgar Harvey was about as prejudiced as they come, and he didn’t like the idea of a black man being a Newton County Deputy.
    Carl Price had been a deputy in Newton County for nine years, longer than any other current deputy. Four years ago Bill had named him chief deputy. This hadn’t been a political move to secure the black vote of the county; Sheriff Bill Oates didn’t work like that. The decision hadn’t been based simply on the fact that Carl had more experience than any other deputy either. Carl was simply the best choice for the job. He was efficient and reliable. He was intelligent and had a level head on his shoulders. Most importantly, Carl knew his way around the Sheriff’s Department computer. This made him invaluable to Bill, who didn’t even know how to turn on the computer. Carl had his faults, however. He lacked initiative — he seemed unable to make a decision without conferring with Bill, and his race also served as a liability since a quite a few people in the county had a shallow outlook similar to Edgar Harvey; they weren’t to keen on the idea of getting a ticket from or, even worse, being arrested by a black man.
    “Well, Edgar, why don’t you show me what’s got you all stirred up this morning,” Bill asked.
    Edgar spit heavily and said, “This way.” He turned and led them down a well-worn cattle path. The morning’s fog was now just above head level, and the dew was fresh on the ground. The morning air was still humid and sticky. Edgar, Bill, and Carl walked down the thin path, carefully stepping over or around several cow patties. As soon as they topped a small hill, the bodies of two mutilated cows came into view.
    “Good Lord,” Carl gasped.
    Without a word, Edgar continued leading them down the path toward the grisly scene.
    The closest cow was lying on her left side facing the approaching group with her eyes wide open and her tongue lolling out. She was torn open from her last ribs to her rear flank, much of the meat and guts there seemed to have been eaten. The second cow was about twenty feet further, facing the other direction, lying on her right side. Her head was just barely attached to her body by little more than a strip of hide and was awkwardly positioned, making her appear to look straight behind her, over her own back. There was a large hole further down on her neck and two more in her left front flank.
    Bill dropped to a knee beside the first cow, took a long look at the cow and its terrible wounds, then got up and walked over for a look at the second. He stooped down and felt inside of one of the holes in the second cow’s flank. He then started walking around the cows looking down at the ground. Every now and then he would stoop and take a closer look at the ground.
    While Bill was investigating the cows, Greg's car arrived, followed closely by Emilio’s pale green Game Warden Blazer. Greg parked his patrol car near the other three, and got in Emilio’s SUV. The four-wheel-drive was able to descend further down the hill. Emilio stopped about thirty feet from the first cow.
    No sooner were they out of the truck than Bill called out, “Come see what you think about this, Emilio.” The old Texan’s accent battering the newcomer’s name as it drawled out all four syllables.
    Emilio Rodriguez was originally from Midland, out in West Texas. He had only been working in Newton County for two years, but the tall, wiry Hispanic had already proven himself a hard worker who knew his business. In the short time he’d been in the area, Emilio had earned the respect of the sheriff.
    Bill was perched on the toes of his boots about twenty feet on the other side of where the second cow lay in a low muddy area. Emilio walked past the dead cows followed by Greg, Carl, and Edgar. When he got to Bill, he saw what had the sheriff’s attention.
    “What have we here?” he said, taking a knee beside the sheriff.
    It was a footprint, one as big as an average size man’s. In fact, the footprint looked a lot like a man’s. However, the toes were longer and the big toe was slightly further down on the foot. Not exactly like a chimpanzee’s, but somewhere between a chimp’s and a man’s. The most shocking sight was the claws; they extended a full two inches from the toes.
    Bill took a fountain pen from his breast pocket and used it as a pointer. He ran the pen down the length of the claw prints. “Ever seen claws that big?” Bill asked Emilio.
    Emilio shook his head. “No, sir.”
    “That ain’t all.” Bill leaned over and pointed with his pen at another footprint. Bill then stood up and pointed out three more prints in the mud. “You can follow its tracks through this bog from here to over there.”
    Bill then looked at Emilio, and in an almost nonchalant voice said, “It’s walking on two legs.”
    Behind Emilio, Greg gasped, “Bullshit.”
    Bill continued as if Greg hadn’t said a word, “I found more tracks over there.” He pointed toward a spot about thirty feet from the second cow, “Over there it’s travelin’ away from the cows on all fours. I haven’t heard of a bear in these parts for years, but a bear can get up on two legs. You think we may have us a bear here, Emilio?”
    Emilio, still kneeling, studied the first footprint, then said, “I don’t think so. This isn’t like any bear tracks I’ve ever seen, not even close.” Emilio shrugged his shoulders and continued, “Plus, a bear’s slow when he’s on two legs, so how did this thing run down those two cows? He couldn’t have snuck up on them, that’s for sure. They’d have smelled him.”
    “What else could it be?” Bill asked, almost to himself.
    “I don’t know.”
    Edgar said. “You reckon it could be some sicko? Maybe he hacked up the cows and then left fake paw prints in the ground.”
    Emilio looked up at Edgar. “He’d have to be one sick bastard to have eaten this much raw beef.”
    “Maybe he took chunks out to make it look like something was eating the cows,” Greg chimed in, causing Bill to give him a look that said, That’s the stupidest damn thing I think I’ve ever heard.
    Bill’s head turned slowly as he took in the whole scene, then he turned back to Greg. “I want you to take pictures of the whole area. The cows, the footprints, everything. And, don’t forget to put something beside the prints for a size reference.” Bill turned to Emilio, “You’d better get a hold of College Station. I think the boys at A&M are going to want to look at this.”
* * *
    Around noon Greg drove up to Shay’s Grocery, a local gas station and convenience store, to gas up his cruiser and get a bag of chips and a soft drink for lunch. He was just finishing up at the gas pumps when James came out of Shay’s. James was on his way back to the garage with his and Guy’s lunches — burritos and egg rolls, heating lamp specials. Half asleep, he almost didn’t even notice Greg, despite the hard-to-miss patrol car.
    “Hey, James,” Greg called.
    James snapped out of his drowsy stupor, looked over and saw Greg grinning and waving, “I’ll be right over,” James said. He went over to his pickup and deposited his paper sack before walking over to the gas pumps.
    “Arrest any bad guys today?”
    Greg grinned. “Now, you know better. There ain’t any bad guys in Newton County. Sheriff Oates ran them all off back in the eighteen hundreds, by God.”
    Despite being half asleep, this struck James as hilarious. When his laughter tapered off, he asked, “So you’re kinda takin’ it easy today?”
    “Not really,” Greg said. “Some whacked out grizzly got a hold of Edgar Harvey’s cows and I spent most of this morning takin’ pictures of cow guts.”
    The gas pump clicked off. Greg turned to take the nozzle out of his car and replace it in the pump so he missed the look of outright shock on James’ face. Before Greg turned back around, the radio in his car started crackling to life, “Unit sixty-three, we’ve got a ten-fifty out on Farm Road 2626, about a mile off Highway One-Ninety.”
    Greg leaned in the patrol car’s open window and picked up the radio mike. “Ten-four.”
    Greg turned to James. “Well Bill might’ve run off all the bad guys, but he didn’t get rid of all the bad drivers. If you would, tell Sharlah to charge the gas to the county.”
    Greg got in the car and sped out of the parking lot with his lights flashing, never noticing the blank look of horror on his friend’s weary face.
    The grim reality of what Greg had said hit James like a ton of bricks. Suddenly it felt as if his stomach was tied in knots and his brain was trying to push its way out of his ears. James forgot to tell Sharlah about the gas. He drove straight back to Baldwin’s and told Guy he didn’t feel well and was going to take the rest of the day off.
    When James got home, he couldn’t bring himself to tell Angie what was bothering him. He told her he just wasn’t feeling well, but she knew better; she could tell there was something wrong. When James told her he was sick and went to bed, she suspected it was the dreams. They were one of the few things he would flat refuse to talk to her about.
    At first he tossed and turned, thinking about the beast in whose head he was taking nightly rides, but his extreme fatigue finally caught up with him. He slept like a rock until sometime in the middle of the night when he started dreaming.
* * *
    The beast moved slowly through the dense brush until it came to a small creek. It then ambled along the creek’s bank, its clawed feet sloshing in the soupy mud. After continuing along the muddy stream for a few hundred yards, the beast came to a barbwire fence that crossed the creek. The fence did not exactly follow the lay of the land; it bridged straight across the creek, leaving a gap of a little over two feet between the bottom strand of wire and the water, which was only inches deep. The beast easily crawled under the fence and continued along the creek.
    The beast only traveled a few feet beyond the fence before rising up on its hind legs. There was a peculiar scent on the wind. It breathed in the air for some time, then turned its head to the right and sniffed again. When it returned to all fours, the beast left the creek and set off in the direction of the scent. The beast ascended a small wooded hill; once at the top, it stood, sniffed the air, then using the increased elevation for a better view, it surveyed the land before it. The underbrush in the area wasn’t very dense, enabling the beast to see through the woods much farther than usual. A light could be seen in the distance. It was a house.

CHAPTER 2
New Prey

    When Angie awoke early the next morning she saw that James had finally stopped the tossing and turning that had become such a nightly ritual. The cover was knotted, evidence of earlier restlessness, but James was lying on his side breathing easily. For the first time in weeks, he was sleeping like a rock, so she turned off his alarm.
    Angie went into the kitchen and called Guy Baldwin at home. The phone rang seven times before Guy finally answered. “Hello?”
    “Mr. Baldwin, this is Angie Taylor.”
    “Well, hello, Mrs. Angie,” Guy replied in as pleasant a voice as his three-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day throat could manage.
    “Mr. Baldwin, James hasn’t been feeling too well. I was wondering if you could do without him for the morning.”
    “Sure,” Guy said with concern in his voice. James hadn’t called in sick since Guy had known him, and now he’d gone home early one day and called in the next. The old man figured it must be serious. Concerned, he added, “Is there anything I can bring you from town?”
    “No, thank you.”
    “Well, you just tell ol’ James to take the whole day off. I’ll hold down the fort.”
    “I will. Thank you,” Angie replied. Guy Baldwin sometimes came off as a crusty old man, but Angie had seen through his rough exterior long ago. The man was a sweetheart. “Good-bye, Mr. Baldwin.”
    “Bye.”
* * *
    James stirred slowly at first, but when he finally stretched his arms and opened his eyes he immediately realized there was too much sun coming in through the window. It was beating down directly onto the bed rather than falling short by several feet as it normally did in the morning. James jerked his head in the direction of his clock and, sure enough, he was late for work. 10:43 a.m. — he was almost three hours late for work. Last night’s dream was temporarily pushed to the back of his mind, and all he could think of was how far behind they were at the shop. James quickly jumped out of bed and got dressed.
    When he came out of the hall and into the kitchen Angie was washing dishes. In a questioning, yet still sweet voice he asked her, “Honey, why didn’t you wake me?”
    Angie could tell he was not pleased, James didn’t get angry; not pleased would probably be the best description available.
    “You were sick yesterday. You tossed and turned all last night, and when I saw that you were finally sleeping well this morning I thought I’d let you sleep in,” she explained in a meek apologetic tone she reserved for James’ rare not pleased moments.
    “Honey, we’re way behind schedule at the shop. Mrs. Baker called just yesterday and threatened to take her car over to Larry’s.”
    “I’m sorry,” Angie said, then added softly as he headed for the door, “Please stay for breakfast.”
    “No time,” James said as he went out the door.
    With tears in her eyes, Angie watched from the kitchen window as he walked briskly to his truck without even stopping to play with Lady. She felt angry but couldn’t figure out why or who she was mad at. She sniffled, and despite the tears now rolling down her cheeks, she started laughing.
    Angie smiled, patted her tummy. Hormones.
* * *
    When James arrived at the shop, he found just what he expected to find. He walked in the little windowless room they called the office and there was Guy with his feet propped up on the desk, a cup of coffee in one hand, a chocolate donut in the other, and a cigarette in his mouth.
    “Feeling better?” Guy asked.
    “Yes, sir.”
    Guy Baldwin liked a kid who respected his elders, but when James bought Ike Baldwin’s share of the shop Guy had told James having a business partner call him “sir” made him feel downright ancient. It took James a long time to break the habit, but eventually he did. Now the only time James relapsed into calling Guy “sir” was when something was bothering him.
    “Did you get to Mrs. Baker’s car?” James asked.
    “I was just headed that way,” Guy answered, still reclined in the chair.
    “Did you get the parts ordered?”
    “Shoot,” Guy said with a snap of his fingers, “I knew I was forgettin’ somethin’.” Guy put his half-eaten donut down and picked up the phone and started dialing.
    “Well, its past eleven now, too late to order,” James said in a sharp voice, then he walked through the back door of the office mumbling, “Guess I’d better get to work.”
    Guy put the phone back on the receiver, got up, and followed James into the shop, “Somethin’ botherin’ you, James?”
    “No, sir,” James said, still trudging away from Guy.
    “James, could you humor an old man and talk to me for a minute?” Guy said in a voice that had a touch — just a touch — of sternness in it.
    James stopped and turned around. His face was flushed and he looked down at the floor. Guy could read the shame in his face. Guy asked, “What’s eat’n you, son?”
    “We’re just so behind,” James started, then shrugged.
    “Is that all?”
    “Yeah.” James muttered.
    “You sure?”
    James shrugged again. He sat leaning on the edge of a toolbox, drawing a little circle in the dusty concrete floor with the toe of his work boot. “I snapped at Angie this morning. I guess I’m a little upset at myself.”
    “Well, it seems somethin’s been botherin’ you for a couple of weeks now. Is there anything you need to talk about?”
    James thought briefly about telling Guy about the dreams, but he decided against it. “I haven’t been sleepin’ all that good, that’s all.”
    “Well, you know if you need to talk to someone just come to me.”
    James smiled weakly. “Thanks, Guy.”
    Guy grinned and said. “Now get in that office and call up that lovely lady of yours and apologize before you end up sleepin’ on the couch for a week.”
    James did just that.
* * *
    It was a cloudless night. The moon was full and the stars were out, giving the beast’s already tremendous eyesight extra range. The beast sat on its haunches in the bushes on the far side of the pasture watching a large four-legged creature on the other side. It closed its eyes and sent its senses forward. Its detached senses crossed the long pasture until it caught sight of a large roan mare galloping for a barn near the front of the pasture.
    A front was moving in, pushing cold air ahead of it. The cool October wind was blowing hard, making the old horse frisky. She had been running through the pasture for most of the afternoon, kicking her hind legs and tossing her head like a colt. This playfulness continued into the night until the wind shifted, bringing a strange smell to her nose. Sensing danger, the horse immediately ran for the barn.
    The beast’s senses caught up with the fleeing horse and entered her mind through her right eye. It quickly found a familiar memory. Then the beast opened its eyes and started across the field and toward the barn. The beast approached cautiously. When it was about halfway to the barn it raised itself and continued walking the rest of the way on two legs.
    Once in the barn, Chelsea stopped running and began nervously prancing around in a circle, pawing the ground and snorting loudly, taking several cautious glances in the direction of the pasture. The strange smell was gone, but not the fear.
    It wasn’t long before what appeared to be Chelsea’s owner stepped into the barn from the direction of the pasture.
    “Hey there, girl,” the beast said in a soft woman’s voice.
    The horse snorted, then turned hesitantly toward the source of the familiar voice; it still sensed something just wasn’t right.
    “It’s all right, Chelsea,” the beast said in the soft feminine voice, approaching the horse slowly with one hand held out.
    The beast continued to approach slowly, and the horse relaxed and began walking to meet it. As soon as the beast had the horse in its reach it swung a clawed hand at her, but just as it did the big mare sensed danger and reared. The blow, which would have ripped into the horse’s neck tearing vital arteries had she not reared in the last moment, tore into the horse’s left shoulder, making four ugly gashes. Her hooves pawed the air and caught the beast in the chest, knocking it to the ground. Chelsea then turned and ran out the front of the barn. The beast got back on all fours and ran after her.
    The front of the barn opened into a small, fenced-in corral, with a gate facing a brick house that was situated on a hill about a hundred yards away. In her panic, the horse crashed into the closed gate. Despite Chelsea’s size, the heavy iron gate held. She turned and tried to run past the beast and back into the barn. As she passed, the beast lunged, hitting her hard in the side. Long claws sank deep and were dragged down her side as she kept running. The horse trumpeted loudly in what could only be described as a scream of pain. The beast lost its grip and fell behind her, but was able to reach out and grab one of her hind legs as she tried to flee. It pulled hard on her leg, causing the horse to stumble.
    Chelsea might have made it into the open pasture on the other side of the barn, where, despite her wounds, the beast would never have been able to catch her, had she not fallen and broken her front right leg. Still, she struggled to regain her footing, but it was too late. The beast attacked, using the claws on both its hands and feet to bring down its prey.
    The beast was busy enjoying its hard-earned meal and didn’t see the light on the back porch of the house come on.
* * *
    Sharon Perrett had lived by herself since her husband, Terry, had died almost ten years ago. Terry and Sharon had been high school sweethearts who married right out of school. He worked offshore and she was a champion barrel racer. Long ago the team of Sharon and her horse, Chelsea, won several rodeo barrel-riding competitions. Unlike many teenagers who marry right out of high school, Terry and Sharon enjoyed a great relationship. When he was in from work they were inseparable, and while he was away Sharon spent all of her time riding Chelsea and waiting for him to come home.
    On February 22, 1993, a helicopter bringing Terry and several other offshore hands from a rig in the Gulf of Mexico crashed in a storm, killing everyone on board. When it became known that the helicopter had taken off from the rig despite repeated warnings of foul weather, the relatives of the victims became part of a major settlement with the oil company.
    After Terry’s death, Sharon quit barrel racing. She said she just didn’t enjoy it anymore. She used her settlement to buy a large piece of land outside Newton and had a house built there. The rest of the money was put in the bank for her to live off the interest. Sharon was attractive, young, and now quite wealthy; she could’ve had just about any man in the county, but she chose a life that included only her and Chelsea, who, at sixteen years old, was now getting up in years.
    Sharon woke to the sound of Chelsea running in the corral, but thought the horse was just enjoying the cool air. She tried to go back to sleep, but then she heard a loud crash followed by what sounded like Chelsea scream and take a fall.
    Her hands groped along the nightstand, knocking the alarm clock to the floor. Finally, she found the light switch. She quickly put a robe on over her nightgown and started down the hall. From the kitchen widow thought she could see movement in the barn, but she wasn’t sure. She couldn’t hear Chelsea running anymore — was she hurt? Hurrying toward the backdoor, Sharon told herself she was overreacting, that everything was okay and she would be laughing at her own silliness in no time. Still, her hands were trembling by the time they reached for the switch that turned on the back porch light.
    She grabbed a flashlight and the.22 rifle that she kept propped up in the corner by the back door.
    “Chelsea?” she called from the back porch, pointing the flashlight toward the pen. There were two security lights on either side of the barn, but there were still large shadows she couldn’t see into. Sharon tried to use the flashlight, but its weak beam wasn’t powerful enough to reach the barn.
    “Chelsea?” Sharon called out even more loudly. Again she thought she saw movement in the barn, so she stepped outside and started toward the gate.
    The night was cold and damp. Sharon carried her flashlight in one hand, while the other held the small rifle close to her body in order to keep the robe tight around her. As she walked toward the barn, she thought she saw another flicker of movement.
* * *
    The beast realized something was coming as soon as Sharon called out. It moved quickly behind the barn and waited. Although it hadn’t caught a glimpse, the beast caught a whiff in the air. The scent was familiar; this creature smelled like whatever had left the strange flat tracks in the clear cut. As its new prey approached the barn, the beast once again detached its senses. Passing through the barn wall, it spotted a pale creature walking on two legs and started in that direction. As it drew nearer, the scent became stronger. The beast was almost to one of the creature’s vulnerable eyes when its newfound prey saw the grisly sight in the barn. The sudden loud shriek of terror startled the beast into opening its eyes, ending the out-of-body movement of its senses.
    Sharon had walked into the barn and found Chelsea. Entrails and gore splattered the sandy floor and ropy streaks of blood marred a nearby wall. Sharon’s beloved old mare had been ripped apart. Sharon dropped her gun and flashlight and staggered forward, dropping to her knees near the horse’s head. Kneeling beside the old mare, Sharon put her head in her hands and started wailing.
    Outside the barn, the beast once again detached its senses. It passed through the barn wall and approached Sharon, who was now lying across the horse’s bloody neck. Suddenly, Sharon stood, screamed again, and ran toward the house. The sight easily caught her at the gate. A useful memory was found. The beast opened his eyes.
    The beast stepped out from behind the barn, but Sharon was already over halfway to the house. There was no way it would be able to catch her.
* * *
    Lightning briefly lit up the sky to the north quickly followed by a long roll of thunder in the distance. The cold front had arrived in force, but was already beginning to ease off. The rain had been coming down in buckets earlier, but now it was only drizzling.
    In the barn Sheriff Bill Oates, Game Wardens Emilio Rodriguez and Bob Ellis, and Deputy Chad Hudspeth stood over the mutilated horse. Greg O’Brien wasn’t far away, leaning on the side of the barn, yawning frequently. Greg had just switched his schedule with Deputy Price and had yet to get accustomed to the 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. shift.
    In the house, a team of paramedics was still trying to convince a hysterical Sharon Perrett that she was in shock and needed to go to the hospital. The night dispatcher, Clara McClellan, was also there. She and Sharon were distantly related, so Bill had brought Clara with him to the scene hoping she could help calm the poor woman.
    Bill looked at the tracks beside the horse. “It’s the same animal that got after Edgar Harvey’s cows Monday night.”
    Emilio stooped down and traced a finger over one of the tracks in the sand. “These tracks aren’t as easy to make out as the ones in Harvey’s pasture, but, yeah, I think they’re the same.” Emilio turned to Bob Ellis and asked, “Are you sure the rain washed away the prints outside?”
    Bob Ellis, who was soaking wet and shaking replied, “Yep.”
    Bill walked over to the far side of the barn. “It’s on two legs over here again, and it seems to walk over to there.” Bill walked almost half way through the barn and stopped. “But, it seems the horse reared and knocked it down once it got there.”
    “Look at the blood,” Chad said pointing to the stall beside Bill. Bill pointed the flashlight on the gate to the stall and there was blood splattered across it.
    “Damn, blood way over there, too? It’s like a butcher’s shop in here,” Greg commented.
    “It seems she didn’t rear until whatever was approachin’ got right up to her,” Bill said.
    Emilio walked over to where Bill was standing, looking at all the gore and hoof and claw prints as he went. “It looks like she went down swinging,” he said to nobody in particular.
    When Emilio got over to his side of the barn, the old sheriff said, “I think we’re looking for a man.”
    “What?” Emilio asked with a confused look on his face.
    “So I was right?” Greg chimed in, now looking at least somewhat awake.
    “Well, Edgar’s cows and Sharon’s horse were tame; hell, Sharon’s horse was practically a house pet.” Bill said, speaking directly to Emilio and ignoring Greg’s input. “They’d run at first sight or smell of a strange animal, but a man could walk up to them without any problem.”
    From the other side of the barn Bob said, “That’s not exactly true. Two years ago when Sharon was in the hospital for a week with pneumonia, I fed Chelsea for her. That horse never let me get near her. Chelsea was a one-person horse; Sharon was the only person who could just walk right up to her.”
    Frustrated, Bill’s cheeks turned a shade redder. He turned to the game warden and snapped, “Well, Bob, we can probably rule out Sharon hacking her own horse to death.”
    Bob started to reply, but warning glances from Chad and Emilio caused him to remain silent. Bill’s temper was already starting to flare, no sense in adding fuel to the fire.
    “I’m open for suggestions,” Bill said, still red-faced. He looked at each of their faces, waiting for a reply, but got none. Everyone stood silent. Even Greg’s ever-wagging tongue remained still. Bill hadn’t said ‘by God’ but it was certainly there in his voice.
    Finally Emilio spoke up. “I think you’re right. I mean it would be a lot easier for a human, even if it’s not Sharon, to get close to Chelsea than it would be for an animal.”
    There was another pause as Bill got up and walked to the back entrance to the barn, followed by Emilio. Water was trickling off the roof from the rain, making little conical impressions in the damp sand at the entrance to the pasture.
    Bill kneeled down and studied the first tracks. Then he looked up at Emilio. “Any word from A&M on the cows?” Bill asked, although he knew the answer; they had only been sent off yesterday afternoon.
    “Not yet,” Emilio replied.
    “We’ll need to call’em on this one, too,” Bill said, studying the footprint again.
    “I left a message on Doctor Bolinger’s answering machine before I left the house.”
    This caused a slight smile to creep onto Bill’s weathered face. At least someone’s on the ball, he thought. He looked back up at Emilio and asked, “What do you think’s goin’ on here?”
    “I don’t know, Sheriff. Maybe it’s like those cattle mutilations you hear about from time to time in New Mexico and Arizona.”
    “They don’t leave tracks in New Mexico and Arizona, and they’re much more methodical. Whatever did all this was anything but methodical,” Bill said, pointing at the gore scattered throughout the barn.
    “True. I was just…” Emilio paused, searching for a word.
    “Reachin’?” Bill injected.
    Emilio smiled. “Yeah, reaching.”
    Bill stood up and put a hand on Emilio’s shoulder. “Me too, son. Me too.”
    They walked back to the others. “I want pictures of the barn, the prints, the blood, the horse, everything,” Bill said. “If you use less than five rolls of film, you didn’t use enough.”
    Chad looked at Greg.
    Greg looked back at Chad.
    “Don’t tell me y’all forgot the camera,” Bill said, his cheeks darkening.
    Neither Greg nor Chad answered, but their blank faces spoke volumes. Bill extended an arm and pointed in the vague direction of town. “Somebody better get their ass back to town and get that camera, by God.”
* * *
    James woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. He was in a real dilemma. He had seen the horse get attacked and Sharon Perrett’s close call, but he didn’t want to believe what he was seeing was real. After lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for an hour, he got up and made a cup of coffee. Ambling like the living dead, he shuffled into the living room and flopped down on the couch. At first he reached for the remote, thinking he could see what was on the late show. But he set the remote back on the coffee table without turning on the TV. He needed to think.
    It was time to tell someone about the dreams, whether they were real or not. James knew Angie was already worried about him and he was worried that further stress could complicate her pregnancy, so he counted her out. The only other person he would feel comfortable talking to about this was Greg. He was also the only person other than Angie who knew about James’ visions. James made up his mind he would tell Greg first thing tomorrow afternoon.
    His mind now somewhat at ease, James nodded off on the couch. He slept dreamlessly for an hour before Angie got up. She waited until Jimmy was off to school before waking James up and when she did, she found his disposition much better than it had been in years. In stark contrast to the morning before, James thanked her for letting him sleep the extra few minutes, and after he got dressed, he sat down and ate breakfast with her. After eating they sat at the table chatting about everything from local gossip to Jimmy’s grades. James didn’t leave for work until fifteen minutes after eight, thirty minutes after he usually did.
    When James got to work he felt better than he had since the dreams first started three weeks ago. He felt that he had made up for the way he had acted toward Angie the morning before, and the extra sleep had certainly helped. Not only that, although he hadn’t told Greg about the dreams yet, the knowledge that he was going to took a great deal of weight off his shoulders.
    James and Guy worked until past six o’clock that afternoon, and James didn’t get home until seven. After sitting down and eating supper (steak, mashed potatoes and gravy — he had obviously been quite successful at making up with Angie this morning), James got up and dialed Greg’s number.
    “Hello?”
    “Hi, Sandy; this is James. Is Greg where I can speak to him?”
    “He’s asleep right now. He just got switched to the night shift and its got his hours all messed up. He’ll be getting up in about an hour to go to work; can I have him call you then?”
    James paused. He considered having Sandy wake Greg, but what would another hour hurt? “Sure, no problem. Just have him call when he gets up.”
    “I will. Is Angie there?” Sandy asked.
    “Yeah, she’s right here,” James replied, handing the phone to his wife who was standing right beside him waiting for her turn to talk to her gossip buddy. After talking for thirty minutes they got off the phone and Angie started hinting about going to bed a little early (yes, he had definitely been successful at making up). At nine they tucked Jimmy in bed and went to their bedroom where James temporarily forgot all about the visions.
    Sandy forgot, too. To give the message to Greg, that is.
* * *
    Sharon finally did go to the hospital, but she refused to stay. The doctor gave her a prescription to calm her nerves, but she gave it the same treatment she had given a similar prescription when Timmy died; she threw it away.
    It was just after midnight. Sharon had quit crying hours ago, but her eyes were still red and swollen and there was a painful, hollow look on her face. She sat at her breakfast table looking at the empty pasture through the same window from which she had watched Chelsea for nine and a half years. Sharon sat there in her robe, with both of her trembling hands wrapped around a cold coffee cup that had earlier held hot chocolate; she had drained the last drop over three hours ago. Every now and then she would get up and slowly walk into the living room with her hands still clasped around the empty cup, and look at the trophies and pictures of her and Chelsea that adorned the walls. After staring at these memories for a few minutes, she would turn and slowly walk back into the kitchen and sit back down. Every now and then her chest would jerk and a hiccup-like hitch would come forth as she teetered on the brink of another bout of crying, but she never quite crossed the threshold.
    Sharon had just returned to her chair from yet another trip into the living room when she heard a sound coming from the direction of the barn. It sounded like a horse.
    Chelsea? Sharon thought. She strained her eyes and looked through the window, toward the barn. It was hard to make it out from that distance, but past the yellow Police Line — Do Not Cross ribbon, she could swear she saw the shadow of a horse inside the barn.
    My mind is playing tricks on me, Sharon thought. Nevertheless, she stood and put her coffee cup down for the first time in four hours. She hurried through the kitchen to the back door, where she turned on the back porch light. There was Chelsea standing in the pen, just outside the barn.
    “Chelsea?” Sharon mumbled, tears streaming down her cheeks anew. In the back of her mind she knew something wasn’t right, but she didn’t care. She opened the back door and stepped out onto the porch.
    “Chelsea,” Sharon said softly, smiling. Like a ghostly apparition, she descended the steps of the back porch, with her long blond hair blowing out to the side in the cool October wind. Her maroon robe billowed away from her body revealing her slim pale figure, which was naked except for a pair of white panties. Even her smile had a ghostlike quality — it creased across her mouth, but stopped at her eyes, which still looked strangely hollow.
    Oblivious to the cold, she walked across her back yard toward the barn. She opened the gate and stepped inside the pen. The haunted smile still on her face, she walked toward Chelsea, who was slowly approaching from the barn.
    As they drew close together, Chelsea snorted and shook her head as if in recognition.
    “Chelsea,” the apparition said dreamily, reaching out to touch the horse’s velvety nose.
    Just before her hand reached Chelsea’s nose, Sharon was struck on the left side of her head by a blow that completely severed her head from her body.

CHAPTER 3
Awake in the Night

    James awoke and sat straight up in bed, “Oh my God!”
    Angie stirred beside him and asked, “You okay, James?”
    “Sure, Honey,” James answered. “Just a cramp in my leg.”
    “You sure?” Angie asked sleepily, without raising her head from the pillow. James knew she wasn’t one-hundred percent awake.
    “Yeah, it’s better now.”
    “M’kay," Angie muttered. She went right back to her deep slumber.
    At first, James wanted to call the sheriff’s office and get them to tell Greg to call him, but if he called Greg while he was on duty, James would end up having to tell his story to Sheriff Oates. If Sharon Perrett was dead, how would he answer questions as to how he knew so much about her death? Greg knew about James’ visions, but he was sure that just about anyone else would lock him up in a small padded cell if he told them he was some sort of psychic. Or worse yet, they might try to pin him for Sharon’s murder. James decided to wait until Greg went off duty at six in the morning.
    James lay in bed, staring at the ceiling for hours. Finally he realized there was no way he was going to get any sleep, so he got out of bed and went into the living room to watch television.
* * *
    Early the next morning Sharon’s cousin, Sarah Infante, who lived two miles away, in one of only three other houses on the dirt road, drove out to Sharon’s house to check on her. She knocked on the door, but received no answer. Fearing her eccentric, and now severely distraught, cousin may have taken her own life, Sarah quickly drove home and called the sheriff’s office. She was told that an officer would be out immediately. Sarah then drove back to Sharon’s house and waited.
    About seven minutes after Sarah returned, a county patrol car pulled in the driveway and parked behind her car — good reaction time considering the distance covered, but not fast enough in Sarah’s opinion. She wouldn’t have been satisfied if the patrol car had been waiting in the driveway when she returned to Sharon’s house.
    Deputy Darren Woolford stepped out of the patrol car, and Sarah, who had been sitting on the hood of her car, chain smoking cigarettes as fast as she could get them out of her purse and to her mouth, walked briskly over and met him halfway.
    Tossing a cigarette butt to the ground, Sarah fumbled with her pack trying to get another out with her trembling hands. Before Darren could ask a single question, Sarah started chattering answers. “I’m Sharon’s cousin, Sarah. Sarah Infante. After what happened yesterday I promised her aunt, my mother, Nelda Wiggins, that I would check up on her this morning on my way to work. I got here around six-thirty. She didn’t answer the door when I knocked. I tried the door but it’s locked. God, I hope she’s okay. I mean, I hope she hasn’t done anything stupid. That horse was her life you know. It was all she had. Momma is worried sick about her.” Sarah had more to say, but her trembling hands finally managed to get the cigarette out of the pack, so she stopped talking while she placed it to her lips and concentrated on keeping the wind from blowing out the tiny flame coming from her lighter as she tried to light the cigarette.
    The brief silence gave Darren the opportunity to drawl out, “Just calm down, Miss.”
    Darren Woolford was a tall country boy from Center, Texas. He was thirty-three years old, but still had the boyish face of a teenager. In an attempt to make himself look less like a sixteen year old, Darren had grown a mustache, or at least attempted to grow one. The end result was that the scattered blond hairs on his upper lip only made him look like a sixteen-year old who was trying to grow a mustache.
    “Are you sure she’s home?” Darren asked.
    “Of course I’m sure she’s home,” Sarah snapped, her eyes still focused on the tiny flame as she continued her efforts to light her cigarette. “Her truck’s parked right over there. Right where she always parks it.” Still without moving her eyes, she nodded her head in the direction of red Dodge pickup parked in an open garage.
    “Maybe someone came and picked her up?” Darren ventured.
    “Hell, no,” Sarah snapped. Finally getting her cigarette lit, she took a tremendous drag before continuing. “The woman lives ten years like a hermit with only her and that horse. Do you think she would take off and go out of town shopping the day after her horse turns up dead?”
    That wasn’t exactly what Darren meant, but he could see he was getting nowhere, so he let it drop.
    He started toward the front door with Sarah right behind him, yapping like a vicious terrier. “And what took you so long to get out here? I’ve been here for almost thirty minutes waiting. Doesn’t that car get up over thirty miles an hour? Or do you even know how to drive it?”
    Ignoring her, Darren stepped up on the front porch.
    He knocked on the door.
    Behind him Sarah spoke in an exasperated tone, “I’ve done tried that.”
    Still ignored the woman, Darren called out, “Mrs. Perrett! This is Deputy Darren Woolford of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department.” He knocked again. “Mrs. Perrett!”
    “I said I’ve done tried that,” Sarah said with her hands on her hips, her cigarette bobbing up and down as she spoke. “I hollered and no one answered.”
    Darren tried to open the door. It was locked.
    “I told you it was locked.” Sarah said in a scornful voice that was rapidly becoming very irritating to Darren.
    Darren turned to her. “Do you have a key?”
    “Well, no,” Sarah replied tartly. “The woman’s a hermit. She wouldn’t give Jesus Christ a key if he showed up at the door askin’ for one.”
    “Did you try the back door?”
    She didn’t say anything, just stared at him. She hadn’t thought of the back door.
    When Darren turned away from her to start around the house toward the back a satisfied smirk found its way to his face. Sarah followed him around the corner of the house, this time without a word.
    When they went up the steps to the back porch, they found the back door wide open.
    Darren stood in the doorway. “Mrs. Perrett!”
    He stepped inside.
    Sarah started to follow him inside, but she had already sucked her cigarette down to the filter and was in desperate need of another. She tossed the butt to the ground, then tried to use her uncooperative hands to get another one out of the pack. While her trembling hands attempted to grasp an elusive cigarette, her eyes scanned the pasture behind the house. She saw the yellow police ribbon surrounding the pen and the barn. She had just retrieved a cigarette and placed it in her mouth when something in the pen caught her eye.
    The cigarette fell from her lips.
    She screamed.
    Darren came running back out of the house. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
    Sarah just pointed to the corral and screamed again.
    It was difficult to tell for sure what he was seeing; he started toward the barn to investigate. At first, it looked like the guys from A&M had failed to remove all of the mutilated horse yesterday, and there was still a gory chunk or two in the pen. Darren started across the backyard, but he didn’t even make it halfway before he realized that the gory chunks of meat were what was left of a human being.
    He turned and sprinted back to his car to call for the sheriff.
* * *
    Sheriff Oates and Deputies Woolford and Price stood over a white sheet. Blood had soaked through in many places on the sheet, leaving no doubt as to the grisly sight underneath.
    Bill looked in the direction of the house. “There comes the little pecker-head.”
    The two deputies followed his gaze and saw a chubby little man in spectacles carrying a small notepad descending the hill from the house.
    Justice of the Peace T. J. Simmons held the distinction of being the only man in the last fifteen years to be elected to office in Newton County without Sheriff Oates' vote of confidence. During the last election year a drug task force swept through Newton and Jasper Counties arresting a number of people, one of which happened to be a Newton County Commissioner. A group of Newton county newcomers led by a retired Beaumont lawyer named Walter Sykes began to cry out that the county government was corrupt. Mr. Sykes promptly ran for sheriff, while one of his buddies ran for mayor of the city of Newton, another ran for the vacated county commissioner seat, and yet another, T. J. Simmons, ran for Justice of the Peace for Precinct Two. The Newcomers Party, as the group was jokingly known as throughout Newton County, was largely unsuccessful. Walter Sykes and the other two men were soundly defeated, but T. J. was helped out by a convenient scandal when the rumor broke loose that Michael Salter, the current J. P. for Precinct Two, was having an affair with Ruby Keinzel, the organist of the First Methodist Church of Newton, where Michael and his family were also members. When Michael admitted to the affair, he found himself in the middle of a divorce. He tried to patch matters up with his church family by publicly asking for forgiveness. Nevertheless, the damage was done; Michael Salter lost the election by twelve votes.
    “Good morning, Sheriff Oates,” T. J. said in a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
    “T. J.,” Bill said touching the brim of his hat, then, with no further fanfare, he reached down and drew back the sheet.
    Sharon was a horrid sight. All that was left of her torso was a shredded mass. The ribs on her left side were exposed, and her right side was almost completely gone, ribs, organs, and all. Below her chest, her lower torso was similar to the right side of her chest, with only her spine keeping her body from being completely separated into two parts.
    T. J.’s eyes became as wide as saucers and his cheeks turned a pale shade of green.
    Bill motioned to a smaller blood soaked sheet about twenty feet away and said, “Her head’s over there if you want to look.”
    The chubby little judge didn’t even glance in that direction. He retched once then stumbled to the edge of the pen where he promptly lost his lunch.
    “That was cold,” Carl said, smiling.
    Bill winked at him.
    “Sorry it took me so long to get here. I was out at Bon Weir,” Emilio Rodriguez said as he came through the iron gate at the pen’s entrance.
    When Bill arrived and saw the familiar tracks around Sharon’s corpse, he had immediately called in and told the dispatcher to get Emilio on the way.
    “It looks like our friend decided to try human meat,” Bill said gesturing at Sharon; the sheet was still pulled back.
    Emilio put a hand to his mouth and gasped, “Damn!”
    “I figured since you’ve been part of this thing from the get-go you might want to come out and have a look.”
    Emilio gave Bill a wry smile, “Gee, thanks.”
    Bill and Emilio then combed the area looking at the tracks, noting when the beast was moving on two or four legs. When they finished, Bill walked over to where T. J. was standing at a distance from the body and said, “I assume you’re gonna order an autopsy.”
    T. J., who hadn’t regained his composure and whose face still had a pale green tint, just nodded his head.
    Bill then walked back over to the body, where Emilio and the deputies were standing. “I hope y’all didn’t go and forget the camera,” Bill said to Carl and Darren.
    Greg had warned Carl and Darren about last night’s camera episode. “Got it in my trunk,” Carl said.
    “Go get it.”
    As Carl started back up the hill he called back down, “Jones is here.”
    The group looked back up the hill and saw two men from Jones Funeral Home dressed in suits. Bill waited until they were at the gate, then said, “I hope y’all brought a body bag.”

CHAPTER 4
Footprints

    At 6:15 a.m., roughly the same time that Sarah Infante got in her car to go check on her cousin, James picked up the phone and dialed Greg’s number.
    After several rings, Sandy picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said in that extremely heavy voice of one who’s been awakened from a deep sleep.
    “Is Greg there?” James asked.
    “No, uh, wait. I think I hear him driving up?” she said in the same tired voice, then added, with a slightly agitated edge, “Who is this?”
    “James. It’s important.”
    “Oh, okay.” There was a long pause. James heard Sandy telling Greg that James was on the phone.
    “This early?” Greg asked.
    “He said it’s important.” Sandy replied.
    “Hey, James. What’re you doin’ wakin’ Sandy up this early? You know she looks like hell when she hasn’t had her beauty sleep,” Greg said light heartedly. This followed by an “Ow!” as Sandy pinched him.
    “We need to talk.”
    “Now?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Is everything okay?” Greg asked, now with all the playfulness gone from his voice.
    “Where can I meet you?”
    “They start serving breakfast at the Steak Shack at six-thirty. How does that sound?”
    “Fine, I’ll meet you there.”
    “Nothing’s wrong with Angie’s pregnancy, is there?” Greg asked.
    “No, I’ll tell you when I get there.”
    “Um, okay.”
    James woke Angie and gave her the excuse he had already made up during the night. James still didn’t want to tell Angie about the dreams, so he told her Greg was having problems with his in-laws and wanted to meet him for breakfast and talk about it. This was a very believable tale since Greg and Sandy were always having rounds with Sandy’s mother and stepfather.
    A small town with a population of only eighteen hundred, Newton wasn’t exactly packed with four-star restaurants. There were a couple of filling stations that served food from under a heat lamp and the Steak Shack. The Steak Shack was a tidy little restaurant that served good chicken-fried steak, and, in a day and age when many restaurants charge for water, the morning coffee was still free.
    James arrived at the Steak Shack well ahead of Greg, who lived further out of town. The restaurant’s tables and windows were decorated in a strange combination of purple and white in support of the Newton Eagles high school football team, and orange and black Halloween decorations. Halloween was just two days away. James picked a table in the back of the restaurant, away from the other early risers. When the freckle-faced teenage waitress came over and asked for his order, he told her he just wanted coffee for now and that he was waiting on someone.
    A couple minutes after James arrived, Greg came through the door, still dressed in his uniform. He saw James in the back and started that way, but was stopped by Charlie Cole, who was sitting near the front and had a joke he was just itching to tell.
    “Why don’t roosters wear pants?”
    Greg shrugged.
    “Their pecker’s on their heads.”
    Greg grinned through the joke and let out a burst of laughter before patting Charlie on the shoulder and saying it was good to see him. He then bolted for the back of the restaurant, where James was seated.
    All the laughter left Greg’s face as he sat down. “What’s wrong?” he asked
    “I’ve been having those dreams again.”
    For a brief moment Greg’s forehead wrinkled in a look of confusion. He looked as if he didn’t have the foggiest idea what James was talking about.
    Then his eyes widened. “Those dreams? The visions?”
    “Yeah.”
    “What about?”
    “The thing that killed Mr. Harvey’s cows and Sharon Perrett’s horse.”
    Greg’s eyes actually managed to grow even wider.
    After a sip of coffee James continued. “It killed Sharon last night.”
    “Are y’all ready to order yet?” the little waitress asked. The sudden voice from behind him made Greg jump.
    “Give us a couple seconds, Alissa,” Greg said without turning around.
    “Okey-Doke. Just holler when y’all are ready,” Alissa said with a smile, then she turned on her heels and trotted back toward the front. Greg waited until he knew she’d had enough time to get out of earshot before asking, “You sure?”
    “I think so.”
    “I probably need to go out to her house and have a look around then.”
    “No,” James said shaking his head. “How are you gonna explain how you knew? Besides someone’s bound to check on her after what happened yesterday.”
    Greg paused, then asked, “Is it an animal or some nut?”
    “It’s not human. That’s for sure.”
    Greg leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and slowly shook his head as he tried to take it all in. He then opened his eyes and suggested, “Let’s order.” He turned around called out, “Alissa, I think we’re ready.”
    The teenager trotted back over to the table, looking way too peppy for six-thirty in the morning. She took out a little notepad from her apron. “What’ll it be?”
    Greg said, “Two eggs, sunny side up, grits, bacon, and toast.”
    “And what do you want to drink?”
    “Orange juice.”
    Alissa wrote the order down on her pad. Then she looked over at James.
    “I’ll have two eggs over easy, grits, sausage, and biscuits. And I’ll just have coffee.”
    Alissa repeated the order, had to be corrected twice, then, once she had it right, she turned and started toward the kitchen.
    As soon as Alissa was out of earshot, Greg leaned over the table and asked, “You sure it’s not some murderer?”
    “As sure as I can be.”
    “Well, what is it?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “I need to tell Bill,” Greg started, but James interrupted him.
    “Tell him what? That your buddy is some sort of psychic? He’d think we’re nuts.”
    “Well, what do you want me to do?”
    “I’m gonna tell you what I’ve seen, but I don’t want it goin’ past this table. That includes Angie. I don’t want her stressed in her condition.”
    “But if I can’t tell Bill,” Greg started and was once again interrupted by James.
    “You can use the information to steer Bill in the right direction.”
    Greg shrugged. “I’ll try, but no one steers Bill in any direction he don’t want to go.”
    James leaned back in his chair. Where do I start? he thought. After sitting quietly for a moment he leaned forward and whispered, “This thing looks into their minds.” At that, Greg gave James a wide-eyed, you-must-be-kidding look, and then leaned closer so he could hear. “It takes an image from their mind, and it seems to make itself look and sound like something its victims aren’t afraid of.”
    “Makes itself look and sound like somethin’ it’s not?” Greg asked.
    “Sharon’s horse couldn’t even smell it.”
    “So it changes its looks, sounds, and even its smell?”
    “At least that’s what I think it’s doing. In these dreams I’m looking through its eyes, so I can’t see it, but I definitely heard it calling Edgar’s cows in Edgar’s voice and it did the same thing with Sharon’s horse.”
    For a while Greg was speechless; then he just managed to say, “Wow,” in a detached voice.
    “Here y’all go,” Alissa said, suddenly appearing from behind Greg with the plates, once again startling him and making him jump. Not noticing Greg’s jumpy reaction, she put their orders on the table with a sweet smile, accidentally placing James’ order in front of Greg and Greg’s order in front of James.
    “Thanks,” Greg said. He waited until Alissa turned around and started back toward the front before switching the plates.
    They ate their breakfast in silence. James realized that telling Greg may or may not help catch this creature, but it sure lifted a weight off his shoulders. When James finished his breakfast and had sopped up the last bit with his biscuit, he looked over and saw that Greg had barely touched his food.
    “You gonna eat that bacon?”
* * *
    Since he was already out, James decided to open up the shop early. Just after nine Greg called the shop and told him he had talked to Carl and they had found Sharon’s body.
    At four that afternoon James told Guy he was going to take off early. However, when he pulled out onto Highway 87, he turned south instead of north. James drove about five miles out of town, then took a left turn down a dirt road. He followed it until he came to Sharon Perrett’s driveway. Apparently the Sheriff’s Department had already finished up; there were no patrol cars at the house. This was good. James had no idea what he was going to tell them if they asked what he was doing out here.
    James got out and walked around to the back of the house. He walked through the backyard and up to the corral, which was roped off with yellow police tape. He looked in the pen from outside the yellow boundary. It was amazing how familiar this place was, considering he’d never been here. Near the center of the pen, James could see a dark patch where the blood had soaked into the sand. After looking for some time, James walked around the pen and jumped the fence into the pasture. James walked to the back of the barn and began searching the ground for tracks. Since James had seen what had happened through the beast’s own eyes, he knew exactly where to look; however, the rain had washed away most of the tracks. It was not until James looked behind the barn, right up against the outside wall, that he was able to find undisturbed prints. This was where the beast hid from Sharon the night it killed her horse, the night before it killed her. The tracks had been protected from the rain by the eaves of the barn.
    James kneeled down and looked closely at the tracks. The beast had perched on all fours while it waited here. He could see that the rear prints looked like those of the forward half of a man’s footprint, except for the oddly placed big toe that was almost positioned like a thumb. And, of course, the claws extending two full inches from the toes. The prints from its forefeet, or hands, were at first hard to figure out. There were four small indentions beside each other, with a fifth to the side. They looked like the prints of a football player’s hand when he was in the classic four-point stance. It didn’t quite look right; the indentions were too close together considering what James knew about the size of this thing, and where were the claws? At first James pondered that maybe this thing had catlike hands, and therefore retractable claws; then he saw another print almost two feet away. This print was an almost perfect hand print. It was the beast’s left hand. Almost half of the print had been outside of the barn’s eave and had been washed away, but the first two fingers and the thumb were in perfect condition. The claws on this print extended more than two inches from the fingers and almost that long on the thumb. James put his hand in the print. The hand itself was about the same size, but the fingers were wider, and about a half an inch longer; the thumb was almost a full inch longer. Then James figured out the first hand print. The reason the indentions were close together was that they weren’t prints of the beast’s fingertips, they were prints of the beast’s knuckles. It apparently folded its claws up in its palm (and on past its wrist, considering the length of the claws), and when it ran on four legs, it ran on the knuckles of its hands.
    James was brought out of his intense study of the prints by the sound of a car passing on the dirt road. He thought he would be caught and had no idea how he would explain himself, but, luckily, the car didn’t stop. The close call did, however, convinced James that he’d done enough snooping for the day. He returned to his truck and started home.
* * *
    That night the beast returned to Sharon Perrett’s. It loped purposely through the pasture without its usual routine of stopping to sniff the wind. Tonight it moved with a sense of purpose. The beast continued up to the outer wall of the barn, then stopped, and began sniffing the ground. It immediately found what it was looking for; a boot print. It sniffed the boot print extensively, then ambled off toward the woods.

CHAPTER 5
The Arm, the Hand, the Ring

    Despite his dream of the beast investigating his footprint and the fact he knew that Sharon Perrett was dead, James felt much better after telling Greg about the dreams. Now he felt he could let the law do their job and he could get back to his, which was fixing cars. The dreams still prevented rest at night, but James was adjusting. At noon he would take a nap in the garage’s office, and when he got home he would take another. At night he would go to bed with Angie, but after she drifted off to her heavy slumber, he would get up and watch TV. Every now and then James would doze off on the couch and dream of the beast, but mostly James would stay awake until just before Angie woke up. Then he would get in bed and sleep through the last few minutes before his alarm went off. James was still not getting a lot of sleep, but at least he was getting some.
    Halloween came and went without incident. Because of all the strange things that had been going on, James had half-expected some strange occurrence on Halloween. Now he felt foolish for having thought such nonsense.
    On Monday, the first day of November, four days after Sharon Perrett was killed, Guy told James that Mrs. Baker had called and said she was taking her car somewhere else if it wasn’t finished the next day. Guy told her they didn’t have the parts in yet (he left off the part about him forgetting to order them back on the twenty-seventh), and the next parts truck wouldn’t come through until the fourth. She would hear none of it. Her car would either be fixed by tomorrow afternoon or she would take her business elsewhere.
    Guy wanted James to leave early in the morning and drive to Beaumont for the parts. James would have to get up at around four in the morning to make it to Beaumont and back in time for them to fix her car.
    James told Guy he wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t about to leave Angie and Jimmy at home alone after what had happened to Sharon Perrett. He said he’d leave at seven and they could have the car ready first thing Wednesday morning. Guy called Mrs. Baker and told her what they had decided, but she wasn’t happy. She said she would be by to pick up her car the next day and not to expect any more business from her or any of her kin.
* * *
    When James got home Angie met him in the doorway.
    “How was work?” she asked.
    “Fine, I guess,” James answered with a shrug. Pausing for a brief peck on the cheek from his wife, James stepped inside and hung his cap and jacket on the coat rack just inside the door.
    “I talked to Mrs. Georgia Baker at the store today,” Angie said once James was inside.
    “Really?” James said dryly. “What did she have to say?”
    “I overheard her and Juanita Martin blabbing away about how slow Baldwin’s Garage is now that it was never this slow when Ike was still around. I told her right quick that y’all do almost twice the business now and that y’all still have cars ready in half the time.”
    “You didn’t,” James said as he rubbed his sleepy eyes.
    “I did,” Angie replied with an impish smile, then her face turned serious and she added, “The old bat shouldn’t have been running her mouth, James.”
    “Actually, we have been behind the last couple of weeks, and her car should have been ready a week ago.”
    “She said she was going to pick her car up tomorrow and take it to Jasper.”
    James nodded.
    “Unless you fix the car tomorrow.”
    James shook his head; he could see where this was going. “No can do. We don’t have the parts in.”
    “I called and talked to Guy this afternoon. He said you could pick up the parts in Beaumont and be back in plenty of time to have her car ready.”
    “You sure have been busy today,” James commented.
    “You should go,” Angie said, ignoring James’ comment.
    James took a seat on the couch, placed his head in his hands and began rubbing his temples. “I would have to leave early in the morning, and there’s no way I’m going to leave you and Jimmy alone after what happened out at Sharon Perrett’s place.”
    “James, they’re saying it was a pack of wild dogs or something. I don’t think a pack of dogs are going to come in the house and attack us,” Angie replied, leaning over the couch to rub James’ shoulders.
    “They’re not sure what it is. It may be a serial killer or something.”
    “If someone breaks in, I know how to use the shotgun. You’ve worked too hard to build up the business to run off the entire Baker clan over something like this. You know once Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Martin start gossiping about you up at Alice’s Beauty Shop there’s no telling how much business you could lose.”
    “No one believes a word they hear from that place.”
    “That’s not true. Some people take small town talk like it was the gospel truth. All it would take is a couple of dissatisfied customers and you could lose half your business to the shops in Jasper. Word of mouth is how you built your reputation. You can lose it that way just as fast.”
    “Angie, there’s no way…”
    The discussion continued for thirty minutes before reaching a mutual truce, then, just before they settled in for the night, the argument started anew. James was adamant, but Angie was persistent. In the end James found himself too tired to argue. He agreed to leave for Beaumont early the next morning. It would be the worst mistake of his life.
* * *
    Angie always tried to wake up before James went to work, even when he had to get up earlier than usual, but James wasn’t in the bed next to her when the alarm went off at 3:40 the next morning. When Angie walked into the living room James was on the floor cleaning his old double-barreled shotgun.
    James glanced up at her.
    She yawned and stretched, causing her nightshirt to rise up revealing her frilly red underwear. Angie rubbed her eyes and said, “Good morning.”
    James put a shell in each chamber, closed the breach, and set the gun on the couch.
    “You’re really taking this seriously aren’t you,” Angie commented, plopping down on the couch.
    James didn’t reply. He acted as if she hadn’t even spoken. He stood, walked to the window overlooking the front yard, then turned back to face his wife, “Angie, I want you to listen to me. After I leave, I don’t want you to open that door for anybody, okay?” He paused. He had more to say, but he didn’t want to worry her too much. On the other hand, he certainly wanted to make sure she was on guard. “Not even me,” he added.
    “What?” Angie asked, looking at James like he was completely out of his gourd.
    After a pause, James decided to tell her. “I’ve been having dreams about that thing that killed Sharon. It can… well… disguise itself.”
    “Is that why you haven’t been sleeping well?” Angie asked
    “Yeah,” James answered, then continued. “Do you understand? Don’t open the door for anybody. If someone comes to the door, including me, call the sheriff’s office; they can send Greg. He’s on duty, and I’ve talked to him about all this. I also asked Greg to drive by every now and then. And take the shotgun into the bedroom with you after I leave.”
    Angie’s face grew more serious and awake as James talked. This was good. She was taking him seriously. He was worried she might think it was some sort of joke. When he finished, she asked, “What have you seen in your visions?”
    “I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. For now just promise me you won’t open the door for anybody after I leave.”
    “I won’t,” she answered with her eyes wide and her lower lip slack. James could see he was scaring her, which was good.
    “I can stay if you want me to.”
    Angie paused and almost asked him to. He had scared her and she knew how much safer she would feel with him here at home. However, she hesitantly replied, “No, you need to take care of this.”
    “Are you sure?” James asked, “Or I can take you and Jimmy with me.”
    “We’ll be fine,” Angie said, this time with no hesitation in her voice, “and Jimmy doesn’t need to miss school. We’ll be okay.”
    James sat for a while and almost decided not to go. He almost decided to tell Mrs. Georgia Baker that she could take her car and park it right up her fat ass. But he didn’t.
    James got up, and this time it was his turn to stretch his mouth in a yawn. He looked at his watch and said, “Looks like I’d better be getting on the road.”
    “Don’t you have time for breakfast?” Angie asked.
    “Nope. I need to be on the road so I can be back in time to fix the old hag’s car before she comes to get it.”
    “All right,” she said with a yawn of her own.
    She got up and followed him to the door. James put on his cap and his old flannel jacket, then opened the door, letting in a gust of cool air. Still standing in the door, James turned and gave her a kiss, “Remember, don’t let anyone in.”
    “Okay, okay, hurry you’re freezing me.”
    Angie shut and locked the door behind him. As James walked to his truck, he heard her knocking at the window. He turned and she blew him a kiss from the window beside the door. He smiled and returned the gesture, then continued on to the truck.
    She watched through the window until his taillights disappeared around the corner. Then she yawned again and started back to bed. She got halfway down the hall, then returned to the living room and picked up the shotgun and carried it with her to the bedroom.
    James’ strange warning had made Angie a little uneasy, so for once in her life, she wasn’t able to go right to sleep. She kept playing what James had said over and over in her head. What had he seen in those visions of his? One thing was for sure, when he came back from Beaumont she was going to sit him down at the kitchen table and get him to tell her everything.
    Angie rolled onto her side and closed her eyes. Still, sleep remained just out of reach. After tossing and turning for several minutes, she finally started to drift off when she heard a knock at the door. At first she thought it was her imagination, but then she heard it again. She got up, grabbed the shotgun and went back into the living room. James must have forgotten something, she thought.
    “Angie, I’m home,” James’ voice came from outside.
    As Angie passed through the living room, she set the shotgun on the couch. “Just a second.”
    Angie peered through the peephole, and saw James, “What’s the password?” she said smiling playfully.
    “I forgot my key to the shop.”
    Remembering James’ strange advice, she went over to the window beside the door for a better look. It was James all right, and when he saw her looking at him through the window, he blew her a kiss.
    Laughing, Angie unlocked the door.
    As she opened the door, she said, “Honey, you really should think about…” but that was all she got out before a clawed hand grabbed her throat.
* * *
    James yawned again as his pickup turned onto Highway 87. Despite his new sleep schedule, he still wasn’t getting enough sleep. For three weeks he’d been running on about two hours of real sleep and this morning his fatigue was really standing up and making itself heard; he was having trouble just keeping his eyes open. He passed through Newton and had just passed the city limits sign on the other side of town when his head dipped to his chest. He woke up immediately, but he had nodded off just long enough to see a clear a picture in his mind — a picture of his own front door. At first it didn’t register on James what he had seen, then he slammed on the brakes.
    Angie! Jimmy!
    James turned the truck around and tore off back to town. Driving like a madman, he rocketed through Newton, running the town’s one red light without slowing. Though he was pushing the old Chevy as hard as he could, it seemed like forever before his headlights shone upon his familiar drive. He slid past the drive and slammed on the brakes. The pickup slid to a stop right in the middle of the front yard.
    The door’s open!
    James got out of the truck in a rush, knocking his cap off as he slammed the pickup’s door. When he was no more than halfway to the door he saw her. All that was visible from behind the partially open door was her left arm, covered in blood. The sight of that bloody arm, the bloody hand and the ring on it drove James right over the edge.

CHAPTER 6
Maybe They’re Right

    Greg had passed by the Taylor’s house at 4:15 a.m. and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He continued on down the road for several miles before turning around. About thirty minutes later he passed back by the house on his way back to the highway. This time James’ truck was parked in the middle of the yard with its driver’s side door open and the headlights on.
    Greg whipped the patrol car into the driveway.
    The front door was open, and he thought he could vaguely make out what looked to be a figure lying in the doorway. Inside, Greg thought he could see movement.
    Greg radioed for backup and stepped out of the car. He didn’t take his gun out of its holster, but he did unfasten the safety catch. He took out his flashlight with his left hand, so his right hand would be free, and walked toward the door.
    “James! Ang… Oh, Jesus.” He saw the bloody arm in the door.
    Now he drew his pistol.
    He pressed the button on his shoulder mike. “I’ve got someone hurt out here at the James Taylor residence. That’s the fifth house down FM Fourteen-fourteen,” he said in a shaky voice. “Send all units and an ambulance.”
    Greg hesitantly walked up to the door with the flashlight in his left hand and his nine-millimeter in his right. “James! Are you in there?”
    Greg used his flashlight to push the door the rest of the way open, revealing Angie’s corpse. She wasn’t nearly as mangled as Sharon had been, but she was just as dead. Her throat was torn out, and she had major gashes running down her right arm from the shoulder to her elbow.
    “Get away from her!” a voice only vaguely recognizable as James’ screamed from inside the house.
    Greg looked up and James was standing in the hall. His eyes had the look of a cornered animal. He held a double-barreled shotgun in his hands and it was leveled at Greg’s chest.
    “James, it’s me, Greg.” Greg said softly, then he slowly holstered his gun and took a slow step over Angie’s body, toward James.
    James quickly threw the shotgun up to his shoulder, taking deliberate aim, “Don’t come any closer, you bastard!”
    Greg was between a rock and a hard place. He knew he would be better off if he were not standing right over Angie’s body, but he was afraid to step forward any more than he had for fear that James would think he was advancing on him. Also, if he stepped back he would be exiting the door and he was afraid James would think he was trying to get away. And, since he was in the doorway, sidestepping to the left or the right was impossible. He decided he would try to step forward and to the right at the same time, this would put him in the living room, away from Angie’s body and in the open.
    “I’m just gonna slowly step over to the side into the living room,” he said in a soft voice.
    “Stay right where you are!” James shouted.
    A war was raging inside James’ head. He had returned to find his wife brutally murdered in the doorway of their home. Grabbing the shotgun from the couch, he had sprinted into his son’s room to find his son’s mangled corpse. Then, when he returned to the living room, he found his best friend standing over the remains of his wife. His mind screamed, It’s the beast in disguise, shoot it! but he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He stood there trembling, both hammers on the old shotgun pulled back and his finger on the trigger.
    “Put the gun down, James,” Greg said softly.
    “NO!” James shrieked, causing Greg to wince, thinking James was going to fire. But he didn’t, not yet.
    After James’ outburst, Greg was afraid to speak again; but, after gathering his thoughts for some time, he finally said, “Then let’s talk. Tell me what happened.” He surprised himself at how calm he was when he did speak. His voice was soft and slow, like he was speaking to a child.
    James was silent at first, then his arms lost some of their tension. The shotgun was still at his shoulder and aimed at Greg, but it looked less like a single twitch would send two loads of buckshot into Greg’s chest. Even more importantly, a small portion of sanity seemed to seep back James’ his eyes. “They’re dead,” James muttered.
    Oh God, not little Jimmy too, Greg thought.
    “It killed’em,” James continued. Greg noticed with no small amount of relief that James had said it killed them, not you killed them. In the distance Greg heard sirens approaching.
    Oh, hell, Greg thought. That would probably be Chad. He was the other deputy on duty tonight. Greg felt he almost had the situation under control, but since James didn’t know Chad or any of the other deputies very well, their presence might be more of a curse than a blessing.
    At the sound of the sirens, James started looking confused.
    Oh hell, Greg repeated in his mind.
    “That’s going to be Chad Hudspeth. You know him, James. He was at my Fourth of July party this year,” Greg said in a soft, calm voice, but James still looked confused. Outside Greg heard Chad’s cruiser slide into the driveway behind his car. He could see the reflection of the patrol car’s lights on the wall beside him. Greg then heard the car door slam followed by footsteps running toward the house
    Oh hell.
    Chad Hudspeth was two years younger than Greg and James. He was originally from Fort Worth. Chad had only been a deputy in Newton County for ten months. He had proven to be a hard worker and was already well liked throughout the county. Chad wasn’t the brightest person in the world, but he was turning out to be an efficient deputy. However, like most rookie deputies, Chad was a little on the gung ho side.
    Greg was still in the doorway when Chad came up behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chad’s pistol on his left outstretched and pointing at James. “Put the gun down, now!” Chad shouted.
    James looked confused, and, worse yet, he looked scared.
    “Everything’s under control, Chad. Put your gun away.” Greg said in the same calm voice he had been talking to James in.
    Chad acted as if he didn’t even hear Greg. “Put the damn gun down!” he shouted.
    James’ grip once again tightened on the gun and he shifted his aim to the right, away from Greg and at Chad.
    “No, James, aim at me,” Greg said.
    James, still looking confused, did. Then Greg cut his eyes at Chad to tell him to put his gun down when he saw that the hammer of the.38 revolver was coming back as Chad applied more pressure to the trigger.
    Greg acted fast. Greg’s hands were slightly raised in a surrendering gesture to set James at ease. This placed his left hand only inches from below the barrel of Chad’s gun. Greg’s hand flashed upward hitting the muzzle of Chad’s pistol just as the gun went off, firing into the ceiling. Almost simultaneously James pulled both triggers on the old shotgun firing both barrels into Greg’s chest. Greg flew back through the door, his flailing left arm bringing Chad down with him.
    As Chad scrambled to his feet, Greg weakly told him. “Don’t shoot. He’s empty.”
    This time Chad listened. He came through the door and there stood James, his gun now down by his side and his mouth agape. “What have I done?” he muttered.
* * *
    The two caskets rested beneath the green tent, they would not be lowered until the family and friends dispersed from the cemetery. The people milled about under and around the tent, talking among themselves. Occasionally they glanced down the hill to the solitary figure standing near the back of the cemetery. Most of them felt sympathy for the boy, others felt pity, and a few, including George Lambert, Angie Taylor’s father, felt anger.
    James had been this way throughout the wake and the funeral. He seldom interacted with any of the visitors except to occasionally mutter a quiet thank you to the numerous people expressing their sympathy. While he was burying his wife and son in the Lambert family cemetery, he was also buried himself beneath a heavy pall of self-loathing.
    One of the pallbearers took a long look down the hill. Unlike the others, he didn’t sigh and turn away. After placing his boutonniere on the head of one of the caskets he started down the hill to join his friend.
    Two nights ago, Greg had been lucky — he didn’t always wear his vest, but he’d had it on that night. His ribs were severely bruised and every breath he took pained him — it had taken the better part of five minutes just to get on his jacket this morning — but it could have been a lot worse.
    Greg walked up behind James, approaching to within a few feet, but, unsure of what to say, he stopped there.
    James turned slightly, saw who it was and turned back to face the woods. “Hey, Greg,” James said, his voice weakened from crying and slightly muddled by the heavy dose of medication the doctor had prescribed. Over the last couple of days, the medication had proved beneficial in two ways: it not only calmed his nerves, but it also made him sleep harder. In fact, he slept so soundly he was no longer troubled by the dreams.
    “Chest gettin’ any better?” James asked.
    “Doesn’t bother me at all,” Greg replied, lying just a touch. He felt his pain was irrelevant here. “I’m fine. I’m just worried about you.”
    “Oh… I’ll be all right.”
    Greg slowly approached, coming up beside his friend.
    “I’m sorry,” James said.
    “Hey, it’s nothing.”
    “Oh, please. I shot you, Greg,” James said flatly.
    “You didn’t mean to. If Chad hadn’t screwed up everything would have been fine.”
    James lowered his head, “Not everything.”
    “No, I guess not,” Greg said, suddenly wishing he could take back his last statement.
    James sniffled once and his chest heaved. He raised his head and said, “It wasn’t really Chad’s fault either. I mean, he doesn’t know me like you do and I was standing there with a gun aimed at him. I hope like hell he didn’t get in trouble on my account.”
    “Nah, after I got back from the doctor ole Sheriff Oates took us into his office and gave us a long talk, but I explained the situation and he let Chad off the hook.” Greg left out the fact that this long talk had been one of the ass-chewing variety, and that talking the sheriff into not suspending Chad had been simple when compared to another daunting task — talking Sheriff Oates out of pressing charges on James for attempted murder of a police officer.
    “Good,” James said. “And thanks for letting me stay at your house for the last couple of days. I don’t think I could have managed to go home.”
    “Don’t mention it.”
    “I think I can handle it now.”
    “I don’t think you can.”
    James paused. He swallowed a heavy lump in his throat and started to say something but Greg interrupted.
    “Why don’t you stay a little while longer? I think it’ll be good for you.”
    James shook his head. “I can’t.”
    “Yes, you can,” Greg replied. “I insist.”
    James started to renew the argument, but Greg could tell his heart wasn’t in it. “Okay, but just for a day or two.”
    “Two weeks.”
    “Two weeks?”
    “Yep, I’m kidnapping you for two weeks. Maybe I’ll let you go home after one week if you’re good,” Greg added with a light nudge.
    James slowly nodded, “A week, maybe two.”
* * *
    For the next five days James stayed at Greg and Sandy O’Brien’s house. Sandy, who was a teacher’s assistant at the local high school, was always at work during the day and Carissa went to daycare, but Greg had been given two weeks off to let his ribs heal. However, after the first day, Greg found his friend had rather be alone, so he promptly found something to do — anything just so James was happy and not having to stay in the house where his family was killed, even if it meant giving up his own house for a while. As a result James had the house to himself during the day. He appreciated Greg’s efforts, but he didn’t imagine it would be any worse at home, although he certainly didn’t think it would help. For James, the O’Brien’s couch had become his new home, although he felt it more qualified as a cell than a home. James stayed on the couch most of the time. He slept there at night, and during the day he watched the TV from his couch/cell in a half-stoned stupor. James even ate his meals on the O’Brien’s couch, not wanting to sit at the table and see the barely hidden scorn in Sandy’s eyes.
    She thinks it’s all my fault. Everyone thinks it’s all my fault. Maybe they’re right.

CHAPTER 7
Hunting Season

    It was well before daylight when the faded blue pickup made its way through town. The little truck had seen better days. Its left front fender was caved in from a ‘fender-bender’ over a year ago that had resulted in a DWI for its driver. The accident had also disabled the left headlight and turn signal. The pickup’s tailgate had fallen off almost five years ago and had never been replaced; the driver’s side window had been busted out and replaced with clear plastic; and, as if this wasn’t enough, the inspection sticker read 1996 — four years ago.
    Johnny Paul Watkins, the battered pickup’s driver and owner, had lived in Newton County up until three years ago, when he’d moved to Jasper. Now, with five warrants for his arrest in Newton County, there was but one thing that would bring Johnny Paul back to Newton — deer season.
    Some people are avid hunters. Johnny Paul was an avid poacher. His criminal record was a mile long, with various misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, theft of habitation, public intoxication, drinking and driving, and possession of a controlled substance. But well over half of the petty crimes he had committed over the years were hunting related: trespassing, hunting without a license, hunting out of season, and so on.
    When Johnny Paul’s pickup passed the county line and entered into Newton County, its driver was still about half drunk and three quarters stoned from earlier that night. This, plus the five warrants out for his arrest, would surely put him under the Newton County Hilton should he get caught. However, he managed to make it through town without being spotted by any of Sheriff Oates' law dogs. On the other side of town, Johnny Paul turned onto Kline’s Ferry Road, then, a couple miles further on, he turned the old pickup onto Lee’s Mill Road. After slowing for the turn, he forgot to shift to first gear. The old truck spasmed and died with a shudder.
    “Shit!”
    Still drifting along at less than ten miles per hour, Johnny Paul put the truck in neutral and turned the key. A grinding noise came from the engine, and the lone headlight dimmed as the old engine turned over, but didn’t start. He tried again. Still, no go. Finally, just as the pickup was drifting to a complete stop, the engine fired. Johnny Paul put his foot down on the accelerator, trying to prevent the engine from going dead. The pickup shuddered as the engine blared to life, then, saluting itself with a sharp backfire, the rusty blue pickup was back underway.
    Today was Friday, November the fifth, the day before deer season opened. Last week Johnny Paul had been at a small party at a friend’s house in Jasper, enjoying a few beers and a joint or two, when he overheard one of his friend’s friends, Tom something-or-other, bragging about this deer stand he’d set up. Tom, who happened to be from Newton, went on and on about the huge deer tracks in the area where he’d thrown his corn out. He said he’d watched the deer from his stand; he claimed it was enormous: A fourteen-point; two-sixty to two-seventy pounds; at least two-hundred pounds field-dressed.
    At first Johnny Paul hadn’t been able to get him to cough up the location of his deer stand — Tom had been warned about Johnny Paul Watkins — but after a few more beers and another joint had loosened his tongue, Tom told Johnny Paul exactly where it was. After a few more inquiries, Johnny Paul found out Tom was working for a logging company near Kirbyville, and on weekdays he left early for work without checking his stand.
    Perfect.
    About two miles after Lee’s Mill Road went from paved to dirt, Johnny Paul saw a small Rebel Flag handkerchief tied to a sapling to the left of the road. Unable to see clearly through the plastic over his side window, Johnny Paul stopped the pickup and got out. It was the place all right, just like big-mouth-Tom had described.
    Johnny Paul then looked for a place to hide his truck. He didn’t want it to be in plain sight, just in case some of the County Mounties happened by or Tom drove by on his way to work. Finding a suitable place, Johnny Paul got back in the battered old pickup and drove through the ditch and into the woods. He got out and rearranged the underbrush behind the pickup so it would be hard to spot from the road.
    After making sure the pickup was well camouflaged, he went back to the cab and got out his rifle, a Winchester 30–30 without a scope — Johnny Paul’s father had always said scopes were for pussies. Suitably armed, he started down the path that was barely visible in the moonless night.
    Not fifty yards into the woods, he found what he was looking for. It was a simple makeshift stand overlooking a small clearing in the woods. A wooden platform had been constructed out of treated wood, then painted black. It was positioned in an old oak tree, balanced precariously between two limbs about six feet from the ground. Four one-by-fours, also painted black, had been nailed to the trunk of the tree to provide a simple ladder to the stand.
    Johnny Paul reached up and placed his rifle on the platform, then climbed the makeshift ladder and tried to situate himself in the stand. The stand was very unstable, a real piece of crap. Not a single nail held the platform to the tree. Johnny Paul found that if he leaned to one side or the other, the platform would shift in the tree. He had to remain perfectly still, not only to keep from scaring away any deer that may be approaching, but also to keep from falling out of the stand. The stand certainly didn’t give Johnny Paul much faith in Tom as a hunter. He began to suspect Tom’s huge deer was just the wishful thinking of an amateur.
    Johnny Paul checked his watch: 3:32 a.m..
    He was much earlier than he’d planned. He tried to adjust his position so he could get comfortable. He’d hate to fall asleep and miss the deer, but it was going to be a long time until dawn. Johnny Paul soon found that making himself comfortable in the tiny stand was easier said than done. Only after quite a bit of shifting around did he finally manage to prop his back up against the tree and relax. Johnny Paul had been out drinking and smoking pot all night. He was tired. It wasn’t long until his eyelids started getting heavy. He tried to fight it, but each time he blinked his eyelids became heavier and it took him longer and longer to open his eyes. Then his head began to nod with every long drawn out wink. After sitting in the tree for less than fifteen minutes, his head sagged to his chest and didn’t rise. Johnny Paul was asleep.
    Even when he was as drunk and stoned as he was tonight, Johnny Paul was a light sleeper (unless he passed out, that is; then he slept like a rock). He was asleep for about ten minutes when he awoke to the sound of movement in the bushes. It was still dark; he couldn’t see a thing, but he could definitely hear the rustle of pinestraw. Only it wasn’t coming from the small clearing in front of the stand; it was coming from behind him. At first Johnny Paul thought he was caught. It had to be either Tom or a game warden who had spied his truck from the road and decided to take a look. But the more he listened, the more he was convinced it had to be the deer. It didn’t plunge clumsily through the brush like a human; instead, it stealthily moved a short distance, then stopped. Then, not much later, he would hear it move again. Not only that, but whatever it was, it wasn’t on the trail. The trail to the deer stand was behind him and to the right. This movement was coming from behind him and to the left.
    He got his gun ready but couldn’t move into a position where he could see in the direction the sound was coming from. It really didn’t matter though. It was so dark the deer would almost have to climb into the stand and introduce itself before he’d see it.
    The sound seemed to move to a position directly behind the tree, not too far away from the stand itself. It stopped there for quite some time.
    Damn, it must’ve smelled me, Johnny Paul thought.
    Then he heard it move again. It was coming directly toward the stand at a steady pace.
    Johnny Paul was confused. It still seemed to move more like an animal than a clumsy man, but he could swear he was hearing the steady movement of a man’s footsteps rather than the fluid tempo movement of a four-legged creature.
    The mysterious sound moved right up to the tree, then began to slowly make its way around to Johnny Paul’s right. Johnny Paul shifted to a left-handed grip on his rifle. He’d practiced shooting left-handed a few times, but he had never brought down a deer this way. However, a right-handed grip wouldn’t allow him to fire to his right without shifting his body, which could scare off the deer — if in fact it was a deer. Besides, at this range how could he miss? He took aim and waited.
    “Johnny Paul, what in the name of Sam Hill are you doing here?” a familiar voice asked as a human shape stepped from around the tree.
    Johnny Paul was stumped. It was too dark for him to make out the face, but the voice sounded very familiar. It could be one of the game wardens — he knew them all by name and they certainly knew him — but he was sure a game warden wouldn’t be addressing him in such a friendly manner.
    “Who’s there?” Johnny Paul asked, lowering his rifle.
    “Yo mama, that’s who,” the shape answered. “It’s Alan, shit-for-brains.”
    Johnny Paul, couldn’t quite make out the face, but he could plainly see the outline of Alan Craft’s scraggly beard.
    Johnny Paul was really confused now. He’d been partying with Alan earlier in the night. Alan had caught his seventeen-year-old live-in, Tory Leeman, talking on the phone with her ex-boyfriend, and beat the hell out of her. He then went over to Rick’s and proceeded to drink an entire half-gallon of vodka by himself. By the time Johnny Paul had shown up at Rick’s, Alan was over halfway finished with the bottle and was describing to everybody who would listen how he was going to put a pistol in Tory’s mouth and pull the trigger if he ever caught her talking to that son-of-a-bitch again. By midnight Alan had finished the bottle. He had thrown up all over the kitchen, bathroom, and living room before he finally, mercifully passed out. There was just no way he could have recovered from that kind of a drunk in just a few hours and followed Johnny Paul to Newton.
    But, here he was.
    “Alan?” Johnny Paul asked. “What are you doing out here?”
    “Just seein’ if you wanted to tilt a few back with me.”
    “How the hell did you find me?” Johnny Paul asked, leaning closer for a better look.
    Suddenly something struck him in the mouth, hard. His left cheek was split open in three deep cuts. One of these gouges extended his mouth from its original corner to the hinges of the jaw bone. All of his teeth on that side were knocked out. The momentum of the blow slammed Johnny Paul’s head against the tree. The pain was excruciating. His mouth was mangled and ruined, yet he managed to scream quite loudly.
    Despite the unstable nature of the stand, the blow didn’t instantly knock Johnny Paul out of the tree. His head still swimming from the blow, he toppled out a second after his scream had pierced the night air. He fell to the ground, bringing the wooden platform with him. The fall was a lucky one, however, as the beast had just lunged for him. It swung, but caught nothing but air.
    As soon as Johnny Paul hit the ground, he scrambled to his feet and started running. Still holding the rifle in his left hand, he aimed it blindly behind him as he ran, firing it with one hand, like a pistol. The recoil caused the rifle to jump over his head, but he managed to hold on to it.
    The bright muzzle flash caused a blue spot to dance before his his eyes, adding to his blindness. He could only hope that whatever was out there was having the same problem. He continued crashing through the woods until his shoulder collided with a tree, sending him sprawling. For a while he lay where he fell. He tasted his own blood and his tongue ventured gingerly over his ruined jaw and along the edge of the split in his cheek. Johnny Paul held his breath and listened, but all he could hear was the sound of his own sobs as he began to break down. Terror took hold and his sobbing increased until he was bawling like a baby.
    Then he heard something moving. He fought off his panic and once again held his breath. He listened.
    The sound came again. Something was moving slowly through the underbrush directly behind him — stalking him.
    When Johnny Paul had collided with the tree, he’d dropped his rifle. Now he frantically patted the pinestraw around him, searching for his lost gun.
    The sound grew much louder. Something was approaching at a very fast pace.
    Johnny Paul gave up his search for the gun, clamored to his feet, and took off running again. He made no more than two steps before a powerful force hit him in the back. He fell to the ground face first. There was a tremendous pain between his shoulders. He tried to rise, but something was on top of him. He heard a horrible crunching sound as the beast savagely bit the back of his neck.
* * *
    The next morning, Tom Webster came strolling down the little path to his deer stand. As he approached, he saw that his little platform had been knocked down. At first he thought maybe a strong gust of wind had blown the platform out of the tree, but when he picked the platform up, he found blood. He looked around and found quite a bit of blood around the tree. Then he climbed his makeshift ladder up to the limbs that had supported his stand; he found even more blood up against the tree trunk.
    He got back down from the tree and stood over the fallen platform. Rubbing his chin, he thought, What in the hell did this?
    Then it dawned on him what it had to be. “Aw, Hell!” Tom cursed, removing his camouflaged cap and throwing it to the ground.
    He’d heard stories of tree-hugging Yankee liberals who would sneak into the woods and sabotage a man’s hunting stand, but he’d never figured he’d be one of their victims. His stand was ruined now. The hippies had put blood all over the tree and the platform, and they’d probably pissed all over the clearing. The fat deer he’d been seeing over the last couple of months would never show back up now that human-smell was all over the area.
    After a short barrage of cussing, Tom trudged back to his pickup and headed home.
    Tom Webster had never been accused of being very bright.

CHAPTER 8
A Reason to Live

    Greg had been given two weeks off to let his ribs heal, but in light of the fact that there had been two unsolved killings in less than a week, Bill asked him to come back to work as soon as he could. Besides, in order to give James some time to himself, Greg had already been spending a considerable amount of his time off at the Sheriff’s Department. Greg went back to work on Sunday, six days after the incident at James’ house. After he finished his shift at six in the morning, Greg was called into Bill’s office.
    For a man to be as much of a stickler for detail as Sheriff Bill Oates was, his office was a wreck. The only furniture was a small metal desk with a cheap office chair behind it, a large filing cabinet, and two folding metal chairs in front of the desk for guests; two more chairs were folded up behind the door in case they were needed. Noticeably absent from Bill’s desk was a computer. There was a computer in the squad room, but Bill didn’t know how to use it and wasn’t going to learn (by God). In place of the computer that was so customary in other sheriff’s offices throughout the nation were stacks of paper, some loose, and some in manila folders. There were a few pictures on the walls of prize cows he had bought at 4-H auctions throughout the years, a few pictures of himself and some of the older Texas Rangers (the police force, not the baseball team), one cluttered bulletin board that couldn’t possibly hold another single message, and one small, extremely old, picture of his wife, Faye. The biggest picture however, was directly behind his chair; it was an enlarged reprint of an old brown and white photo of Lieutenant Jonathon Oates of the Texas Rangers, Bill’s grandfather.
    “Have a seat, Greg.” Bill motioned to one of the steel chairs. Greg took his seat, and Bill continued. “I need to ask you a few more things about your friend James.” Bill’s chair squeaked loudly as he leaned back and Bill propped his boots up on the corner of his desk. “How well do you know the boy?”
    “I’ve known him since he moved here back in eighty-six. We’ve been friends since grade school.”
    “Well, Greg, I’m gonna get right down to the point. James was the only person at the scene when you arrived at his house the other day, and he promptly shot you. That certainly makes him a suspect in the case.”
    Greg started to say something, but Bill raised his hand dismissively. “I know, I know, we’ve been over all that. I know Chad was the one who screwed up there, but it doesn’t change the fact that he fired at one of my boys. And one who happened to be a close friend of his to boot.”
    “Bill, we’ve gone over this. I mean, can you imagine the shock of…”
    Bill raised his hand again and interrupted, “I know we’re coverin’ old territory here, but something else has come up. Someone saw his truck out at Sharon Perrett’s place the day after she was killed.”
    Greg was stuck. He knew James was right not to tell Bill about the visions; the old sheriff was too hard-headed to believe something like that. But how could he explain James’ presence out at Sharon’s?
    “Maybe he was curious, Greg ventured. “I know of a lot of people who drove by to have a look. You know how it is, everybody’s talking, everybody’s curious.”
    “Oh, I know. Hell, the busybody who reported seeing him had no business down that road either, but then again everybody that lived in her house didn’t show up butchered five days later. I just thought I needed to tell you; James is our only suspect right now.”
    “James didn’t kill them,” Greg said bluntly.
    Bill shrugged, but didn’t reply. Despite the fact that his boots were casually resting on the desk, Bill didn’t look comfortable in the least. Something was weighing heavily on his mind. “I also want to make a suggestion. Mind you, I’m suggestin’ this as a friend, not as your boss.” Bill took his hat off and set it on his desk, then ran his fingers through his thinning hair while he tried to think of what to say. Greg couldn’t help but notice that without his hat on, Bill looked considerably older. “I don’t think you ought to have James in your house.”
    “Bill, he doesn’t have anyone else to turn to.”
    “Greg, you may not want to admit it, but there is a very good chance that he could be our killer. Think of your wife and kid, for Christ’s sake.”
    “James is not a killer.”
    Bill’s cheeks turned red, his boots came off the desk, and he leaned forward, “Goddamn it Greg. Then at least send Sandy and Carissa somewhere else while he’s there. Hell, they can come stay with me and Faye. But, I don’t think… ”
    This time it was Greg’s turn to interrupt, “Bill, I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of my own family,” he said in a sharp tone that startled himself every bit as much as it surprised Bill.
    Without a word, Bill eased his stance, leaning slowly back into his chair. However, he didn’t break eye contact and his eyes remained as hard as ever. They sat there staring at each other for about ten seconds. It seemed like forever to Greg.
    “If it makes you feel better, James is only supposed to stay for a week or two,” Greg said, finally breaking the silence.
    Bill nodded then put his hat back on. After another brief pause he said. “Well, I guess that’s all then.”
    As Greg walked out the door from Bill’s office, he felt strangely guilty about snapping at the old sheriff. He thought about thanking the old sheriff for his concern for his family, but thought better of it. It would only make Bill feel uncomfortable.
* * *
    On the same morning Greg was called into Bill’s office, James was sitting on Greg’s couch watching TV. James sighed heavily, picked up the remote, and turned the television off. He looked at the clock: 4:23 a.m. James then glanced at the small suitcase in the corner that he had been living out since the funeral six days ago. With another sigh, James got up and walked into the kitchen. He found a post-it note and a pen and wrote a simple message:
    Greg,
    I’ve gone home.
    Thanks for everything.
    James
    James then got his bag and started out the door, sticking the note on the front door where he was sure Greg would see it.
    He didn’t bother telling Sandy “bye.”
    When James got in his pickup, he was actually surprised to find his keys in the ignition. It was common enough to leave your keys in your car when you lived out in the country — there aren’t exactly hoards of car-thieving gangs in small towns like Newton, Texas — but Greg had been so adamant about him staying James had about half expected his keys to have been hidden.
    James fired up the pickup, backed out of the driveway, and headed home. Oddly enough, James was happy to be going home. His spirits picked up a little as he drove and even lifted a little more as he pulled into the familiar driveway.
    Lady came out to greet him, wagging her tail furiously. She had obviously been out prowling when the incident occurred. James got out of the truck and perched down on the ground. She ran to him practically bouncing with joy. James scratched her behind her ears and said, “Some watchdog you are.” He managed a little laugh in spite of the morbidity of the joke.
    James unlocked the door. He reached to open it, then stopped, Oh God, I hope they’ve cleaned up the blood. I don’t know if I could take that. Then he remembered Greg saying that he and Darren had cleaned his house the morning of the funeral.
    James opened the door and hesitantly looked down. No blood.
    James stepped through the doorway. The house was surprisingly clean. Well, they’re not maids, but they did a pretty good job, James thought, looks like they even vacuumed the carpet.
    Passing though the kitchen, James saw that the dishes had even been cleaned and put away.
    James looked at the empty kitchen table. He remembered Jimmy’s sixth birthday party. It had only been five weeks ago. About half a dozen children from Jimmy’s first grade class, and Angie’s cousin Heather’s two little girls were all packed on one side of the table for James to take their picture. They looked like Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, done using smiling six-year-olds, with Jimmy playing the part of Jesus. Angie had been the one adult in the picture. She was kneeling down behind Jimmy, so that her smiling face was just above his shoulder. She had a beautiful smile that always seemed to light up a room. Jimmy was in the middle blowing out his candles. His mouth was puckered in an “O,” but his eyes were smiling brightly. James remembered Jimmy opening his presents, grinning and laughing each time he would tear into a package. He remembered Jimmy running around for the rest of the afternoon wearing the football helmet Greg had bought him. He remembered sitting on the back porch with Angie while they watched the kids run and play in the yard. He had been holding her hand. Her left hand. The one with the ring. The one he still saw lying in the doorway covered with blood every time he closed his eyes.
    James tore himself away from the painful memories and started down the hall to his room. He kept expecting Jimmy to burst out of his room and start barraging him with the endless supply of questions six-year-olds seem to have at their disposal. He expected Angie to meet him at his door and ask how his day had been, or for her to greet him at the door without saying a word, wearing only a towel. Walking down the hall James noticed the sound of his boots on the old hardwood floor. They had lived there for years, and he had never noticed how loud it was. The sound even seemed to echo as he walked toward his bedroom.
    The house sounded so empty.
    James reached the bedroom door and hesitated, then he opened the door and went on in. It had dawned on Greg what a shock it would be when James finally returned to his now empty home scattered with various painful memories, so he and Darren had done their best to hide most of Angie’s things from plain sight. But the effort proved in vain. When James went into the bedroom and turned on the light, the sight of the empty bed brought tears to his eyes. He remembered Angie’s touch, her smell. He remembered holding her and wished he could hold her again. He left the bedroom without putting up his things. He could live out of a suitcase for one more day.
    As James went down the hall he sped up when he passed by Jimmy’s room. He knew he couldn’t handle that yet. No, there was no way he could look on Jimmy’s toys, his clothes, and those boots just like Daddy’s that he’d wanted so bad and gotten last Christmas.
    James went into the kitchen to put his medicine in the cabinet. Then he stopped, looked at the bottle, and walked over to the kitchen garbage can and threw them away.
    When James returned to the living room he lay down on the couch. I guess a few more nights on a couch won’t hurt.
    The silence was horrible. James picked the remote up off the coffee table and turned on the television just for the noise, then he tried to settle down for a nap. He restlessly pitched and rolled for several minutes before he finally got up and walked to the door. “Lady, come here, girl.” As she drew near, he backed into the house calling her inside.
    The floppy-eared lab came to the door, but stopped there. Her tail wagged furiously, jostling her butt from side to side, as she nervously debated whether or not to go into this place she wasn’t normally allowed.
    “It’s okay, girl,” James said. “You’re going to be a house dog for a while.”
    After giving the situation much thought, Lady finally came in. But the sudden admission to such a forbidden place caused her to become overly excited. She was practically bouncing off the walls. Once James got her settled down, he returned to the couch. Perhaps it was because she was the closest thing he had to a living family member, but bringing Lady in the house proved to be just what James needed. When James stretched out he found himself as relaxed as he had been since the funeral, even without the medication. Soon he was drifting off to sleep.
    No sooner had he dozed off than the phone rang, scaring Lady — who was still nervous about being inside — into jumping on the couch with him.
    “It’s okay, girl,” James muttered to Lady, who was practically perched on his head.
    Coaxing his dog from the couch, he scratched her ears.
    The phone continued ringing away.
    James got up, walked into the kitchen and answered the phone. “Hello?”
    “Now why’d you go and leave when I was just gettin’ used to having your smelly ass on my couch?” Greg asked.
    James laughed, then said, “I thought it was time for me to get home.”
    “Are you sure you’re okay?” Greg asked, now sounding serious.
    “Yeah, I’m fine.”
    “I wish you’d stay a little longer.”
    “Greg, I even kept you run out of your own house half the time,” James said, and, perhaps it was his head clearing as it came out from under his physician-prescribed cloud, but James suddenly realized how rude he’d been. “And I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have imposed on you like I did.”
    “With what you went through, you had a right to impose.”
    “Yeah, but…”
    “Yeah but nothing. I was glad to help. Besides, in the afternoon it was nice having another man around the house. I’m so used to being outnumbered two to one.”
    “Speaking of which, tell Sandy thanks,” James said.
    “I will,” Greg said, then he added, “I’m sure she and Carissa are going to miss having you around, too.”
    Yeah, right, James thought, Sandy couldn’t stand to look at me and Carissa was scared to death of me. However, he replied, “I’m going to miss them, too. Oh, by the way, thanks for cleaning up the place.”
    “Don’t mention it.”
    “Well, I’d better go and try to get a little sleep. I’ll see you around.”
    “Are you sure you’re all right? I can come over if you want.”
    “No, really I’m fine.”
    “Okay, then. Like I said, just call if you need anything.”
    “Okay, Mom, bye,” James said jokingly.
    Greg laughed and said, “Bye.”
    When James turned to walk back into the living room, he almost tripped over Lady, who was sitting right behind him. James got back on the couch and got settled, but he couldn’t go to sleep. Like someone who can’t stop picking at an open sore, his mind kept returning to the night Angie and Jimmy were killed. He remembered the night before, when the beast saw James’ tracks in the mud. Something didn’t fit.
* * *
    At noon the next day James surprised Guy Baldwin and showed up for work. He didn’t stay long, though. James had planned to come to work and try to get back to life as usual, but he found it wasn’t so easy. It seemed every time he had almost calmed down, a picture of Angie’s bloody arm in the doorway would pop into his head. He could see it almost as if it were right there before him: her arm, her hand, the ring, the blood. He could see it all in such unmerciful clarity. After staying at work for only two hours, James went home.
    As soon as he got back to his house, James went back into the back bedroom and lay on the bed for the first time since the night before Angie and Jimmy were killed. The memories came flooding back again, in force.
    He started crying.
    James got up and walked to the bedroom closet and opened the door. He was surprised to find the old shotgun; he figured the Sheriff’s Department would have confiscated it after what happened. James then fished in some of the drawers and found two more shells and put them in the chambers. James tossed the loaded shotgun on the bed and got a piece of paper and pen out of Angie’s stationary drawer. He sat down to write his suicide letter, but couldn’t.
    As tears once again began to build in his eyes, he let out a bark of laughter at the sad irony. I would write a suicide note, but I don’t know who to address it to. Whether it was hysterics or not, James wasn’t sure, but all of this suddenly became the funniest thing he’d ever heard. He fell back on the bed guffawing loudly.
    Lady ran to the bedroom door to check on him, and when James looked up and saw her standing there with her head tilted and ears perked up in a look of concern, he began to laugh even harder. That’s who I could address it to: Dear Lady.
    When James finally managed to stop laughing, he decided against suicide. He stretched out on the bed and went to sleep.
* * *
    That was the first night James was off the medication. He went to bed early and slept well at first, but when night came he started dreaming of the beast again.
    The beast crawled out from under a spidery knot of tree roots that had been exposed by the creek eroding the dirt from around them. The woods were thick in the area.
    Once the beast was out from under its little den, it set out at a determined stride. It was hunting again, ambling along for a while, then stopping to sniff the air. As it moved along through the underbrush headlights from a car could be seen just off to its left; it was traveling parallel to a road. The beast continued on its way until lights could be seen ahead.
    As it crept forward, it stopped to sniff what had once been a large dog, but was now a mass of mutilated meat. Probably last night’s kill.
    The beast began creeping toward the lights until it could see a small trailer-house, and a small metal outbuilding. The beast sniffed the air then closed its eyes. Its detached senses sped forward. However, it didn’t go in the house at first; it went under the back porch where it found an old blue tick hound. Though the dog’s eyes were closed, the beast’s senses still passed through its eyelids and into its mind. Once it had found a suitable memory, it left the sleeping dog and went straight upward, passing through the floor. It then passed through the silent house until it found an extremely obese old man asleep in his recliner. The man’s head had lolled to the right, pulling the small plastic tube that normally ran from his nose to the green oxygen bottle beside his recliner until it had come out of his right nostril and had stretched his left to an oblong slit. The deep rumble of this man’s snoring echoed through the tiny living room.
    The beast’s senses passed through a closed eyelid and found a memory.
    On all fours the beast then circled to the front of the house. Then it stood — Wake up! — and began approaching — Wake up! — the front door of — Wake up, for Christ’s sake! — the trailer-hou…
    James woke up. The old man he had seen was William Youngblood. He lived less than two miles down the road.
    James threw on his shirt and pants, and grabbed the shotgun. He ran out of the house without even putting on his shoes. He jumped in his pickup and tore out of the drive. It took James only a few minutes to drive the short distance between his house and Mr. Youngblood’s trailer. As the pickup slid into the driveway, he laid on the horn, hoping that if the beast hadn’t already done its deadly deed the sound would scare it off.
    The front door was wide open, and James started toward it at a full run. From the back of the house he heard a dog yelp, a sound that was abruptly cut off. James ran around the corner of the trailer. With the shotgun in his hands, he combed the area with his eyes. He saw on the steps of the back porch a headless dog, its warm body still twitching. James then looked up and down the tree line, but it was too dark to see a thing. He then turned and walked toward the front taking frequent looks behind him.
* * *
    From the woods, the beast watched James. It raised its snout only slightly, so it wouldn’t have to take its eyes off him, and breathed in his familiar smell. It continued to watch him until he passed back around the trailer-house. Then the beast slowly crept deeper into the woods.
* * *
    The inside of the trailer-house was dark except for a small light coming from just around the corner in the living room. James knew from his past visits to Mr. Youngblood’s that the light was from a small reading light beside the old man’s recliner. Holding the shotgun firmly in his right hand, James reached for the light switch in the dark trailer. He felt two switches and flipped the first one. A light came on outside, illuminating the steps to the front door. James tried the next switch and had better luck — a single lightbulb came on in the middle of the trailer’s living room. James returned his left hand to get a better grip on the double-barrel shotgun. James stepped into the living room, and just around the corner he found Mr. Youngblood. He was still in his chair.
    The old man’s walker was still neatly folded beside his recliner. In a small town like Newton, quite a few people don’t bother to lock their doors. Mr. Youngblood probably heard a familiar voice at the door, and rather than straining and pulling to get his obese body out of his recliner, he probably just called out that the door was unlocked.
    William Youngblood’s entire stomach and chest was open, long ropes of guts and small greasy yellow beads of fat were all over the chair and laid out on the floor in front of him. It looked as if the beast had torn at him like a dog digging furiously in the ground for a bone.
    The heavy smell of Mr. Youngblood’s bowels almost made James lose his lunch. He staggered into the kitchen and splashed water over his face. James then looked around for a phone, but the only one he could find was right beside old man Youngblood, and James didn’t want to get that close to the mutilated body. After scouring the kitchen from top to bottom and taking a hesitant peek into Mr. Youngblood’s bedroom, James came to the conclusion that the only phone in the house was the one beside what was left of the old man.
    Holding his breath, James slowly walked over to the mutilated corpse. When the phone was in reach, James grabbed it and took it as far to the other side of the room as the cord would allow. James dialed the police station.
    “Sheriff’s office,” an old woman’s voice answered.
    “This is James Taylor,” James said, his voice shaky and warbled with fear, “get someone out to William Youngblood’s house immediately. It’s about four miles down Farm Road Fourteen-fourteen, on the right.”
    “Uh, how many houses down from Turner’s is that going to be?” the voice answered
    “Just call Deputy O’Brien, he knows exactly where it is.”
    “Okay.”
    James stretched his arm out as far as he could, and still had to throw the phone the last couple of inches. It landed in the cradle. He then went outside for some fresh air. Leaning up against the inside of the front door, with the shotgun resting all but forgotten in his arms, James waited for the cavalry to arrive, hoping Greg would be first on the scene.
    Less than five minutes after the call, a police cruiser pulled into the drive behind his pickup. Greg stepped out of the car and started toward the trailer. Seeing the shotgun in James’ hands, he stopped well short of the door. “James, I love you and all, but could you put the shotgun down?” Greg said, smiling nonetheless.
    “Sure,” James said plopping the shotgun against the wall, then turning and motioning Greg to follow him in the house.
    When Greg first saw Mr. Youngblood, his reaction was not unlike James’ had been, except Greg opted for fresh air instead of a splash of water — he stepped outside on the front steps.
    James followed him out and said from behind him, “I saw that thing, whatever it is, headin’ up to Mr. Youngblood’s door. I woke up in the middle of the dream, and thought I could get here in time to save him. I tried like hell to get here, but I was just too late.”
    Another set of flashing lights reflected off the trees across the road. Someone else was on the way.
    Greg swallowed hard, shook his head, then turned to James. “You know you’re our only suspect in these murders don’t you?”
    “Suspect? It’s not a human that’s doing the killing,” James replied, shocked.
    “They… we… don’t know what the hell we’re lookin’ for, but out of three murders, you’ve been first on the scene at two of them, and someone reported seeing you out at the scene of the first one the day after the murder.”
    “You don’t think I did it, do you?” James asked.
    Greg paused at first, the brief pause probably lasted less than two seconds, but the pause made James’ heart sink nonetheless. But when Greg did find the words, there was no doubt in his voice. “No, I don’t.”
    By now the new arrival was pulling into the drive. It was a state trooper who happened to be in the area and heard the call on his radio.
    James sighed, “Well, place me under arrest. I’d rather you do it than someone I don’t know.”
    Greg looked down at his feet for a while, then started. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will…”

CHAPTER 9
The Newton County Hilton

    At the Sheriff’s Office James was fingerprinted and photographed. While he was in the booking room Sheriff Oates tried to question him on a few items, but James did as Greg had instructed while they talked on the way to the station. He demanded his lawyer be present for any questioning. Bill simply said, “Suit yourself,” and ordered Greg to take James to his cell.
    The walls of James’ cell were a sickly color of baby blue with various names, dates, and expletives carved in them. The only furniture was a small iron bed jutting out of the wall, equipped with only a ratty pillow that felt like it was stuffed with Styrofoam, a paper thin sheet, and a stainless steel toilet set into one corner. There was also a shower spigot protruding from the wall over a drain in the floor in another corner. Below this spigot was a single button that, when pressed, caused cold water to flow for about one minute. For a decent shower you would have to repeatedly press the button. There were no bars. A solitary Plexiglas window was located in the steel door to the cell.
    By the time Bill and the deputies were finished at the scene and James was booked. Greg was off duty, but he didn’t go home. He went back to the cells to talk to James.
    James was trying to get some sleep but not managing very well when Greg pecked on the glass. Dressed in one of those bright orange jumpsuits the county supplied for the inmates, James got up and walked to the door. Greg opened the slit below the window used to give the inmates their meals so James could hear him. “James, I think the only way out of this is to tell Bill everything, dreams and all.”
    “He won’t believe it.”
    “No, not at first. But maybe after you’ve informed him of the beast’s movements a couple times he will start to come around.”
    “In other words, you want me to sit in this cell, see someone get ripped to pieces, then report it to the sheriff?” James asked wryly.
    “Maybe you’ll see a landmark or something and be able to tell us where it’s at. Maybe you’ll wake up during an attack, and we’ll have time to get there before it kills someone, like you tried to do with old man Youngblood.”
    “Yeah, and maybe pigs will grow wings and fly. It didn’t work when I was only a few houses down, so how’s it going to work now?”
    “James, I don’t think there’s any other way.”
    James stood there for a while, leaning on the cell door, shaking his head. Then he said. “You’re right. The damn thing’s gonna kill again whether I’m watchin’ or not.” James sighed, “Go ahead and tell Sheriff Oates.”
    “I need a favor though,” Greg said.
    James couldn’t imagine he was in any position to do anyone a favor, but nevertheless, he said. “Sure, anything.”
    “When I tell Bill that you had told me about Sharon Perrett and I didn’t tell him, he’s going to come unglued. I was thinking that to get him off my back a little I could tell him I talked you into an interrogation without a lawyer present.”
    James scratched his head. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just skip that part? I mean, we don’t have to tell him I know about Sharon, do we?”
    “I think we do. If we’re going to tell him what’s going on, we need to tell him everything. We need to really come clean with him.”
    “What about the interview without a lawyer, is that necessary?”
    “I think so. He’s going to want to talk to you anyway and there’s no sense in bringing in some lawyer.”
    “Okay, but he’ll probably chew me up and spit me out.”
    “I’ll be in there with you.”
    James corrected himself. “Oh, excuse me. He’ll chew us up and spit us out.”
* * *
    “Well, what did you need to talk about?” Bill asked, leaning back in his chair.
    Greg came in and sat down, “It’s about James.”
    “I figured as much,” Bill said dryly. Then, with a motion of his hand, he said, “Go ahead.”
    The cold steady gaze of Bill’s blue eyes, along with his gruff demeanor, had a way of making people uneasy when he was in disagreement with them, and Greg was no exception. Greg shifted nervously in his chair. Every time he’d had these conversations with Bill, one in which they didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, Greg had always felt a strong urge to confess everything he’d ever done wrong, all the way back to stealing Harvey Morrison’s lime green crayon back in the second grade.
    “I don’t think James is our killer,” Greg finally said.
    “Oh, really?”
    Greg had been standing outside the door to Bill’s office for the better part of fifteen minutes trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to say. He hadn’t been able to come up with a single thing that would make the story more believable for Bill or easier to tell for him, so he had decided just to do what ol’ Bill himself would do in such a situation — get straight to the point.
    “The reason James was at Mr. Youngblood’s trailer was because he saw the thing attacking him in a dream.” Greg spat it out almost as if it was one long word. As he saw the blank look on Bill’s face he suddenly found himself wishing he could get up, walk out of the office, then come back in, and start over.
    “That’s the stupidest damn thing I think I’ve ever heard,” Bill said in a flat tone, without changing his expression or diverting his cold gaze.
    Greg blushed furiously and found it hard to maintain eye contact with the old sheriff, “Just humor me for a second.” Greg took a deep breath and continued. “On the morning Sharon was killed, James told me he’d dreamed that some sort of big animal had killed her. This was before she’d been killed. And while he was staying with me and Sandy, he told me the night his wife and son were killed that he had nodded off while he was on his way to Beaumont and saw something at his front door. That’s why he turned around and came back.”
    Bill leaned forward and grasped the edges of his desks so hard his knuckles turned white, in stark contrast to his cheeks, which were glowing red. “Greg, you’ve always been a little flighty, but up ‘til today I’d never have figured you to be stupid. He tells you about one murder before we find the body and shows up at the other two scenes before we get there. Do I need to paint a picture for you? Hell, I ought to fire your ass right now for withholding information on the Sharon Perrett case.”
    By God, Greg added silently.
    “Let me finish,” Greg said. He had meant to say it forcefully, but it came out somewhere between a whimper and a squeak. Nevertheless, Bill, still red-faced, nodded for him to continue. “There’s more to it than just that. Ever since I’ve known James, he’s had these dreams. Remember when Matt Garret and Bubba Saunder’s wrecked up on eighty-seven? Matt was hit by an eighteen-wheeler while trying to flag it down but he had walked several miles from the accident, and we couldn’t find the Bubba or his pickup. Remember, two days later when said I saw tire marks in the mud going off into the woods and found the wreck?” Greg asked, but continued without waiting for an answer. “Well, that’s not how I really found the truck. There wasn’t any tire marks. Not that could be seen from the road, anyway. James told me he’d dreamed the accident and he went with me and pointed out where the truck was. And that wasn’t all. He knew that Jeff Breaux robbed and burned down Mollie’s fruit stand before we caught him. He also told me about Charles Wellman beating his wife to death then blowing his brains out. I can remember dozens of times that James has just simply known something that there was no way to explain how he knew other than those dreams he has.”
    “Are you trying to tell me he’s some sort a psychic?” Bill said. Greg could tell the old sheriff wasn’t believing a word he said.
    Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
    “Yes and no.” Greg continued, “He doesn’t see the future. Sometimes, when he’s asleep, he sees what is currently happening through someone else’s eyes. He hasn’t had any of his dreams in a long time. I think Jeff Breaux was the last one he told me about and that was over three years ago. But now it seems he’s got some sort of direct link to whatever it is that’s doing all this killing.”
    Bill said nothing. Greg could see in Bill’s eyes there wasn’t the slightest touch of belief in them. Greg was probably going to be fired or at least suspended. It was time to deal the one ace he had up his sleeve and hope for the best.
    “Well, now that I’ve got that off my chest. I told James I would have this talk with you if he would agree to allow us to interrogate him without a lawyer present,” Greg paused, then added. “I have to be present though.”
    Bill’s eyes widened just a touch, almost unnoticeably. Other than this minor change, his expression was still hard and unflinching as stone. “When do y’all want to do this?” Bill asked.
    “Now is fine with me,” Greg said. He wanted to get this over as soon as possible.
    “Go get him.”
* * *
    The lights in the cell stayed on during the day, but James had managed to position himself with his head facing the wall and fall asleep, despite the hard bed and its thin mattress. It had been a long time since James had been able to sleep undisturbed for any length of time. The loud clack of the heavy metal lock opening his cell woke him from a deep, dreamless, sleep. His mind still muddled in a half-awake daze, James didn’t roll over to see who was at his door.
    James had begun drifting back to sleep when he heard, “James, Bill wants to talk to us.”
    He ignored the voice, and drew his sheet tighter around him.
    “James.” Someone shook his shoulder, and he finally woke up. James raised his head; his eyes were still bleary, but he could make out Greg.
    “Damn, you were sleeping like a rock,” Greg said as he sat on the corner of the tiny bed.
    “Glad you noticed,” James replied as he sat up, stretched, and yawned.
    “I had my little talk with Bill.”
    “How’d it go?” James asked, rubbing and blinking his eyes.
    “Well, like you said, he pretty much chewed me up and spit me out,” Greg said with mock cheerfulness. “It gets better. Apparently you were right on both counts; now he wants to meet with both of us so he can chew us both up and spit us both out.”
    “Oh, great,” James said, as he stood up.
    Greg stood up with him and they walked out of the cell and down the row of cells. They passed through the security door separating the cells from the rest of the building. Just past the door, they turned left into the room where James had been booked, fingerprinted, and photographed. The room was furnished much like Bill’s office except instead of a cluttered desk there was a small, neat, folding table with a notebook, a telephone, and a tape recorder on it. The pictures on the walls were different also. Instead of pictures of smiling 4H boys and girls with their prizewinning livestock and various gruff-looking Texas Rangers, there were bulletin boards filled with notices and one enlarged copy of the FBI’s most wanted list. Bill sat across the table, making no effort to hide the scowl on his face.
    As they came through the door Greg closed the blinds which opened into the hall. He motioned for James to be seated in the lone chair across from Bill, then he went around and took a seat on Bill’s side of the table. As soon as Greg pulled his chair up to the table, Bill pressed Record on the tape-recorder.
    Without smiling, Bill extended his hand to James and introduced himself, “Sheriff William Oates.”
    James shook his hand, also without smiling.
    “I believe you know Deputy Greg O’Brien,” Bill said, nodding his head in Greg’s direction.
    James nodded.
    Bill leaned forward in his chair, his forearms resting along the edge of the table, his fingers interwoven. His cold blue eyes bored into James’, keeping direct eye contact as he asked each question. James suddenly felt very small, like a field mouse under the gaze of a hungry red-tailed hawk.
    “Please state your full name.”
    “James Thomas Taylor,” James answered
    “Are you aware that you have the right to demand a lawyer at any time during this interrogation?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “And are you in here of your own free will?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    Greg had warned James that Bill was a little informal with his interrogations, but so far everything seemed formal enough.
    “Could you explain what happened on the morning of November 2, 2001?”
    James told the entire story of that horrible morning. He told Bill how he had left early in the morning to pick up some parts in Beaumont. He mentioned he had warned Angie about the dreams he’d been having and told her that she shouldn’t let anyone in the house. He mentioned that he had asked Greg to pass by the house while he was gone. Then he told the sheriff about nodding off and catching a glimpse of his front door and how he had sped back through town and arrived to find his wife and son dead.
    While James talked, Bill listened. His eyes continued to bore into James. His expression never changed, not even at the mention of James’ dreams. No emotion was visible, not belief, not disbelief, not even a hint of sympathy as James mentioned finding his wife and child brutally murdered. Every now and then Bill would ask a simple question: Did she always wake up that early? Was there a certain time Deputy O’Brien was supposed to come by? About how long do you think you were gone from the house? But other than this Bill remained quiet and expressionless.
    “Everything is a little hazy after that,” James finished, quite proud of himself for not bursting into tears at having to recall the horrible night.
    “Do you recall shooting Deputy O’Brien?”
    “Vaguely, yes.”
    “So you do admit that it was you who shot Deputy O’Brien?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    Bill broke his gaze from James for the first time in the interview and jotted down some notes on the notebook. He checked a clock on the wall and made a note of it. James realized what he had said would probably be considered a confession in a court of law; not that he’d ever denied the fact. Still, it made him nervous.
    “Do y'all want anything to drink? We’ve got coffee, water, and a coke machine in the lobby,” Bill asked, although his voice sounded as if this was an official question, not one of courtesy.
    “No, thanks,” Greg answered.
    “No, sir,” James answered at the same time.
    Bill pressed the intercom button on the phone. “Debra, could you bring me some coffee?” They sat in silence for about thirty seconds, then someone knocked on the door.
    “Come in.”
    Debra Duncan, the daytime dispatcher as well as Bill’s secretary, entered the room. She was a well-dressed middle-aged woman with dyed black hair. She handed Bill his coffee.
    “There you go, Bill,” Debra said in a sweet voice.
    “Thank you,” Bill said, and Debra turned and left.
    Bill took a long drink, then returned to his former position. “Now tell me what happened early this morning, November tenth.”
    James told the story, starting with when he decided to go home. He mentioned that his medication had made him sleep heavier, and he didn’t have the dreams while he was on it. But, as soon as he’d stopped taking it, he had the dream of the creature at Mr. Youngblood’s house. He managed to wake himself, go immediately to the house, but he arrived too late. However, he did mention that he thought he had just missed the beast because of the dog he heard yelp in the back when he arrived.
    Again, while James talked, Bill listened. His eyes never shifted away from James’. He asked a few more simple questions during the story: What type of medication was it? Who was the doctor who prescribed the medication? Was Mr. Youngblood’s door unlocked when you got there? Did you see any movement behind the house?
    “All right,” Bill said, averting his eyes long enough to jot down some notes and take a sip of coffee. “Can you explain why you were out at Sharon Perrett’s place on October twenty-ninth, the day after she was killed?”
    “Yes, sir. I saw that thing kill her horse and her the next night. I wanted to take a look around to see if I could find some tracks or anything left behind by whatever it was that killed Mrs. Perrett and her horse.”
    “Did you find anything?”
    “The rain had washed away most of the tracks outside and I didn’t have time to look inside the barn, but I did find some near the barn’s outside wall. Strange tracks — they almost looked human, except for the long claws.”
    “Just like the tracks we saw,” Greg chimed in, but a quick cold glance from Bill told him his input was not wanted.
    Bill turned back to James. “I see. Is there anything else you’d like to add?”
    “No, sir. I think that just about covers it.”
    Bill paused for a brief moment, then leaned back in his chair without breaking eye contact. “You do realize that this all sounds like a king-sized load of horseshit, don’t you?” he said in a flat, matter-of-fact voice.
    This caught James off guard. “Sir?”
    “I’ve heard some wild tales in my years, but this beats ’em all, hands down.”
    James remained silent. Beside Bill, Greg looked briefly like he was going to say something, but, if he was, he must have decided against it because he too remained silent.
    Bill shook his head and then said, “Greg tells me you’ve had these little psychic dreams all of your life. Could you explain?”
    “They’re not exactly psychic, at least I don’t think so. It’s like I’m in someone else’s mind, looking out, watching what they’re doing,” James said. “I’ve had them since I can remember, but I haven’t had as many since I dropped out of high school. And I hadn’t had one in years before I had the first one about this thing, somewhere around the first of October.”
    “Is there anything strange about these dreams? Anything different about them?”
    “Yes, they don’t seem like dreams,” James paused, trying to think of how exactly to explain the difference between the visions and normal dreams. Then he said. “It’s like I’m not really asleep during them. My mind isn’t foggy, and I’m thinking clearly. I’m even tired when I wake up from them.”
    “You’re tired when you wake up from these dreams?” Bill asked.
    James realized what Bill must be thinking. “But I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m not talking about sleepwalking here.”
    “How can you be sure?”
    James started to reply that if he was sleepwalking, he would have awakened Angie, but he knew that wouldn’t help him any. Angie couldn’t verify this; she was dead. “I just know,” was all he could think of.
    Then Greg chimed in, “How about when you saw Charles Wellman kill his wife and commit suicide? His neighbors were outside and heard the shots. They came over immediately and didn’t see anyone. Elbert Flanders even said he’d heard Charles say he was going to do it earlier that night. And what about when Matt and Bubba had their accident?”
    Bill turned his gaze from James to Greg. “That doesn’t have a damn thing to do with what we’re talking about.”
    “We’re talking about James’ dreams,” Greg replied, but was again interrupted by Bill.
    “We’re talking about an investigation involving four recent homicides!” the sheriff snapped.
    Now James spoke up. “Sheriff Oates, I don’t know all that much about law enforcement, but isn’t homicide one person taking the life of another?”
    Bill didn’t answer. The wily old sheriff could probably tell the question was loaded.
    Greg answered for him. “Yes, it is.”
    “Do these killings look like they were committed by a person to you?” James asked Bill. “I went out there and saw those tracks at Sharon’s; they didn’t seem like any person’s I’d ever seen. And do the wounds look like any you’ve ever seen a man inflict on someone?”
    At first, Bill didn’t say anything. James wasn’t sure if he’d really stumped the old sheriff or if Bill was just waiting to see if James had anything else to say — something that might be useful.
    Finally Bill said, “Mr. Taylor, I suggest you get yourself a lawyer. A good one.” Then he nodded for Greg to take James back to his cell.

CHAPTER 10
City Limits

    James’ interrogation went as well as could be expected. Of course Bill didn’t believe a word they had said, but Greg figured the interview might have saved his job. And maybe down the line something would happen that would prove to Bill that James really was having those strange dreams. Bill had told Greg he wasn’t through talking with him about withholding information on the Sharon Perrett case, but when Greg arrived to go on duty at 10:00 p.m. Bill wasn’t there to ask for his badge. If Bill was going to fire him, he would have told him that day, or at least before Greg went back on duty. Greg figured he would be suspended without pay for a short time at the most, but maybe, just maybe, he would get by with no more than the ass-chewing he’d already received.
    Greg left Newton city limits and headed north on Highway 87. He was supposed to drive by and check the crime scenes at James’ house and Mr. Youngblood’s trailer. He had also promised James he would feed Lady while he was in the area. At the trailer, Greg got out and had a brief look around. Everything seemed to be undisturbed, so Greg got back in his car and started back up the road to James’ house.
    At James’ everything seemed normal — for a crime scene that is. It certainly didn’t seem normal to Greg. This was supposed to be his best friend’s house, not the scene of a vicious crime. He could only imagine how poor James felt. Greg didn’t go inside the house. He walked around to the back porch and called for Lady. She didn’t come, so he assumed she was out prowling the woods. James kept Lady’s dog food in a large metal trash can on the back porch. Greg scooped some food out and left it in a bowl on the back porch. He filled her water bowl, and then headed back to his patrol car.
    Greg got in his cruiser and started toward town. When he pulled up at the corner of Farm Road 1414 and Highway 87, an eighteen-wheeler was coming, so he waited. Then he caught something out of the corner of his eye. Sandy was coming around from the back of the patrol car, walking briskly towards the driver’s side door.
    “Hi, Greg, I forgot to tell you something before you left home.”
    He started to speak, then something dawned on him.
    Where was her car?
    She was almost at the driver’s side door when Greg floored the accelerator. He cut the wheel hard, but the forward momentum was too much. The patrol car slid into the far lane, directly into the path of the oncoming eighteen-wheeler.
* * *
    Clara McClelland was filing her nails in the dispatcher’s office when one of the inmates started banging on his door. “Jack, can you see who’s making all that racket.”
    Jack Coleman had worked for the sheriff’s department in Newton County for twenty-five years, ten of those years were way back when Sheriff Bill Oates was just Chief Deputy Bill Oates. He had been a deputy up until three years ago when he retired. Retired life didn’t suit Jack well, so he tried to come back to work after only six months away. The truth of the matter was that ol’ Jack had become more of a liability than an asset to Bill. Jack had never been very bright, and old age hadn’t been kind to his mind. Bill was caught between a rock and a hard place. He didn’t want to rehire Jack, but he didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings. Bill’s solution was to hire Jack on as a jailer, and it had worked out fine.
    Clara nudged Jack, who was sleeping, leaned back on two legs in a metal chair in the dispatcher’s office. “Wake up, Jack.”
    Jack snorted.
    “One of the inmates is makin’ an awful racket in the back. Go see what they want.”
    “Huh?”
    This time Clara yelled, having to practically scream at Jack who was almost deaf and had taken out his hearing aid. “Go check on the inmates. One’s yellin’ up a storm!”
    “M’kay,” Jack said lazily as he readjusted his glasses, which still had the same prescription he’d wore twenty years ago.
    Jack slowly made his way down the hall to the cells. As he passed through the security door he could faintly hear a man in one of the cell’s yelling at the top of his lungs. He finally hobbled to the door of the cell of that James Taylor boy. The inmate was pounding on the glass window and yelling something, but Jack couldn’t understand him.
    Jack reached in his ear to adjust his hearing aid, and found it wasn’t there. He must have left it in the dispatcher’s office. He put his finger to his lips, trying to tell the boy in the cell to be quiet, but this only seemed to make the kid angry; he started hammering the glass with his fists.
    “I’ll be right back,” Jack said, then started back up front to get his hearing aid. When he got back through the security door and into the dispatcher’s office Clara was frantically dialing the phone. She seemed panicked and had tears in her eyes.
    Jack fumbled around the room until he finally realized that his hearing aid was in his shirt pocket. By the time his hearing aid was in his ear, Clara had finished her phone call and was on the radio. “We’ve got a 10–50 major on the corner of Eighty-seven and Farm Road Fourteen-fourteen.” Then she forgot all about protocol. “It’s one of our cars. I think it’s Greg.”
* * *
    Bill stood in the middle of the road watching the organized yet chaotic drama as it unfolded around the mangled patrol car. Three paramedics were fighting to keep Greg alive while the Newton Volunteer Fire Department tried their best to free him from the knot of twisted metal using the Jaws of Life. Bill hated sitting still when there was work to be done, and he hated he couldn’t do anything to help Greg, but he knew he’d just be in the way. So he stood back and watched.
    Behind him Chad Hudspeth was taking a statement from the driver of the truck, who seemed to be uninjured, but was rather shook up. Every now and then Bill would catch part of their conversation.
    “… just pulled out in front of me … ”
    “… too sudden to react …”
    “… God, I hope he’s okay …”
    Then he heard something that struck him cold, “… sounds crazy, but there was some sorta bear standing by his car when… ”
    Bill turned around and walked over to Chad and the truck driver. “What’d you say?”
    The truck driver was leaning up against Chad’s patrol car, but when Bill walked up he straightened up like a steel rod had been shoved up his ass and into his spine. “I was tellin’ deputy, uh, Husseth that I thought I saw a bear or an ape or a big hairy man or somethin’ walkin’ up to that fellow’s car. Officer, know it sounds silly r… ”
    Bill interrupted. “Was this… bear walking on two legs?”
    “Yeah,” the truck driver replied.
    Chad was standing with his mouth open. He dropped his pen. Bill’s eyes drifted toward the dark woods and remained there. He stood in silence, thinking. The driver glanced nervously from Bill to Chad and then back to Bill. Bill finally spoke to Chad who was now palming the dark pavement in search of his pen. “Call Clara and tell her to get a hold of Emilio Rodriguez and tell him to get out here, pronto.” Then Bill turned to the truck driver. “Show me where you think you saw this thing.”
    The truck driver led the way over to the corner. The whole way he was retelling his story of the accident, about how he did everything he could to avoid the collision, there was no time to react, the car just jumped out in front of him, but Bill wasn’t hearing a word he was saying. The truck driver got to the corner and pointed at a spot on the ground and said, “It would’ve been about right here.”
    Bill nodded, then said, “Thanks. Go finish givin’ your statement to Chad.”
    Bill pulled his flashlight from his belt and kneeled down to have a closer look at the ground. The ground was hard here, very little chance of good prints. At first Bill didn’t find anything, but after moving around some he saw the outline of what might have been a print. He got up and walked further into the ditch hoping the softer ground would yield better prints, but was having little luck. He had just about given up when he looked right on the edge of the standing water in the ditch. There it was: a big human-looking print in the mud. He stepped further into the ditch and found another.
    “Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Bill murmured.
    “There you are, sheriff,” a voice said. Bill looked over his shoulder and saw Dave Elender, one of the paramedics from Jasper, standing near the edge of the road, his orange and white jumpsuit marred with crimson bloodstains and his expression long and worn. “I’m sorry Sheriff. We did everything we could, but we couldn’t save him.”
    Bill nodded and stood up. He walked back to his patrol car without saying another word to anybody. The investigation of the new prints would have to be put on hold for an hour or two. Now it was time for the part of his job Bill hated more than anything else — he had to inform Sandy O’Brien of her husband’s death.
* * *
    Deputy Darren Woolford came and got James early the next morning. They walked down the hall in silence, their moods darkened by the events of the night before. Darren led James through the second security door, then past the booking room, past the dispatcher’s room, and on past the first security door. In fact, it looked as if they were heading outside when Darren stopped at a door with a simple piece of polished wood nailed to it. The piece of oak had the word OFFICE burned into its surface. Darren opened the door and James stepped into Bill’s office.
    Bill sat behind the desk, with his hat off. He looks different with his hat off, James thought. He looks older. A tall Hispanic game warden was sitting against the wall to the right in one of the folding metal chairs.
    Bill briefly introduced the two. “Emilio Rodriguez, James Taylor. James Taylor, Emilio Rodriguez.”
    Emilio stood, smiled, and offered his hand, James found he couldn’t return the smile, but took the hand nonetheless.
    “James, I’ve briefed Emilio here on the little conversation we had yesterday, so you can feel free to speak freely about your, uh… ”
    “Dreams,” James helped out.
    “Yeah, dreams,” Bill said, mumbling as if he was ashamed to have the word come from his own lips.
    “Do you believe me now?”
    “If that were the case, son, I’d be releasin’ you, but I’m not. Let’s just say we’re willing to look at every angle on this thing.”
    I’m not your damn son, James wanted to say, but held his tongue. Instead he sat there waiting for Bill to make the next move, and Bill finally did. “Clara said you were raising quite a stink right before the call came in about Greg. What was that all about?”
    “What the hell do you think it was all about?” James shot back.
    Amazingly, this caused no visible reaction from Bill. He calmly said, “We need to work together on this, James.”
    “Then drop the charges! You know damn good and well I saw Greg’s death! You know I didn’t do it!” James shouted, making Emilio jump, but causing no change in Bill’s stern face.
    “James,” Bill said, his voice calm, but not cold like it had been during their last meeting. “If you could just tell me what you saw last night.”
    This was James’ chance to prove that his dreams were real. The main purpose of his and Greg’s conversation with Bill yesterday was that if something happened and James saw it in his visions, he could relay it to the sheriff, and prove he wasn’t lying. But James had just lost his wife, his son, and he had actually witnessed the death of his best friend. He had actually seen the terrible collision through the beast’s eyes. Right now James wasn’t thinking clearly. All he felt was anger. He looked straight into Bill’s eyes and said, “Go to hell.”
    Bill and James sat staring at each other for quite some time without either turning away or saying a word. Then Bill broke the silence. “Darren,” he said in a slightly raised voice, without turning his eyes from James. Darren poked his head in through the door. “Take Mr. Taylor back to his cell.” This caused a look of confusion to cross Emilio’s face.
* * *
    As soon as James was out the door, Emilio said, “Sheriff… ”
    “Call me Bill.”
    “Bill, you saw the autopsy reports. You saw the reports from A&M. They all say the injuries were caused by some sort of large animal. And we both saw those tracks out where Greg had his accident. You know he wasn’t involved there. Surely you don’t think he had something to do with the other deaths.”
    “I’m not sure what I believe right now. I’m certainly not one-hundred percent certain we’re dealing with an animal here. The one thing I am certain of is that boy’s the only suspect we’ve got.”
    “Think of all this guy’s been through. In the last ten days he’s lost his wife and kid, been accused of their murder plus two others, and now he’s lost his best friend.”
    “I know. If it turns out he’s innocent, I’ll never be able to apologize enough to that poor kid. But I just can’t release him right now.”
* * *
    James woke up the next morning and tried to remember what he had seen the night before. Once again the beast had crawled out from under its lair. James had paid particular attention, trying to note landmarks, but in the dark pine forest there were very few distinguishing landmarks to go by.
    The beast had continued through the woods until there seemed there were quite a few houses in the area. Occasionally it would peek out of the trees and look around. James recognized some of the buildings. The creature was inside the city limits. It looked around seemingly taking in the sights, as well as the smells and sounds, then lumbered back into the woods.
    As soon as Bill came in, he went back to see James. He gave James some magazines. This confused James at first; then he realized the hard-assed sheriff might be showing signs of a guilty conscience.
    James told Bill about last night’s dream, especially about the fact that the beast had been in the city limits. This time the sheriff seemed interested.
    Later that afternoon, James finally saw his court-appointed attorney, but his visit was very brief. The young lawyer found his client highly uncooperative and left without accomplishing a thing.
    That night James went to bed again, hoping to see something useful.
* * *
    As Bill strode through the first security door at 3:45 a.m., he was greeted by Clara McClelland. “I’m sorry to wake you, Bill, but he wouldn’t quit banging on the door. He was demanding to speak to you. I didn’t know what else to do but to call you.”
    “You did fine, Clara.”
    Bill could hear a steady banging coming from the back. He walked through the second security door and turned the corner. He could see Chad standing in front of the door to James cell, looking through the window.
    Chad turned and said, “I would have shut him up, but you said not to go in their cells when they’re freakin’ out unless you’re here.”
    “I know what I said,” Bill snapped. He still hadn’t forgiven Chad for his lapse a few days ago.
    Bill walked up to the window and looked in. James had been repeatedly kicking the steel door as hard as he could for over fifteen minutes. He was out of breath, and his face was red from the exertion. When he saw Bill in the door he stopped his frantic efforts and supported his body by putting his hands on the wall. “Good morning, Sheriff,” James panted with a twisted, sarcastic smile on his lips. “It struck again last night. This time inside the city limits.”
    Bill just nodded, then turned to Chad, “Go back up front, tell Clara to open cell number two. Then go get his things and meet us in my office.”
    “We releasin’ him?” Chad asked, shocked.
    “Probably. Now hurry!” Bill snapped gesturing toward the security door.
* * *
    Bill and James got out of the patrol car on East Street, just across from the playground at Newton Elementary School. James was now out of his orange jumpsuit and in blue jeans and a t-shirt. He looked small alongside Bill’s tall stature. Chad walked behind them with a shotgun. James told them the beast was no longer in the area, but Bill wasn’t taking any chances.
    “I’m not sure where it struck, but we’re in the right place. I remember the playground,” James said.
    “Lead the way,” Bill said, as he gazed across the playground and its empty monkey bars and swing sets.
    Even though Bill knew that this beast, if it really did exist, was more than likely nocturnal and no children would be at the elementary school at night, the idea that a monstrous killing machine had been this close to the elementary school bothered him tremendously.
    They walked along the outside of the playground’s tall chain-link fence until James came to a stop. He pointed at some hedges in front of a small white house across the street and said, “I think it was looking out from those bushes when I got the good view of the playground. From there it went that direction,” he said, pointing up the street.
    “How far?” Bill asked.
    “Not far, three or four houses at most.”
    On the way over, James told Bill that he thought tonight’s victim was an elderly black lady who had worked in the Newton High School cafeteria when he was still in high school. Bill had a good idea who James was talking about. Now that James had practically pointed out her house he was almost positive. Alma Carroll had worked in the cafeteria at Newton High School for years. The old widow had retired four years ago. She lived only four houses down from the one James said he’d seen the playground from, but, for right now, Bill was going to play it dumb. He wanted James to take him to the house, just to be sure.
    They walked down the street, which was brightly lit by streetlights and security lights. However, Bill could see how someone — or something — could skirt along the shrubs and trees in the yards and hug close to the houses and easily remain in the shadows.
    After passing three houses, James pointed to a small, yellow, wooden house. “That’s the house.”
    It was Alma Carroll’s house all right. “Are you sure?” Bill asked.
    “No, but we can go see. She should be lying in the doorway.”
    They started across the street toward the house, then Bill stopped. He saw that the front door was open. James, who was in front of Bill and didn’t see him stop, continued into the yard. When he got to the start of the sandstone walkway leading to the front door he stopped and looked back at Bill, who was now coming up to join him. “Now do you believe me?”
    Bill walked up beside James and saw the poor old black lady lying face down in the doorway. Blood was all over the small front porch and the floor of the entrance hallway. Bill walked on up for a closer look. Alma’s arm, severed at the shoulder, was lying over to the side a little way. Judging by the blood splattered on the porch and the walls beside it, something seemed to have shaken the arm like a dog shaking a toy in its mouth. Bill remembered Alma had big arms with fat hanging down from the upper part, but there was hardly a strip of meat left on the arm lying on the porch.

CHAPTER 11
Texas’ Finest

    Chaos was quick to descend on the small town after Alma Carroll’s body was found. The murders had been the biggest gossip to hit Newton County since County Commissioner Alex Harrison had been caught in the drug bust, but up until now the rumors floating around hadn’t caused much panic. But now one of the horrible killings had taken place inside the city limits, and within full view of the elementary school playground. The morning that the body was found, a handful of parents arrived at the elementary school, demanding to take their kids home. Despite efforts to stem the panic, the rumors spread throughout the day more and more parents arrived to pick up their kids. By the end of the day, three quarters of the elementary students had gone home and half of the students at Newton High School had also gone.
    And the gossip was no longer contained to Newton County. Reporters from Beaumont and Lufkin arrived and started taking pictures of the crime scenes and asking questions. Worse yet, there was a reporter from the tabloid television show, Current Edition, snooping around town. And as if that wasn’t enough, Debra had been fielding calls from reporters from the major news networks.
    After Bill released his only suspect, he went to work trying to prevent more killings. Bill met with John Banks, the Newton County Police Chief, and suggested a dusk-till-dawn curfew for the city. John immediately met with the mayor, who called an emergency meeting of the city council. The curfew was put into effect that afternoon.
    Bill hated reporters almost as much as he hated big city lawyers, but he knew the media could be useful. He continued to refuse to talk to any of them in person or over the phone, but he did dictate a letter and have it faxed to all the TV and radio stations in the area. In the letter he informed the stations that the investigation was ongoing and he had no information that he could give out at that time. Then he got to the important part: he told them that, while there was no immediate cause for alarm, he suggested all citizens of Newton County stay inside from dusk till dawn and not to go outside for any reason — just to be on the safe side, of course. Bill knew that suggesting that the entire county stay inside at nighttime would add fuel to the fire as far as the rumors were concerned, but there was a chance that it might save lives.
    As far as the fact that this thing might have some sort of ability to take on other forms, Bill kept that information to himself for the time being. He wasn’t sure if the creature did or didn’t have some sort of supernatural power, but he certainly wasn’t going to admit anything of the sort might be going on or was even being considered. If he let it out that he was becoming more and more convinced that they were dealing with something that was neither man nor beast, he was sure that people would think he’d been sampling the narcotics in the evidence room.
    Toward the end of what Bill felt was the longest day in his career of law enforcement, he sat down at his desk and picked up the phone. He dialed an Austin number, and asked to speak to Captain Sam Jones, of the Texas Rangers.
* * *
    The white van with CURRENT EDITION stenciled in huge red letters along its side pulled out from the Steak Shack’s parking lot and started north up Highway 87.
    Jana Parish was fuming, as usual. Just as she had hated her last three assignments, she couldn’t stand this one. Jana was a spoiled rich kid from Palm Beach, Florida. She had been a department store model while she was in high school, and had had numerous modeling jobs since. While she was attending Florida State on a cheerleading scholarship, she had posed nude for a calendar, causing her to lose her scholarship. But it wasn’t the loss of her scholarship that caused Jana to drop out of college. Her parents owned the controlling stock in one of the largest manufacturers of luxury yachts in the United States; money wasn’t exactly a problem. She had dropped out a semester after losing her scholarship simply because she couldn’t keep her grades up. After leaving college, Jana was able to use her looks and her father’s connections to get a job as a weather girl for WTRN in Savannah, Georgia. She was at WTRN for only three years before using those same attributes in landing her current job as a reporter for Current Edition. She had now worked at Current Edition for six years.
    Vanity had always been one of Jana’s strong suits, and for a good reason: the way she saw it, everything she had achieved so far in life was directly related to her blond hair, blue eyes, and tall, voluptuous body. The fact that her father’s influence had been just as important never crossed her mind.
    Not long after getting her job at WTRN, Jana made the mistake of getting married. She had met Lance Whipple while she was attending Florida State. When she moved, he swore he couldn’t live without her and wanted to marry her. At first Jana resisted his advances, but after six months in Savannah, she gave in and they were married. She retained her maiden name, however; there was no way she was going to go through her career with the same last name as the man who squeezed the toilet paper on those old TV commercials. Lance dropped out of college and became a house-husband. Three years after Jana got her job with Current Edition, Lance began to pressure her into having kids. Jana was emphatically against it; she had seen what a pregnancy could do to a woman’s figure. However, like when he had pleaded with her to marry him, Lance was persistent and she gave in. Jana’s worries proved prophetic — the pregnancy was a nightmare. After she had the baby she weighed one hundred and ninety-five pounds; eighty pounds more than she had before her pregnancy. Jana was furious, and she blamed Lance. She filed for divorce and didn’t even contest Lance’s custody of the baby, who she felt was partially responsible for her current problem.
    Jana had tried girdles, support hose, everything and anything she could think of to conceal her newfound weight, but the extra pounds were there to stay. According to the fourth doctor she asked, her metabolism had changed — the previous three had pointed toward her new eating habits, but Jana felt they were full of crap.
    As Jana had expected, after she put on the extra weight her assignments were fewer and farther in between. Where she once had been Current Edition’s top reporter, now she was being given one or two ridiculously stupid assignments every three to four months, and this assignment seemed to be no exception: a grizzly bear eats a couple of hicks in a redneck town, whoop-tee-do.
    Jana had been all over town, and the only interviews she had managed to get were a few housewives who were willing to tell about how they had picked their brats up early from school because some woman had been killed near the elementary school’s playground. Then Jana had visited the sheriff’s office and been given the runaround. She was used to this kind of treatment, but when she finally cornered the Old West throwback they called the sheriff in this county, he had talked down to her like no one since her fifth grade teacher — and Jana’s parents had gotten Mr. Bacon fired. To make matters worse he hadn’t allowed her cameraman inside the Sheriff’s Department, so none of his rudeness was on tape.
    It wasn’t until Jana went to a local restaurant that seemed to specialize in grease that she made any progress with the story. At the Steak Shack, Jana was able to find quite a few people who were willing to talk. Most of them all said the same boring and useless information, but, after wading through several such interviews, Jana was able to get some useful information. At first these animal attacks were thought to have been murders, and a James Taylor had been taken into custody and held for three days. To make matters even more interesting, James’ wife and child were the second and third victims.
    Here was Jana’s story: a poor ignorant country boy, wrongly accused of murdering his own wife and child by a cruel and heartless sheriff. She had her story and her revenge on that rude sheriff all rolled into one.
    It took Jana no time to find someone willing to give her directions to James’ house, and they were on their way.
    Just when Jana’s day was beginning to look better, her cameraman, Bob McCoy, ruined her mood. He was good at that. When they got in the car, she reached into his camera bag and said, “Hey! All my chocolates are gone. Did you eat that whole bag this morning?”
    “I only ate a couple of them,” Bob replied. “I think you hold the credit for eating the entire bag in one day.”
    Without a word, Jana huffily crossed her arms and sat back in her seat. That bastard. The bag had been half empty, and like he could talk anyway. He was pushing three hundred pounds.
* * *
    When James arrived home he found he had failed to tell Greg that Lady was inside the house. There was a large amount of uneaten dog food on the back porch, and an enormous mess in the house. Living on scraps out of the trash and toilet bowl water for several days, Lady had made quite a mess in the house. Garbage and dog crap was scattered all over the kitchen and the living room.
    After taking a couple of hours to clean up Lady’s mess, James took a long look around his old familiar home. He found the place just as depressing as it had been before he’d been arrested, back when he had almost convinced himself to chew on the business end of his double-barrel shotgun. The quiet stillness bothered James. He almost wished he were back in the county jail; at least there was noise there, and fewer depressing memories.
    James decided that getting out of the house would be the best thing for him. He would go into town and visit Guy at the shop. However, no sooner had James gotten out of his seat than a knock came at the door. Even though it was broad daylight, the knock brought on a brief moment of anxiety. James imagined a hideous creature with terrible long claws and teeth on the other side of the door. He hesitantly eased over to the door. When he looked through the peephole, he saw the distorted image of a tall, heavyset blond woman. Behind her was a man carrying a large shoulder-mounted camera.
    “Mr. Taylor, this is Jana Parish with Current Edition. We would like to have a word with you.”
    Damn.
    James couldn’t leave now; he’d have to wait until they were gone. He returned to the living room and plopped down on the couch. He sat silently petting Lady, afraid to turn on the TV for fear that they would see it from the window. For quite some time the woman continued to bang on the door saying, “I know you’re in there,” and “It will only take a few minutes,” and “We want to get your side of the story,” and so on. This went on for about ten minutes, then it petered out to just an occasional knock on the door and a “Mr. Taylor,” then after another five minutes there was silence. James tiptoed up to the door and looked out the peephole. Now they were parked on the shoulder of the road in front of his house. Well, at least they were out of his yard. Still, he felt like he was under siege in his own house.
    James lay down on the couch, this time turning on the TV. It didn’t take long for him to fall asleep.
    Two hours later James woke to a horrible smell. Lady, who had eaten more than her share of dogshit and garbage over the last few days of being locked in the house, was breathing directly into his face. As soon as James’ eyes opened, Lady ran to the front door, then ran back in a hurry. She frantically repeated this action over and over as if to say, If you don’t want another mess to clean up you had better let me out right now!
    James got up and walked to the door, but when he took a look out the peephole he saw the van was still outside.
    Damn!
    James led Lady to the back door.
    Once outside, she immediately shot out into the back yard and took care of her business. As soon as she was finished, Lady picked up a stick, brought it onto the porch, and dropped it at James’ feet.
    “Is that supposed to be a hint, girl?” James reached down and picked up the stick and threw it. Lady took off after it, grabbing the stick and bringing it back with her head high and her tail wagging furiously. “Good girl,” James said, taking the stick from her mouth for another toss.
    It hadn’t dawned on James how long it had been since he’d done something so simple as playing fetch with his dog. It felt good. James and Lady continued to play and, slowly but surely, James began to feel more relaxed.
    All good things must come to an end, however. James had just tossed the stick once more when he saw the Current Edition reporter and her cameraman coming around the corner of the house. The reporter was trying her best to hurry, but she was obviously not used to wearing high heels in soft ground and was stumbling every step of the way.
    “Mr. Taylor, if we could just have a word,” she managed to say as she stumbled clumsily toward the back porch.
    “C’mon, Lady. Let’s go inside.” Lady quickly returned and darted inside, taking the stick in with her. James followed her in without saying a word to the unwelcome intruder. He locked the door behind him. This time the reporter didn’t bang on the door. She returned to the van with her cameraman and they continued their stakeout.
    After a little more TV, James bedded down for the night, once again on the couch.
* * *
    Although there was a Texas Ranger stationed in Jasper, only fifteen miles from Newton, Sam Jones, the Senior Captain of the Texas Rangers, was originally a native of Newton County and a good friend of Sheriff Bill Oates besides. He came down from Austin to personally see if he could lend a hand.
    Sam Jones was one of the living legends of Texas law enforcement. Sam had served in the Marine Corps’ during the Korean War. He was a nineteen-year-old second lieutenant when he first set foot on the Korean Peninsula in 1950. In 1953, Sam came home a decorated war hero. He remained in the Marines until 1957, when he went into law enforcement. Sam was a State Trooper from 1958 till 1960, and his status as a war hero helped him become temporarily attached to the Secret Service as bodyguard to Lyndon Johnson through his Vice Presidency and Presidency. Upon his return to Texas in 1973, Sam joined the elite law enforcement branch of the State of Texas, the Texas Rangers, and had been there ever since.
    Now seventy years old, Sam was well past the normal retirement age, but he was an old bachelor who had known nothing but the military and law enforcement all of his life. Retirement was probably the only thing in his entire career he had ever feared. Everyone who worked with, or even around, Sam knew the R-word was not to be mentioned in his presence.
    Sam Jones was a bear of a man, the type of man that was just plain big all over. He stood a full six foot four inches tall, weighed two hundred and seventy pounds, and despite his age, most of his extra weight was still muscle. Not that Sam was the same, lean, mean fighting machine who had fought in the hills of Korea — he had put on quite a few pounds since his Marine Corps days, but his chest still managed to extend further than his belly. Beneath his white Stetson, Sam had no hair at all. He had started going bald some time around the middle of his military career and had just decided to shave it all off. He liked how it looked and kept the style.
    Underneath Sam’s brown western-cut sports jacket was an old.45 automatic in a shoulder holster — the very same pistol Sam had used as an officer in Korea. The Battle of Chosin back in 1950 has the distinction of being one of the coldest battles man has ever fought. During one of the many engagements in that horrible battle, masses of Chinese troops charged up the hill defended by an outnumbered Marine battalion that included Sam’s own platoon. The soldiers, Chinese and American alike, found almost all of their guns had their breaches frozen shut and were useless, and the few rifles and machine guns that weren’t frozen became so after firing off their first ammo clip. Sam had kept his pistol inside his uniform using his body heat to keep it warm. As the Chinese soldiers charged his position, he held his fire, then drew his pistol from his coat at the last possible moment, firing point blank into the onrushing Chinese soldiers, killing four and wounding another before taking a bayonet in the hip. The ensuing melee had more in common with medieval warfare than that of the twentieth century. In the end, the Marine battalion held the hill, although they suffered well over seventy-five percent casualties. Sam’s heroics that day won him the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for bravery, as well as a promotion to first lieutenant, and his continued rapid promotion to Lieutenant Colonel before the war was over.
    Sam silently opened the door into Bill’s office and slipped into the room. Bill had just suffered yet another of what he would consider one of the longest days of his career. He told Debra he was going to take a nap and he was not to be disturbed, but Sam wouldn’t listen to Debra’s pleas to let Bill rest. The old sheriff was stretched out with his boots on his desk and his hat covering his head. Sam moved across the office until he was directly in front of Bill’s desk.
    Then one of Sam’s big hands knocked Bill’s boots off the desk, and Sam roared, “Get your feet off the furniture, you lazy varmint!”
    Bill almost fell out of his chair. The hat fell off his face and toppled to the floor. His temper boiled, his face turned red. Then he recognized the deep laughter. “Sam, you scared the hell out of me,” Bill said, then joined Sam in laughter.
    When the laughter died down Sam said in his deep baritone voice, “I heard you’ve got yourself in one hell of a fix down here.”
    Sam and Bill were about the same age, but they had only known each other in passing before Bill ran for sheriff. After Bill was elected, Sam started coming to visit the sheriff’s office when he was in Newton visiting his family. They soon struck up a strong friendship.
    Bill picked up his hat and dusted it off while Sam sat down in one of the metal chairs.
    “You could say that,” Bill said. Then he picked up a manila folder that was so stuffed with paper that a rubber band had been stretched across it just to keep it closed. Bill handed the folder to Sam. “Here’s all the incident reports, statements, autopsy reports, and reports on a mutilated horse and two mutilated cows.”
    Sam’s eyes grew wide as he took the folder. “Damn, Bill.”
    “I told you it was complicated,” Bill said, smiling. “Oh, and there’s one thing that I wanted to touch base with you, in person. In those reports you will find an interrogation of a James Taylor, a local mechanic. His wife and kid are two of our victims.”
    “Any relation to Paul Taylor?” Sam asked.
    “No, he’s not originally from around here,” Bill answered, then continued. “This boy claims he’s havin’ dreams of the attacks while they’re takin’ place.”
    “You’re kiddin’,” Sam commented with a wry smile.
    “Well, Sam, it’s worth lookin’ into. You know I don’t go for none of that superstitious horseshit, but there’s just some really strange things about this case. For one thing, he predicted one of the murders while we had him locked up.”
    “You’re kidding,” Sam said with a genuine expression of shock on his face.
    Bill shook his head, “Started banging on the door in the middle of the night demandin’ to talk to me. I let him out and he led me right to Alma Carroll’s house, and sure enough she was dead.”
    Sam had the rubber band off the manila folder and was sorting through the papers. He then pulled out a picture and whistled in amazement. “Nasty work.” Sam said, then he asked, “Alma Carroll? Is that the sweet old black lady who worked in the school cafeteria since God was a babe?”
    “The same.”
    Sam shook his head in disgust and put the picture back. He then looked at Bill and asked the sixty-four dollar question. “What do you think about this Taylor boy?”
    “I don’t know, Sam. I just don’t know.”
    “You think he might be for real?”
    “I’m leanin’ that way.”
    Sam looked down at the thick folder, gave a low whistle and shook his head once again. “What have you got me into this time?” He turned back to Bill. “I’ll tell you what. You get back to your little nap. I’ll take this library you’ve given me back to Dad’s old place and look it over and we’ll talk about it tomorrow morning.”
    “All right. If you need to reach me, just call up here. I’ve sent Faye to her sister’s in Houston and moved into my office for the time being.”
* * *
    That night the beast returned inside the city limits, but didn’t strike. Several times it detached its sight and went inside buildings to view the inhabitants, but every time it would withdraw its vision and then move on. Before morning it set off toward its den.
    When James woke up the next morning, the dream bothered him. It was like the beast was looking for something. No, that wasn’t it. It was more like the beast was scouting out its territory. Not unlike a man who is hungry, but not hungry enough for a meal yet, so he just peeks into the fridge to see what’s available.

CHAPTER 12
A Gun and a Badge

    It was 1:00 a.m., but Lisa was still up worrying about Jeremy. Dan, who worked offshore — fourteen days on, seven days off — always stayed up late. Lisa Chamblin was sitting on the couch and her husband Dan was sitting in his recliner watching the TV when the doorbell rang. Lisa had just got off the phone with Pastor Ronald Talley of the First Methodist Church in Newton. It had only been two days since Newton had enacted the dusk till dawn curfew. Since the school was having a teacher’s workday — giving the kids that Monday off — the church was having a lock-in on Sunday night for the teenagers to draw their attention away from the current crisis and to keep them from being tempted to break the curfew. Lisa, ever the worrisome mother, had called to make sure their son, Jeremy, was still there.
    “Who could it be at this time of night?” Lisa said.
    Dan leaned back in his recliner and looked through the multi-paned window set in their front door. “It’s Jeremy,” he said and turned back to the television. “Guess the lock-in got dull.”
    The doorbell rang again, but Lisa didn’t get up. “But I just got off the phone with Brother Talley. He said Jeremy was there.”
    “He probably snuck off,” Dan replied.
    This made sense. Only two weeks ago Jeremy’s parents had bought him a new sports car for his sixteenth birthday. Both weekends since his birthday, Jeremy had been riding around town right up to his own curfew, which was midnight. He was disgusted by the fact he had finally obtained his freedom only to have his wings clipped by a citywide curfew. Lisa had suspected Jeremy was using the lock-in as an excuse to go into town and go cruising around, curfew or no curfew. That’s why she’d been calling the church every hour since nightfall.
    But it seemed odd that Jeremy would be home. If he had managed to sneak out of the lock-in, he certainly wouldn’t be rushing home to admit what he’d done. He’d probably visit a few friends, then try to sneak back in the church before they noticed him gone. Not only that, while Lisa hadn’t actually talked to Jeremy, she had talked to Brother Talley and he’d said Jeremy was there. In fact, Brother Talley said he’d just seen him in the church’s fellowship hall raiding the refrigerator.
    The doorbell ran again and Jeremy’s voice came from outside, “Come on, Mom, let me in. It’s cold.”
    And why didn’t Jeremy just use his key? Had he lost it?
    “Lisa, are you going to let the boy in, or what?” Dan asked, without pulling his eyes away from the late night macho movie staring Sly Stallone.
    Lisa finally got up and walked to the door. Jeremy stood there, his arms wrapped tightly around himself. Where’s his car? Lisa thought. Nothing seemed right, but there he was, standing in front of the door.
    “Mom?”
    Maybe he’s had an accident. All hesitation fled and Lisa unlocked the door in hurry.
    As soon as Lisa slipped the bolt, the door was pushed open and into her with incredible speed and force. She fell back, taking a coat rack down with her. Jeremy leaped over Lisa and into the living room.
    Dan was almost out of his chair. “What the hell’s gotten into… ” From a position slightly behind the recliner, the Jeremy-thing swung at Dan in a wide hooking blow that was amazingly fast and catlike. The blow caught Dan on the back of his right shoulder.
    Lisa watched from the floor as she tried to untangle herself from the fallen coat rack with its numerous coats and hats. She couldn’t see anything in Jeremy’s hand. In fact, the blow was open handed, but when he hit his father on the shoulder, it made four deep gouges running from his upper arm to the middle of his back. Dan cried out and stood with his back arched in pain, looking up at the ceiling, his right arm trying in vain to reach over his right shoulder, and his left arm searching blindly for support. Jeremy then came around with a blow with his left hand, this one tearing deep gouges into the back of Dan’s head. The flayed strips of scalp hung loose, revealing the white skull underneath.
    Finally out from under the coat rack and the coats and hats, Lisa screamed as she gained her footing.
    Dan collapsed to the floor, and Jeremy turned to his mother. His posture was weird. His legs were bent, almost at right angles, and his arms hung straight down at his sides.
    “What’s wrong with you?” Lisa screamed.
    Jeremy sprang at her. The coat rack was still in her hands so Lisa threw it at Jeremy and ran screaming out the front door and onto the porch.
    As she descended the front porch steps and started across the yard, she risked a look over her shoulder. Jeremy was bounding along the front porch running on all fours like an ape. He reached the edge of the porch and leaped for her, hitting her right in the middle of the back.
    He was on top of her, “Jer…” was all she managed to get out before he sank his teeth into her left shoulder.
    Lisa screamed.
* * *
    Over the last two days, activity at the Sheriff’s Department had increased dramatically. Captain Jones had used his influence to bring in outside help. Six state troopers were reassigned to Newton to help patrol the area and over a dozen game wardens were brought in from all over the state. A team of bloodhounds was even brought in to track down whoever or whatever was doing all the killings, although a brief, yet heavy, rainstorm on the night after Sam’s arrival made using the dogs on any of the old tracks impossible.
    It was 9:00 a.m. when Mrs. Thelma Burke called and said her neighbor’s kid had run to her house wailing and shouting. She managed to calm the boy enough to make sense of his hysterics. He told her he had come home from a lock-in at the Methodist Church and found someone dead in his front yard. The body had been torn to shreds, but the poor boy had recognized his mother’s bracelet.
    One of the new game wardens was first on the scene. Bill was second. As Bill drove up, he could tell that the game warden was spooked. The officer had parked his SUV behind Dan Chamblin’s pickup. He was between these two vehicles, leaning on his truck. His rifle was gripped tightly in his hands and it looked like he was ready to start blazing away at the first sign of movement.
    Bill hadn’t been sleeping too well since he’d changed his residence to his office, and adding a new killing to the five already being investigated didn’t do much to improve his already gruff disposition.
    “Put that damn gun up before you accidentally shoot someone,” he told the game warden as he approached.
    The man was as white as a ghost and his hands were trembling. At first he didn’t move or speak, then he managed a “Yes, sir,” but still didn’t move an inch. In the grass, right in front of the game warden, lay the breakfast he had eaten two and a half hours ago.
    Bill walked over to where the game warden was standing and he saw what had the man so shaken up. A vaguely human form lay sprawled in a patch of bloodstained grass near the middle of the yard. All of the meat was eaten away across both shoulders and on down the left side of the back. The left arm looked like it had been chewed off; the forearm lay about two feet above the body, and the upper left arm and left shoulder from the left side of the neck to the uppermost ribs was missing.
    Bill had seen quite a few of these recently, but the sight still stunned him for a few seconds. Then he turned to the game warden. “Hurst,” he read off the game warden’s nameplate, “did you check inside?”
    “N-No.”
    Without another word, Bill started toward the door.
    When Bill first walked inside the double-wide trailer, he noticed the fallen coat rack, coats, and hats in the doorway. He called out to see if anyone was home but got no answer. Bill then continued into the living room where he looked briefly around, before going into the kitchen. He looked through all the bedrooms, found nothing, and was walking back into the living room when he noticed a pair of socked feet sticking out from behind the coffee table. Another victim, no doubt. The coffee table had apparently concealed the body from sight when Bill had first come in. This body was not nearly as bad off as the one in the yard. Blood was all over its back from a nasty wound across the shoulders. Another more serious wound was on the back of its head leaving a portion of the skull bare. In some areas where the skull was visible, deep grooves could be seen across the bone; a small amount of grey matter had even seeped out in one area.
    Bill leaned down to investigate the wound; it seemed that the blood was still seeping out. Bill reached and felt the body’s arm. It was warm.
    He’s alive!
* * *
    Jana may have only been a reporter for six years, but she knew how to find out when the game was afoot. She and Bob were currently staying in adjoining rooms at the Pineywoods Inn, a ratty little twelve-room motel on Highway 190, just around the corner from the Newton County Jail. At a little after nine o’clock Bob had called her into his room to tell her there was a lot of activity on their police scanner. They listened in but every time the sheriff (she would recognize his voice anywhere) came on he would tell someone to turn to a coded channel. Then the phone rang in Jana’s room. It was Alice Pender, a little old lady who owned a beauty shop in town. Jana knew beauty shops were the prime source for good gossip in a small town and had promised Mrs. Pender a reward if she came up with any useful information. Alice told Jana she had heard that the monster-thing, as she called it, had attacked the Burke family. Jana asked if Alice knew where the Burke family lived; she did. Jana quickly jotted down the address.
    “We’re in business, Bob,” Jana called out and they were loaded up and on the road in less than fifteen minutes.
    They headed out of town on Wood’s Community Road. Around ten miles south of town they took a right down a dirt road. They continued for another mile passing three houses.
    “Well, here it is,” Jana said, sounding disgusted. There was a quaint little house with a cyclone fence surrounding the yard. The mailbox was painted to resemble a Holstein cow complete with head and tail; on its side it read J. T. Burke. There was no sign of any police activity whatsoever.
    “Well, this certainly doesn’t look like the scene of a vicious attack to me,” Bob commented while he turned into the drive. “Looks more like a wild goose chase.”
    Jana ignored her cameraman and stepped out of the van. They had driven this far; she might as well ask some questions.
    She had just reached to open the gate when Bob thrust his head out the window and yelled, “Hey, Jana! Look!”
    Flying down the dirt road, coming from the direction Bob and Jana had been heading, they could see an ambulance with its lights on. It was kicking up quite a cloud of dust as it tore past them on its way to the hospital in Jasper.
    “Get in!” Bob yelled.
    Jana ran back to the passenger side and climbed in. Bob didn’t even wait for her to get the door shut before throwing the van into reverse and slamming his foot down on the accelerator. Jana was tossed forward but managed to catch herself before she hit the dash. Just as suddenly, she was propelled back into the seat be the car’s forward momentum.
    “Jesus, Bob, slow down,” Jana said, but she was ignored.
    Driving at breakneck speed, the white van streaked up the dirt road. When they topped the next hill, Bob let up off the gas and grinned ear to ear, “Bingo.”
    It looked like a peace officer convention: three Newton County Sheriff’s Department cars, three game warden’s vehicles, and two state trooper’s patrol cars. As they drove up and parked on the shoulder across from the house, Bob looked in his rearview and saw a long black Suburban approaching. Recognizing the vehicle, Bob smiled and said, “Look at this.”
    Jana turned around. “We’re in luck. That’s from the local funeral home.”
    They got out and got their gear set up. As Jana and Bob crossed the road they were met by a state trooper wearing reflective chrome sunglasses. “Sorry, this is a crime scene,” the trooper said, shifting a toothpick from one corner of his mouth to the other as he spoke.
    “I can see that,” Jana snapped, she turned to see if Bob was filming. He was. After giving her hair one final toss to add a little body, she put on her best concerned reporter face and asked, “Does this have anything to do with the strange murders that have been going on in the area?”
    “I’m not at liberty to say.”
    Jana started around the trooper, but he blocked her path.
    The house was a good three-hundred feet off the road, but it appeared that the entire area was being considered part of the crime scene and was now off limits. Jana looked at the mailbox. It read: Dan & Lisa Chamblin. She took out a pen and pad and jotted this down.
    The camera was focused in as close as it could get as a man in a suit and two of the deputies placed what appeared to be a dead body on a stretcher, then loaded the stretcher into the suburban.
    “Are you getting this?” Jana asked.
    “Yeah.”
    The man in the suit came back and picked up something else that was under a bloody sheet. (When they later played the tape in Bob’s hotel room, they would see a hand barely visible from under the sheet. It was a severed arm.) Bob kept the camera aimed on the suburban. The man in the suit climbed in, pulled out of the drive, and headed to town, followed by one of the deputy’s cars.
    Jana smiled into the camera, giving a brief narrative of the situation while the black Suburban exited stage left in the background. Once the SUV was out of sight, Jana lowered her microphone and Bob slowly panned the camera away from her and back to the crime scene.
    “Sound off?” Jana asked.
    “No.”
    “Turn it off.”
    “Okay.”
    “I’m curious, Bob. Why isn’t the coroner coming to get the bodies?”
    “Jana, honey,” Bob said without taking the camera from his shoulder or his eye out of the camera’s viewer, “you’re really in the boonies out here. In little towns like this they don’t have a coroner, and probably don’t know what one is. They send the bodies off somewhere to be autopsied.”
    “Oh.”
    “That’s good, though,” Bob continued, still filming, “Better chance of finding someone willing to talk in a coroner’s office in Houston where there’s a few dozen employees than finding someone willing to turn informant when there’s only one pathologist and an aide or two.”
    Not much later, all of the other cars, except for the one belonging to the state trooper who was keeping them off the crime scene, departed. Seeing that they weren’t going to get access to the crime scene, Jana and Bob also headed back to town.
* * *
    James was standing at the front door to the sheriff’s office when Bill’s patrol car pulled up. Today the sheriff was accompanied by a large man in a western-cut sports jacket.
    “Good to see you, James. You saved me a phone call,” Bill said.
    At first this made James think he was about to be arrested and charged with murder again. However, instead of arresting James, Bill introduced him to the huge fellow standing beside him. “James, this is Captain Sam Jones of the Texas Rangers. Sam, this is James Taylor.”
    Sam and James shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.
    Bill invited James into his office and told Debra to tell Emilio to come on in the office as soon as she saw him. Before they went into the office, Debra asked if anyone wanted coffee. All three answered, “Yes.” She asked how each liked their coffee and started to the squad room.
    They had just taken their seats when Emilio came in trying to manage carrying four cups of coffee. “Juan Valdez, at your service,” Emilio said in a greatly exaggerated Spanish accent as he entered, causing Bill, Sam, and James to bark out a round of genuine laughter despite the severity of the situation at hand.
    Emilio passed out the coffee while the laughter tapered off to chuckles.
    After taking his first sip of coffee, Bill began. “All right, we’re on a short schedule here, so let’s get down to business. In about an hour and a half the hounds will be ready at the Chamblin place.” Bill glanced over to Sam to make sure his time was correct. Sam nodded and Bill continued. “The handler’s name is Larry Williams. He’ll be nominally in command there, but his hands’ll be full tryin’ to keep around a dozen dogs under control. Me and Sam are a little too old to be chasin’ dogs around in the woods, so we’ll be back here monitoring the progress. I want you,” Bill nodded at Emilio, “to be there and keep in constant contact with me and Sam.”
    “Yes, sir,” Emilio said.
    Sam took something that looked like a hand-held cellular phone from the inside pocket of his sports coat. “This is a satellite communications phone,” Sam said, handing the little phone to Emilio. “Cellular reception around here is terrible, but with this little baby you don’t have to worry about being in range of some tower and there’s no chance of all the lines being busy. Use it to keep us updated on what’s going on.”
    “Yes, sir,” Emilio said, picking up the phone and looking it over.
    Bill spoke up again. “James, I want you to go with him,” Bill said, while opening his middle desk drawer. He took out a pistol in a holster; a badge was clipped to the holster. Bill slid it across the desk. “You know how to use it?”
    James recognized the gun; it had been Greg’s. The badge, of course, wasn’t. Greg had been buried wearing his badge. “Yes, sir. Me and Greg took it out to the range a few times.”
    “Good. Raise your right hand.”
* * *
    As soon as James and Emilio closed the door behind them, Sam turned to Bill, “You sure deputizing James is a good idea?”
    “No, I’m not. The boy’s a real wildcard. I honestly don’t know what to think.”
    “I still think we should just ask him to volunteer.”
    “It’s a little late for that, ain’t it?” Bill sneered, but they had gone over this on the ride back from the Chamblin house and he still hadn’t changed his mind. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t want him as a volunteer. He wouldn’t have any ties to us. He could come and go as he pleased. As a deputy, I’ll have a little authority over him.”
    “He was a murder suspect only a few days ago. Not to mention the fact the boy has no law enforcement experience and no training at all.”
    “Come on, Sam, you know a sheriff can deputize whoever he wants.”
    “It won’t look good and you know it.”
    “I could care less. I want to keep this boy close just in case he proves helpful, and if he ain’t helpful, I want him close so I can keep an eye on him.”
    “Bill, don’t forget you’re an elected official. This could blow up in your face. I’ll tell you what, let me deputize him into the Department of Public Safety. There’s an old law that’s still on the books that allows Rangers to deputize citizens.”
    Bill shook his head, “No, Sam, this is my call and I’m willing to accept the consequences.”

CHAPTER 13
The Hounds

    Over the length of his long, storied career, many people had accused Larry Williams of being schizophrenic. At home Larry Williams was a quiet man. He never cussed, drank, smoked or even raised his voice. The worst thing that his plump little wife could ever think of was his occasionally forgetting to raise the toilet seat. Larry would get a little loud when he went out to feed and work his dogs, but other than that he was essentially a very pleasant, easy going man.
    The people who worked with Larry would no more recognize this man than Larry’s wife and kids would recognize the man who handled the bloodhounds on the manhunts. When Larry was with his hounds, he underwent a kind of metamorphosis. His Texas Department of Public Safety cap was turned with the bill toward the back. A large plug of chewing tobacco was placed in his cheek. His partial dentures, which replaced four of his missing upper teeth, were taken out and placed in his shirt pocket. His vocabulary began to have less depth and more breadth as he stopped using all words with more than two syllables and started using cuss words that would make a hardened sailor blush with shame. Even his eyes began to take on a slightly less than sane look.
    Larry wasn’t only a bloodhound handler; he was also The State of Texas' very own bloodhound trainer. He started training his dogs as soon as they were weaned. Currently eleven other states’ highway departments and the FBI purchased bloodhounds from the State of Texas, and every one of these dogs had been trained by Larry. The best of the bloodhounds, however, stayed in Texas. Larry kept his seven best students in a small kennel behind his house. He trained and worked them twice, sometimes three or four, times a day.
    As James and Emilio drove up to the Chamblins’ house, Emilio pointed out Larry Williams. He was holding four baying bloodhounds on leashes and yelling at a young game warden beside him holding the other three. “That’s Larry Williams. He’s a little strange, but I’ve worked with him. The man definitely knows his business. He’s like a god when it comes to bloodhounds.”
    James noticed Larry was having no trouble at all holding his four big bloodhounds, which were chomping at the bit to get going, but the other game warden, who was a head taller and quite a bit broader than Larry, seemed like he was fighting for all he was worth to keep from being dragged off by the other three.
    “Not exactly what I expected,” James commented as he watched the unruly dogs bay and paw at the ground.
    “Don’t let them fool you, those dogs are about as disciplined as they come when Larry wants them to behave, but he always gets them all fired up before they start tracking someone,” Emilio said as he parked the Blazer in the drive behind another Game Warden’s vehicle. “He says it helps. I think he just likes the sound of barking dogs,” he added with a chuckle.
    “What the hell took y’all so damn long?” Larry shouted over the baying hounds as Emilio and James got out of the truck.
    “Sorry, Larry…” Emilio started to give an excuse, but Larry cut in.
    “We might have a real show today, amigo. I got m’self a new assistant,” Larry said, grinning; with the front four teeth on the top of his mouth missing, his smile looked twisted and quite insane. “He ain’t showin’ much promise, but my babies’ve trained worse.”
    Larry then looked around at the five game wardens who were in the area and yelled, “Y’all ready?” Without waiting for an answer, Larry let his dogs start off across the pasture with him in tow. Seeing their comrades get started, the other three dogs took off, almost pulling Larry’s assistant off his feet. James, Emilio, and four other game wardens followed right behind them. Up ahead they could hear Larry holler, “Hell, yeah! They on somethin’ already!”
    They followed Larry through the pasture, pausing briefly to work their way through the barbwire fence. The troop of dogs and men continued through the woods and underbrush, heading north, back in the direction of town. The dogs let out a tremendous racket as they plunged through the woods, and Larry was almost as noisy, cussing his assistant and encouraging his “babies.” Every now and then, when the underbrush was at its thinnest, James could make out the dirt road to the left of them, and the scattered houses along its way. They pressed on at a jog for eight miles, taking only brief rest stops before Larry would have them back up and going.
    During the first break, Emilio had taken out the satellite phone to call in, but Larry had informed him that the rest would be too short for him to make the call. He would let him know when they were going to have a break long enough for a call in to the Sheriff’s Department. Sure enough, Emilio had just enough time to put the phone up and take a swig from his canteen when Larry started up again. So much for keeping in constant touch with Sam and Bill.
    Every so often, Emilio would take a small compass out of his breast pocket and check their direction. They headed north by northeast for about eight miles, crossing several dirt roads, passing through several pastures, and even an occasional backyard.
    As they crossed a small creek, which was only about ankle deep and four feet wide, Emilio commented in a voice winded from the quick pace they’d had to stay at to keep up with Larry and his dogs, “Highway 190's not far.”
    After crossing the creek the hounds momentarily lost the trail, giving James and the game wardens a short break; however, the break didn’t last long. As soon as the dogs had the scent again they were off, this time heading straight north, baying excitedly. Less than a half a mile later they came to Highway 190. When they came out of the brush there were no cars in sight on the road, so they quickly crossed over, with only one old pickup passing by before the entire group was on the other side of the road.
    Once the team had gone far enough into the woods that Larry’s hounds wouldn’t be distracted by passing cars, Larry stopped to give the hounds a break. While Larry and his assistant gave the dogs their water (not too much, dipshit, Larry snapped at his assistant, don’t want ’em gettin’ sick on us!) Emilio plopped down on a stump and James slumped to the ground with his back to a tree. Both of them were breathing hard. Larry walked over and told Emilio that now would be a good time to check in, but he’d have to be brief. Emilio took out Sam’s little James Bond phone. He dialed the sheriff’s office and it started ringing. No static.
    “Sheriff’s Department.”
    “Debra, this is Emilio. Transfer me to Bill’s office.”
    There was a slight pause, then Bill said, “Hello?”
    “It’s Emilio. We’ve just crossed Highway 190. The trail’s been north by northeast for almost nine miles, now the trail’s going straight north. I’d say we’re just three to four miles southeast of town.”
    “Okay, keep us posted.”
    “I will if I can. Larry’s not giving us many breaks.”
    “Ten-four.”
    Emilio put the phone back in his pocket. He took a canteen out of the small backpack he was wearing and took a drink, then handed it to James. “You say this thing has a regular den it sleeps in during the day?”
    James took a long drink out of the canteen, then replied, “Yeah, it’s under some roots on the edge of a creek.”
    James handed Emilio the canteen, and Emilio put the cap back on. “Do you recognize any of this,” Emilio made a motion around him. “from your… dreams?”
    “Not much. The thing usually moves too fast for me to tell much about where it’s at. I do remember crossing 190 though,” Then James added, “There’s something that seems strange to me. I’ve been watching that thing taking inventory in Newton for days, but when it finally strikes it hits a farmhouse ten miles out of town. What’s up with that?”
    Emilio laughed. “Why are you asking me?”
    “You’re a game warden. I thought you guys were supposed to know animals,” James said, chuckling himself.
    “I don’t know. Maybe it’s trying to throw us off.”
    James shrugged as if satisfied with this answer. Then something hit him that sent a shiver down his spine. “An animal couldn’t be that smart. How would an animal even know we were after it, much less how to throw us off?”
    “I don’t think we’re dealing with normal animal intelligence here.”
    Just as Emilio finished, Larry called out, “All right ladies. Off your ass and on your feet; out of the shade and in the heat.” They had no sooner stood up than Larry was off, followed by his assistant and the rest of their little group.
* * *
    The beast awoke with a start.
    It poked its head out from under the roots and looked around. Its eyes were unaccustomed to the bright light of day, and even after its eyes adjusted its vision was somewhat blurred. Its sense of smell and hearing, on the other hand, was unaffected. The beast raised itself, sniffed the wind and listened. It couldn’t smell them or hear them coming, but it knew they were on the way.
    The beast dropped back on all fours, climbed up the bank of the creek, and rose to two feet again. Still no sound or smell of what it knew was coming.
    It waited.
    After a couple more minutes, the beast heard a sound, and stood up. Yes, it could hear them. Not much longer and it would be able to smell them too.
    The beast began to lope in the direction of the sound. It hadn’t gone far when it stopped once again and smelled the air. The sound was much nearer, but it still couldn’t smell them; the wind had shifted toward the approaching group. This was good. The beast wanted to mask its smell, not hide it.
    The beast closed its eyes and sent its senses forward, now relying even more on smell and sound than it usually did. It passed through the woods and over hills for some distance until it came up on the approaching party. It noted the smaller creatures leading the others. Their noses were down, sniffing the ground.
    The beast’s senses then entered one of the dogs and found a memory; one of a small black animal with a white stripe down its back. It then repeated this process with each of the dogs.
* * *
    Larry and his dogs barreled through the woods for almost a half a mile past their stop before coming to more houses. The trail then began to follow a path behind the houses for another half mile. They skirted close to several homes along Lee’s Mill Road, bringing many people out of their houses to watch as seven bloodhounds, five game wardens, one recently sworn in deputy, and a half crazy dog handler with a filthy vocabulary stormed noisily through their backyards. Despite an audience which included several ladies and quite a few children, Larry continued to blast out encouragements to his hounds in the form of obscenities. The trail continued close by these houses until it took a right and crossed Lee’s Mill road.
    When they crossed the road, Larry’s assistant began to plead for another stop and James was silently rooting for him. Emilio was tired but seemed to be holding up okay; however, James wasn’t exactly in the best of shape, and he wasn’t sure how much further he could go. Larry didn’t answer his assistant, but — without stopping his dogs — he turned to Emilio and asked, “There’s a creek ahead. How far?”
    “Half mile, maybe,” Emilio panted.
    “We’ll rest there.”
    But they hadn’t gone much more than a few more steps before the dogs stopped on their own. They sniffed around trying to pick up the smell. They were nervously hopping about, constantly looking in the direction they had been going and whining.
    “What the hell?” Larry said, then attempted to coax them on. “Come on, let’s go.”
    Only two of his seven dogs wanted to continue on, albeit without as much enthusiasm as before. The rest just whimpered and looked in the direction they had just been so eagerly heading.
    “This is new,” Larry said, trying to get his hounds going again.
    James looked at Emilio. “What’s happening?”
    “I don’t know,” Emilio said as he unslung the AR-15 from his shoulder.
    Larry gave his remaining dogs, which were much easier to handle now that they were less excited about continuing, to his assistant. “Looks like Sal and Jody are the only two that’s got the balls to keep on.” Then he took off again, but at a much slower pace. The dogs were hesitant, and silent — no baying at all now. James, Emilio, and three of the game wardens followed along. The assistant and the other remaining game warden stayed behind with the other five dogs.
    Not much further along they came to a creek and the dogs began to hurry upstream.
    “That’s it!” James said, pointing at the root system of what had once been a tall oak. “That’s where it’s been sleeping.”
    The tree was long since dead, only about ten feet of the trunk remained. The water had eroded away the dirt from around most of its roots causing them to stick out spider-like into the creek.
    Emilio moved forward with his rifle to his shoulder, ready for action. James was right behind him, with his pistol in his hand. Larry led the way and the dogs began sniffing around the tree. Emilio carefully peeked underneath the dead tree’s roots. Nothing.
    The dogs went no further than the tree.
    “Shit! The damn trail ends here.”
* * *
    “What happened?” Bill asked from behind his desk.
    It was just past eleven at night, and Bill, Sam, Emilio, and James were once again in Bill’s office discussing the day’s failed attempt to track the beast with dogs.
    “I’m not sure. Larry’s dogs just lost the scent,” Emilio said. “All the sudden, too. Like the thing just disappeared.”
    “I think I might know what happened,” James spoke up. “Remember when it killed that horse and those two cows? How it was able to walk right up on them? When it changes, it takes on another form’s appearance and sound. It takes on their smell, too. It just heard us comin’ and changed into something different.”
    “Then how come the dogs started acting strange before they reached the den?” Emilio asked. “I mean, wouldn’t it have been asleep there, woke up, then changed?”
    “Maybe it went back down its tracks tryin’ to throw the dogs off.”
    “I don’t think that would work on Larry and his dogs,” Sam said. “They’re the best in the state, and possibly the best in the country.”
    Emilio nodded. “Yeah, it would take one hell of a scent to cover its tracks so well that only two out of seven dogs were able to follow the trail to the den, and I didn’t smell a thing. We could even see its prints, but the hounds wouldn’t pick the trail back up. We followed the prints for about a quarter of a mile by sight, but finally lost them in the brush.”
    “Maybe we’ll have better luck next time,” Bill injected. “The damn thing’s nocturnal, so we’re bound to catch it nappin’ sooner or later.”

CHAPTER 14
My Babies

    Early the next morning James returned to the sheriff’s office. He met with Bill and told him the beast had left from under a white wooden structure that James supposed was its new den and stayed to the woods throughout the night, killing and devouring a rabbit before returning.
    James was worn from lack of real sleep and it showed. Bags were plainly visible under his bloodshot eyes, and his speech even had a slight slur to it. He seemed drunk. Bill suggested that he go home and get some rest, and he did.
    It was three in the afternoon when James finally returned to the sheriff’s office a second time, looking and feeling a little bit better. When he arrived, Sam and Bill were just coming out of the building and walking to Bill’s patrol car.
    Seeing James drive up, Bill changed his course and walked over to his pickup. Meeting James as he stepped out of his truck, Bill said. “We’re headin’ out to Bob Ellis' to check on Larry and his dogs if you want to come along.”
    “Sure,” James replied with a shrug.
    As he climbed in the backseat of the patrol car, he realized this was his third such ride. The thought of the circumstances surrounding his previous rides in the backseat of a patrol car made him uncomfortable and he considered asking Sam to switch seats. His manners got the better of him, however; and he didn’t utter a single complaint. Luckily, the trip out to the Ellis' place was a short one.
* * *
    The State supplied Larry with portable pens for his dogs, but it was still up to the host department — in this case the Newton County Sheriff’s Department — to find a place to set up Larry’s makeshift kennel and a nearby place for him to stay. Bob Ellis and his new bride, Jewel, had just built a house about two miles north of the small community of Liberty, some seven miles north of Newton. It was built on thirty acres of land, which was mostly wooded but included a small pasture on which Bob had three horses. Bob had drawn the detail of quartering Larry and providing a place for his dogs. Bob and Jewel could definitely relate to James’ sleeping problems. Larry’s hounds might have been the best sniffers in the country, but they weren’t exactly the best neighbors one could ask for. For one thing, they were quite prone to suddenly start baying in the middle of the night. This had been an almost constant problem when Larry first arrived, but he swore his babies were only excited about being in a new place. Last night the dogs only woke up once, but it was enough to ruin yet another night’s sleep for the Ellises.
    When Bill, Sam, and James arrived at Bob’s, they could hear the dogs baying from behind the house before they even stepped out of the patrol car.
    Bill rang the doorbell and got no answer, so they went around back. Larry had the dogs out of their pens and was working them in the back yard. It actually looked more like he was playing with them. Larry would put the dogs back in their pen, take a small beanbag-like sack and hide it among the numerous obstacles placed throughout the yard, and then walk over to the pen and let one of the dogs out. The bloodhound would come out of the pen running with its nose to the ground. A tarp had been thrown over one side of the kennel, preventing the dogs from watching Larry hide the beanbag, but Larry’s babies had no difficulty finding the bag with their sniffers. In fact, it took more time for Larry to hide the bag than it did for the dog to find it. Once the hound found the bag, Larry would make it sit, then give the dog a treat from a small pouch he wore on his belt, ruffle the dog’s ears, and return it to the pen with the others. He would then repeat the process with one of the other dogs until every dog had its turn, then Larry would start over.
    Larry glanced up and noticed his three new observers, but he didn’t acknowledge their presence. He just kept right on working the dogs.
    Bob was out patrolling, but Jewel Ellis stood in the house’s little gazebo, watching Larry and his dogs. She had her long brown hair pulled back in a braid. She had no makeup on and her face looked almost as worn and weary as James’ had this morning. Jewel Hart Ellis was a native of Newton County. Her family had lived around Burkeville, a small community a little further north, for generations. Jewel was one of the sweetest people you could have the pleasure to meet. Despite the fact she hadn’t slept well since the dogs arrived, and it had been the sheriff’s decision to quarter the dogs in her backyard and their strange master in their spare bedroom, she still managed a smile when Bill walked up to her.
    “Good afternoon, Mrs. Ellis,” Bill said, taking his hat from his head. Bill’s normal greeting toward a young lady would include the comment, you look lovely today, but in light of how rough Jewel looked, Bill skipped the phrase, thinking it would sound a bit sarcastic.
    “Afternoon, Sheriff Oates,” Jewel said sweetly.
    “Mrs. Ellis, have you met Deputy Taylor?” Bill introduced James to Jewel
    James smiled and shook her hand and she commented. “James Taylor, right? You work at Baldwin’s Garage don’t you?”
    “Yes, ma’am.”
    “And I believe you’ve met Captain Jones,” Bill said.
    “Captain Jones,” Jewel said, and extended her hand. Sam, who had also taken his hat off, revealing his hairless head, took her hand and gently shook it. “Can I get y’all anything?” Jewel asked. “A glass of tea, maybe?”
    Bill, Sam, and James all declined the offer. They all stood and watched Larry and his dogs for some time before Bill once again spoke up. “Mrs. Ellis, I sure do appreciate you letting us keep the dogs out here. I hope it hasn’t been too much of a burden on you.”
    “Not at all,” Jewel lied, “Just glad we could help out.”
    They continued to watch Larry and his dogs for the better part of an hour. Larry never took a break or came over to speak, and Bill and Sam didn’t want to interrupt. Finally Bill turned to Jewel and said, “Well, Mrs. Ellis, I think we’ll be heading back to town. If you need anything, you just call up to the office and let me know.”
    “Thank you, Sheriff Oates.”
* * *
    That night the beast was on the move. It ambled through the pine forest like it owned the place, occasionally crossing streams and roads and coming into clearings.
    It came up to a paved road and watched from the woods as a car came by. Then the beast withdrew into the woods and began moving again, now parallel with the road. Every now and then it would come to a house and have to take time to skirt its way around the yard. Once it even had to detach its vision into a dog so it could pass by undetected.
    It continued on through the woods for miles before it came to a dirt road, where it stopped and looked around. It walked along this dirt road until it came out at the paved road again. Then the beast took a look around as if it was looking for something. It then turned back around and entered the woods. It began moving along parallel to the dirt road, much the same as it had been doing earlier with the paved road.
    As it moved along, hounds began to bay in the distance.
    It had moved too close.
    The beast detached its senses, passing through the woods before coming into a clearing. A house was situated in the clearing, near the dirt road. The beast’s senses then continued toward the back of the house, where it found a small, temporary pen holding seven bloodhounds. The senses then entered each of the hounds.
    The hounds didn’t stop baying instantly, so the beast had to bide its time. It simply sat on its haunches, patiently listening. Fifteen minutes passed before the hounds quite suddenly stopped their baying. The beast then waited for a while longer before proceeding.
    It moved stealthily through the woods toward the house. Remaining near the edge of the tree line, the beast moved along until it was as close to the dog pen as it could get and still be in the concealment of the trees.
    It then stood on all fours and walked toward the pen. Once the beast came near the pen the dogs started up again.
    “Hush, now! Hush, damn it!” the beast said in Larry’s voice.
    The baying quieted somewhat and the beast hurried to the gate to the small pen. As it opened the gate, they started baying again. It would have to work fast before they woke someone.
* * *
    It seemed he had just come from outside when the dogs started up again. Larry had worked the dogs harder than usual today, hoping he could wear them down to the point that they would sleep tonight and give his hosts a break. It seemed like it hadn’t worked; the dogs sounded more active than ever. He was about to get up when the barking changed. Larry knew his dogs better than most people know their own wives. He recognized their current excited baying as the happy barking they generally reserved for when he fed them. This was strange. Perhaps some well-meaning stranger was unloading his scraps in their pen, but that wasn’t right either. The dogs never got that excited unless he was with them.
    Larry sat up in his bed and stretched. The bloodhound-handler-Larry wasn’t as much of the type to worry about inconveniencing others as the family-man-Larry was. The bloodhound-handler-Larry had a one-track mind, and his only two concerns were tracking down whomever — or in this case whatever — he was sent to track down. And the welfare of his dogs. To hell with anything and everything else that didn’t have to do with one of these two concerns. However, the way Larry saw it, keeping the Ellises’ happy had a lot to do with both of these concerns. The Ellis house and the area around it were perfect for Larry and his hounds. Aside from the three horses that Larry had convinced Bob to move to another pasture for the duration of his stay, the Ellis place was well away from the various things that could distract the dogs from their training, like nosy neighbors and other dogs and animals. The Ellises also had a large backyard and a pasture to work the dogs, and the woods were near the house, so Larry could work them in the woods without having to load them up and transport them somewhere else.
    As Larry searched the floor and under his bed for his pants (the bloodhound-handler-Larry was also quite a slob), he heard the dog’s baying change dramatically. Fear.
    He heard a yelp.
    Larry grabbed his revolver off the nightstand and took off, starting down the hall clad only in his long johns.
* * *
    The Ellis master bedroom was on the other end of the house. Jewel woke up when the dogs started baying the first time, and she hadn’t been able to get back to sleep when they started again. She woke Bob and asked him to go see if Larry could do anything to quiet the dogs down. Bob, who had been sleeping like a rock through all the commotion, got up and put on his robe. He was on his way down the hall to Larry’s room when his guest burst out the door and slammed into him. Despite being about fifty pounds lighter than Bob, Larry didn’t fall. In fact, his step didn’t falter; he didn’t even break stride. He plowed into and over Bob and kept going.
    Outside the dogs’ barking had turned to outright panic. Another startled yelp was heard, and was abruptly silenced.
    Larry threw the sliding glass door that lead to the back porch open with such force that it jumped off its tracks and fell to the porch, shattering.
    Another yelp came from the pen, this one long and pained. He could hear the rest of the dogs were barking and howling in outright terror.
    Driven by a combination of rage, fear, and panic usually reserved for parents protecting their children, Larry leaped from the porch and started toward the pen.
    There were security lights in the backyard of the Ellis house, but none of them were close to the pen. Larry was halfway across the backyard before he could make out something in the pen with the dogs. It was standing on two legs. Larry saw this intruder swing a long arm, and then saw what seemed to be one of his dogs fly across the pen and against the far wall of the pen.
    “Son-of-a-bitch!” Larry shrieked, and fired his.38 in the air. There was no chance of him hitting whatever it was at this range without a risk of hitting one of the dogs, but perhaps he could scare it off.
    Apparently it worked. Whatever was in the pen with the dogs ran out the gate and started for the woods. Larry fired two poorly aimed shots at the shape while still on the run.
    The beast crashed into the woods with Larry not too far behind.
    Larry continued chasing whatever it was that had hurt his babies. He couldn’t see it, but he could hear it. Every once in a while he would let his rage out, and shriek an expletive at the top of his panic-stricken voice. About ten cuss words later Larry tripped over a root and went sprawling face first.
    Larry raised his head. “Bastard,” he said now in a hoarse whisper.
    He then pointed his revolver in the direction he had been running and blindly fired his remaining three shots.
* * *
    Bob made it to the back door just in time to see Larry crash into the woods. He turned to Jewel, who had heard the commotion and gotten up and now stood right behind him. “Call the sheriff’s office,” he told her.
    Then Bob rushed back into the living room and turned on the light. He went to the gun-cabinet, and selected a.308 out of the dozen or so shotguns and rifles. Bob hurried to the back door, where he stepped outside, carefully trying to avoid stepping on the broken glass with his bare feet. Once past the glass, he started toward the dog’s pen at a trot.
    As Bob hurried across the yard, he noticed the dogs were strangely silent. When he got nearer and saw the gate open, he first began to calm somewhat as he decided that maybe one of the dogs had somehow managed to get out and that Larry had taken off trying to catch them. But this didn’t make any sense. From what he had seen, Larry’s dogs were so well disciplined that if Larry wanted them to come back he’d just have to call them and they’d come running. In fact, it almost seemed that the pen was unnecessary; Larry could probably draw a circle on the ground and tell them to stay in it and they would. Not only that, but why had Larry been shooting?
    As Bob approached the gate he began to hear a faint whimper. He knew it had to be a dog, but it almost sounded human. Then he saw the mutilated remains of what had been Larry’s bloodhounds.
    “My God,” he gasped
    In the distance three shots rang out, causing Bob to jump.
* * *
    Bill was first to arrive at the scene. He got out of his patrol car, drew his pistol, and started around the house. “Bob! Jewel!” he called out.
    “Around back!” He heard Bob answer.
    In the backyard Bill found Bob and Jewel standing together halfway between the house and the dog’s pen, facing the pen. Bob had his rifle in one hand and had his other arm wrapped tightly around Jewel, who was shivering. Bob was wearing a bathrobe, and Jewel was wearing only a nightgown.
    As Bill approached from behind the couple, he holstered his gun and took off his jacket. Bill placed the jacket on Jewel’s shoulders. “Here you go,” he said softly.
    Jewel didn’t say a word. One of her hands reached up and softly grasped Bill’s hand as he positioned the jacket. She was crying. Jewel was no great dog lover, but she had always been a soft-hearted person.
    “What happened?” Bill asked.
    “Something got Larry’s dogs,” Bob answered in a reverent whisper.
    “Where’s Larry?”
    “Down there,” Bob gestured toward the pen. “He’s shook up somethin’ terrible.”
    Bill started down the hill.
    The pen was a bloody mess. To the right of the gate there was what seemed to be a gory strip of dog hide hung in the mesh of the fence. A severed dog’s leg with most of the shoulder still attached was lying right in the doorway. One of the dogs had even been ripped completely in two, with its lower half lying on one side of the pen with guts hanging out of it, and the front half lying near the middle of the pen.
    Larry was kneeling in the middle of the pen holding one dog with its head in his lap, another lay near his side. He was covered in his babies’ blood.
    “You’ll be okay Jody,” Larry sobbed to the dog in his lap. Then he stroked the dog that was by his side. “Sshh, Cecil, it's okay, Daddy’s here.” He started crying uncontrollably. “My babies. My beautiful babies.”
    Bill didn’t say a word. He silently turned and walked back toward the Ellises’ allowing Larry to have his time alone with his babies.
    Five of the seven dogs were dead, and Jody, the dog in Larry’s lap, would be dead before sunrise. Cecil, the only surviving dog, would recover and eventually be kept as a house pet at the Williams house. Larry retired from the Department of Public Safety as soon as he returned to Austin.

CHAPTER 15
Suspicions

    James closed the office door behind him; he was the last one to arrive. Bill was seated behind his desk, and Sam and Emilio were seated across from him.
    Not long after Bill had left for the Ellises’, James called in to tell Bill about his dream. After finding that Bill wasn’t in, he looked Emilio up in the phone book and called him. He had just started explaining everything to Emilio when Emilio’s pager went off, no doubt calling him out to Bob Ellis’ house. The last couple of days of being able to tell his horrible dreams to someone had worked as a sort of therapy for James, and he desperately wanted to talk to someone. He thought about trying to look up Sam’s number and talking to him, but decided against it. James went back to his couch and tried to go to sleep. It seemed he had just dozed off when the phone rang. He looked at the clock: 7:45 a.m. No, he’d slept at least an hour, maybe two. It was Bill. He asked if James had seen what had happened to Larry’s dogs. When James said he had, Bill told him to come into town immediately. When he arrived, Debra had directed him to Bill’s office.
    “Have a seat, James,” Bill said.
    James took one of the folding chairs from behind the door, opened it, and had a seat.
    “Sam thought we needed to have a little meeting of the minds,” Bill said, then nodded to Sam.
    Sam cleared his throat; the throat clearing turned to a cough, which led to more coughs. Sam began to turn red. Emilio reached over and began to pound him on the back. Sam took a drink of his coffee and started to talk again, but found his voice gone. After another couple of sips, he was able to speak in a hoarse voice. “Sorry about that. What I needed to say was that we’re back at square one with this thing. I can replace the dogs within a week — wouldn’t be as good of a team, especially without Larry, but they could still be replaced. However, after what happened Monday, I’m not so sure the dogs will work anyway. Quite frankly, I’m stumped. We weren’t successful tracking it. And, if there’s a pattern to this thing’s killings, I’ve missed it. You two,” Sam pointed a pair of thick fingers at Emilio and Bill, “have worked on this case longer than I have, and you,” he pointed at James, “seem to be able to see things about this thing that the rest of us can’t. What I need is for us all to put our heads together and see if we can’t come up with something — anything — that might be useful.”
    For a brief moment no one said a word, then James spoke up. “Well, I think it’s odd how the thing always knows what to attack and where to find it.”
    Everyone looked at James. Bill and Emilio had a fairly well concealed but still apparent look of surprise on their faces. This made James hesitate.
    “Please, continue,” Sam helped.
    The last few weeks had made tatters of James’ nerves. He felt his cheeks grow warm and realized he was blushing; this in turn made him embarrassed about the fact that he was blushing like a schoolboy and made his cheeks turn even redder. He began to feel lightheaded, so he hid his head in his hands.
    Sam had just opened his mouth to coax James into talking when James, without raising his head from his hands, started again. “In one of my dreams it saw my prints where I had snooped around at the Perrett place. Four days later it shows up at my house, which is over five miles away, and murders Angie and Jimmy.”
    After mentioning their names out loud for the first time in over a week, James began to feel tears well up in his eyes. He fought them back, then raised his head, wiping away any possible sign of tears with his hands as he moved them away from his face.
    “Then it killed Greg when he was the only person left who believed me,” James continued. “Then, after the dogs came close to catching it, the thing traveled all the way out past Liberty to take care of them. It’s weird enough that it noticed the dogs were a threat, but it’s downright unbelievable that this thing knew where to find them.”
    There was another brief moment of silence, then Sam spoke. “I fully agree that what happened to the dogs seems to be too much of a coincidence, and I must admit the circumstances surrounding the killing of your wife and child are quite odd. But, I think that even if the truck driver is right, and there was something at the corner when Deputy O’Brien ran out in front of him, I still think O’Brien’s incident was just a case of he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I mean three murders had already been committed on that road, so we already know it was prowling there.”
    “Yeah, but it doesn’t normally sit and wait at intersections for its victims.”
    “What do you mean?” Sam asked.
    “It sat in those woods for over an hour, waiting. Then, when Greg passed by on his way to check out the crime scenes, it watched the car closely, not like the other dozens of cars that passed by while it was sitting there. Then it waited at the intersection for Greg to return. Y’all have a record of when he stopped at Mr. Youngblood’s, don’t you? How long was it between the time he called in and the time I started raising the roof?”
    “I’m not sure, but I’ll check,” Bill said.
    “Well, however long it was, that beast waited quite some time for him to come back, then attacked him. It wasn’t random at all.”
    “What about Sharon Perrett, William Youngblood, Alma Carroll, and Don and Lisa Chamblin?” Sam asked.
    “Random attacks, I think. I guess it was hungry,” James said, “although Emilio said that the Chamblin attack might have been a decoy.”
    Emilio’s eyebrows shot up. He put his hands out in front of himself and waved them defensively. “What I said was, if your dreams were right, and this thing was staking out Newton, then maybe when it attacked the Chamblins it was trying to throw us off.”
    James caught the defensiveness of Emilio’s posture and statement and began to wonder if they were telling him everything. He thought about asking them what they had been talking about before he came in the room, but he held his tongue.
    “I guess if this creature’s smart enough to do half of the things it’s done, it’s smart enough to know how to run a red herring across a trail,” Sam commented. “So, we all agree this thing is smarter than the average bear, so to speak.” No one laughed at his weak attempt to lighten the mood, so Sam continued, “Does anyone have any idea how to go about catching or killing the thing?”
    There was another long pause, then James spoke again. “It’s got a new den. It seems to be an abandoned building of some sort; it seemed to have been painted white at one time, but the paint is flaking. It takes longer for the beast to reach town than it did before, so I imagine this place is pretty far back in the woods. If I can get a good enough look at the building, maybe I can identify it and we can catch it while it’s at home nappin’.”
    “This is a possibility,” Sam said.
    “We can try tracking again,” Emilio said, then added, “of course, like you said, we will have even less of a chance of catching it without Larry and his dogs.”
    “If this damn thing’s as smart as it makes out to be,” Bill added, “we can probably count out being able to track it with dogs. I think the only real chance we’ve got is if James here can wake up from one of his dreams in time to tell us where that thing is right before or during an attack. And even then we’d have to have a unit right there. The thing seems to work fast.”
    “You’re probably right, Bill,” Sam said, then asked, “Any more ideas?” He looked around and got no response other than a shrug from Emilio.
    Sam said, “All right then. If y’all think of anything else, for Christ’s sake I’m all ears.” He turned to Bill, “That’s all I wanted to say.”
    Bill took the floor back. “Okay, Emilio, you need to go see Debra about some paperwork on Larry and his dogs.”
    Bill then looked at James. “And James, judging by the looks of you, you could use a few more winks. I want you to go home and get some rest. When you feel rested, I want you to come back and report to Debra. She’ll get Carl to stop by the station and pick you up. He can show you the ropes.”
    “Yes, sir,” James had started to say he was fine, but he knew this was a lie. He was exhausted.
* * *
    Officer Max Davis of the Newton City Police was sitting in his patrol car just below the Newton city limits on Highway 87 facing south, toward town. A black Mustang darted around the corner. The driver saw Max’s patrol car and tried to decelerate without hitting the brakes, which would’ve caused the car’s hood to dip and the taillights to flash in a telltale sign of guilt. Max looked at his radar: 73. Seventy-three in a sixty mile per hour zone, definitely ticket material. But that wasn’t why Max was there.
    The next vehicle that came around the corner was a white pickup, James Taylor’s pickup.
    As the pickup passed by, Max lifted his fingers from his steering wheel in a friendly wave. The driver of the pickup, James, returned the gesture.
    Max watched the pickup disappear around the next corner through his rearview mirror, then picked up a little hand held satellite phone and dialed the sheriff’s office.
    “Captain Jones. This is Max. He just passed by… Yep, I’m sure… Okay, no problem, glad I could help.”
    Max hung up the phone started looking for speeders.
* * *
    Sam opened the door to Bill’s office and stuck his head out the door. “Mrs. Duncan, could you please ask Mr. Rodriguez to join us.”
    Sam went back to his seat at the side of Bill’s desk and sat down. Bill sat in his desk sipping on a fresh cup of coffee Debra had just brought him. In no time, Emilio returned and took a seat in the chair he had so recently vacated.
    “Well, what do ya’ll think?” Sam asked
    “I think the boy’s bein’ straight with us,” Bill said and Emilio nodded in agreement. “It certainly don’t seem like he’s holdin’ anything back.”
    “It just seems odd to me that the thing happened to hit Larry’s dogs the night after we took James out to see them,” Sam said. “But I agree. I’ve got enough experience to give me a good idea when someone’s trying to hide something. I think James is on the up and up.”
    “We’ve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he didn’t have anything to do with most of the killings. He was in jail for one, maybe two,” Emilio said. “And if he was helping someone out, he would want to draw our attention away from the coincidences rather than to them. He certainly wouldn’t have brought them up himself. If you ask me, this just about proves he’s not collaborating with someone or something.”
    “True,” Sam commented. “I think he’s being honest, but I still think we ought to find some way to keep an eye on him. He’s living out there by himself. If he is an asset, it’s only a matter of time before that thing goes after him.”
    “Actually,” Bill spoke up, “the same thing could be said for yourself. You’re stayin’ out at your dad’s old place by yourself. And you, too, Emilio. You’re a bachelor, aren’t you?”
    Emilio nodded.
    Bill looked at Emilio and said, “Why don’t you invite your good friend James to stay at your place for a while.”
    Emilio raised his eyebrows and started to protest.
    Bill grinned slyly and added, “I insist.”
    Emilio smiled back. “I was just about to say how nice it would be to have a house guest.”
    “That’s what I thought,” Bill said with a smile, then he turned to Sam. “And as for you… ”
    “Now hold on just a cotton-pickin’ minute,” Sam interrupted, also smiling.
    Bill kept going, the wolfish grin still on his face. “I can put extra sheets and a good feather pillow in one of the empty cells.”
    “You’re going to quarter a Texas Ranger in a cold dark cell?” Sam asked in feigned shock.
    “It’s where I’ve been resting my weary bones for the last few days. If it’s good enough for me it’s good enough for you.”
    Sam’s grin widened. “By God?”
    “By God,” Bill answered, still smiling.
* * *
    That afternoon just after two, when Carl and James came in from patrolling, Emilio met James at the Sheriff’s Office and suggested James move in with him for a while. At first James refused, but Emilio politely informed him that there may not be another option. They then went to James’ house where James repacked his overnight bag and loaded Lady into the back of his pickup. Emilio didn’t have a pen for Lady, and James wouldn’t hear of her running loose where that creature could get her — James just couldn’t shake the feeling that she was the last of his family. Finally Bill came through with a solution and Lady was shipped to Houston where she could stay with Bill’s wife at her sister’s house.
    That night James slept on his third couch in three weeks.
    James dreamed of the beast prowling inside the Newton city limits again, but it didn’t make an attack. On its return trip to the new lair, the beast killed and ate a squirrel. Once again the beast’s journey ended at the white building, but, as before, James was not able to get a good look at the building to tell anything about it.
    The next day James again patrolled during the day with Carl and at night he returned to Emilio’s.
    During the night, the beast once again entered the city limits; this time killing someone’s cat and even sending its senses into a few houses, but it didn’t attack any people. The beast was being cautious, but James knew the killings were far from over.

CHAPTER 16
Dan’s Awakening

    On the morning of November 18, the day after James temporarily moved in with Emilio, Dan Chamblin woke up from his coma. Dan had been at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Beaumont for four days now, and for the last two he had shown signs that he was beginning to regain consciousness. He now had his own room, where he was placed lying face down so he wouldn’t be lying on the massive injuries to his shoulder and the back of his head. His bed was made so that his head came off the edge of the bed and faced down; a padded bar was rigged to rest his forehead, holding his head up. Beneath his head was a mirror, so he could, if he were awake, talk with visitors without having to turn his head to the side.
    Dan’s sister, Barbara DeWitt, was in the room with him. His mother, Wilma Chamblin, and his son had also been in the room during much of the last four days, but they had returned home for some rest. Barbara had taken over the family vigil in their absence. Pastor Ronald Talley also stopped by, hoping to catch Jeremy and see how he was coping with the tragic loss of his mother and his father’s horrendous injury. Ronald stayed about an hour talking to Barbara, who was a member of his church. He had just left when Dan started stirring.
    Dan had been semiconscious off and on throughout the last two days, but each time he was only able to glance around the room briefly before returning to a deep unconsciousness. The longest he’d been awake so far was earlier this morning when he’d managed to stay conscious long enough to hear his mother claim she saw his hand move, then after she grasped his hand he had tightened his grip. They called the nurses, but before anyone arrived he had drifted off again.
    He awoke slowly. His vision swimming lazily as it came into focus. The first thing he saw the image of his own face before him — the mirror. He allowed his eyes to look about the room. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could make out Barbara sitting in a chair to his right. She was reading her usual trashy romance novel.
    “Barbara,” he slurred in a weak and hoarse voice.
    Barbara glanced up, unsure if she’d really heard something or not, then looked back down at her book, but only briefly. She suddenly realized Dan had been staring back at her. The voice she’d heard hadn’t been her imagination. She dropped her book. “Dan!” She ran to the door and shouted down the hall to the nurses' station. “He’s awake! He’s talking!”
    She ran back to Dan’s bed and squatted down beside him. She reached to put her arm around him, but thought better of it. She might accidentally put pressure on the wounds on his back and head.
    “It’s so good to have you back, Dan,” she said, with tears building in her eyes.
    Dan realized from Barbara’s actions that he must have been unconscious for some time. He suddenly wondered if he’d been out for months or years. “How long?” he asked, his voice much stronger now than when he’d first spoke, but still fairly weak.
    At first Barbara didn’t catch what he meant, then she replied, “Oh, you’ve been in a, uh, coma for four days.”
    This was a tremendous relief.
    Two nurses came in the door. The younger of the two began checking Dan’s vital signs. The older one pulled a stool up right next to Dan so she could look into the mirror and ask him questions.
    “How do you feel, Mr. Chamblin?” the older nurse asked.
    “Fine, I guess. A little tired,” Dan said.
    While the nurse continued to ask Dan a few questions, Pastor Talley came back in.
    “I was at the cafeteria,” the preacher told Barbara, “I came as soon as I heard.”
    Barbara hugged Pastor Talley, then turned back to Dan. She clasped her hands together in front of her chest and exclaimed, “God has blessed us!”
    Ronald quietly agreed, “Truly the work of the Lord.”
    While the nurse was asking him questions and Pastor Talley and Barbara were discussing God’s influence, Dan began trying to remember what had happened that night. He remembered Jeremy at the door, wanting to be let in. Lisa had gotten up and gone to the door. Then something had happened, but what?
    “Mr. Chamblin? Mr. Chamblin, are you okay?” the nurse asked when Dan quit answering her questions.
    “Yeah, just tryin’ to remember,” he said hoarsely.
    “Well, I have just a few more questions. Then in a little while Dr. Thomas will want to see you. Can you feel your hands?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Wiggle your fingers, please?”
    Dan moved his fingers for the nurse, then he started thinking. Jeremy had come through the door, knocking Lisa down. Was something chasing him? No, he didn’t think so.
    Then something else caught his eye. Among the many potted plants on the table near the window, there was a basket of silk flowers with a ribbon that read BELOVED SISTER. Beside the shelf, standing on the floor, was a stand of flowers; its ribbon read: MOTHER. These were funeral flowers!
    The nurse was just about to ask Dan if he was okay when he blurted out, “The little prick killed his own mother!”
    The nurse sat silently. Barbara and Pastor Talley’ss conversation abruptly stopped. Even the young blond nurse who had been flittering around the room doing a whole lot of nothing stopped in the middle of her third check of Dan’s vital signs. Aside from the steady beat of the heart monitor and the faint whisper of voices from outside, absolute silence prevailed in the little hospital room.
    “What?” Barbara gasped.
    “I said that little prick of a son of mine killed his own mother,” Dan said, his voice still heavily slurred. He tried to turn his head toward Barbara and Ronald, who were just in the blind spot of both his eyes and the mirror below him. This caused immense pain in the back of his head.
    Seeing Dan’s face tighten with pain, the nurse said, “Mr. Chamblin, you need to settle down. You don’t want to strain yourself.”
    Pastor Talley said, “Dan, Jeremy was at the church lock-in all night. I was there with him. He didn’t go anywhere.”
    “I don’t give a shit what you think you saw. I saw the little murdering bastard with my own two eyes. He attacked me before I could get up, then he must have turned on Lisa.”
    The nurse turned to Barbara and Pastor Talley. “He may be delirious.” Then she added in a quieter tone, “The doctors haven’t ruled out brain damage.”
    “I know what I saw.” Dan tried to yell, but only managed to speak in the same volume he’d been using, only with slightly more spit coming from his mouth. The left side of Dan’s face was numb for some reason, and his mouth refused to cooperate entirely.
    Barbara stooped down beside him, and, forgetting his injuries, started to stroke his head. Her hand was intercepted by the nurse’s. Barbara leaned forward and said sweetly, “Jeremy would never do such a thing, Dan. He’s such a sweet boy.”
    “He’s a little killer, Bar. I saw him,” Dan said, spitting more, but managing a little more volume this time.
    Noting that Dan’s blood pressure was on the rise, the older nurse suggested, “Perhaps we should leave him alone. He needs his rest.”
    Ignoring the nurse, Pastor Talley stooped down beside Dan and, while Barbara’s head nodded vigorously at his every word, said, “Jeremy’s been here waiting for you to wake up for four days. We’ve prayed together for you to return to us. There’s no way he would have ever done anything to hurt you or Lisa.”
    “You weren’t there, you damn Bible-thumper,” Dan said, gaining even more volume now, and quite a bit more spittle.
    “We need to leave him alone until the doctor can have a look at him,” the nurse said as she rose from her little stool.
    Still ignoring the nurse, Pastor Talley turned to Barbara and said, “Maybe if we brought Jeremy in to see him it would help bring him around.”
    At this Barbara started nodding vigorously before the preacher finished his sentence. She started to say something, but was interrupted by the nurse who bluntly said, “Everybody out, or I’m calling security.”
* * *
    Texas Ranger Sam Jones was contacted as soon as Dan Chamblin came around, and he wasted no time getting to Beaumont.
    At the hospital Sam was briefed by Dan’s doctor, Reginald Thomas, an old friend of Sam’s. Doctor Thomas told Sam that other than some facial paralysis that seemed to be wearing off Dan showed no signs of brain damage, but he did seem a little delusional — he kept insisting his son had been the one who attacked him. Doctor Thomas agreed to allow Sam to have a talk with Dan, but only a brief one, and only if Sam didn’t put Dan under too much stress.
    After talking with Doctor Thomas, one of the nurses led the way down the hall from the nurse’s station to Dan’s room. Sam followed behind her, with his hat in his hand. A teenaged boy and an older lady were sitting outside the door to the room. It was Dan’s son, Jeremy Chamblin, and Dan’s mother Wilma Chamblin. Sam recognized them from Lisa Chamblin’s funeral. Jeremy was sitting in a chair outside, bawling his eyes out. His grandmother had her arm around him, trying to comfort him.
    “Stay right here while I see if he’s awake,” the nurse told Sam.
    She went through the door, leaving Sam in the hall with Jeremy and Wilma. Sam stood awkwardly by the door, listening to Jeremy cry and his grandmother try to soothe him.
    “He didn’t mean it, Jeremy. You know he didn’t,” he heard the old lady whisper to her grandson.
    “B-but he s-said he never wanted to s-see me again,” Jeremy sobbed.
    “He didn’t mean it,” Wilma said, pulling the poor boy to her.
    “W-why did he say that? Why?”
    That was all it took: Sam had never met the man, but he already couldn’t stand Dan Chamblin.
    After a couple of minutes which seemed like forever, the nurse opened the door and said. “He’s up. I’ll be in the nurses’ station if you need anything.”
    Sam walked into the room and noticed quite a few flowers, but most of them had been brought here from Lisa’s funeral. Some still had the ribbons on them. Poor taste, in Sam’s opinion, but from what he’d seen so far it was no wonder Dan had no flowers of his own. He saw that Dan was lying on his stomach; his hospital gown showing just a little more than Sam cared to see. Sam saw the little stool beside Dan’s bed, but he figured if he ever managed to bend his big frame down far enough to sit on it he might not be able to get back up. So, he sat in the chair Barbara had been sitting in earlier.
    Sam introduced himself. “I’m Captain Sam Jones.”
    “You a Ranger?” Dan asked hoarsely, cutting his eyes over at Sam.
    “So they tell me.”
    “Doctor Thomas said a Ranger was coming to have a talk.”
    “Well, Reggie — Doctor Thomas that is — said that I’d have to be brief, so I’ll cut to the chase. I need to know what you remember about the night of November fourteenth.”
    Sam was just in the corner of his eyes; Dan was having trouble turning his head in that direction. His face tightened up in what could only be described as a full-facial-pucker. Once the pained expression left his face, Dan said, without trying to turn his head, “I’ll tell you what happened. My damn son killed my wife and tried to kill me.”
    Sam shook his head. “Start from the beginning, Mr. Chamblin, please.”
    Dan sighed heavily. “Me and Lisa was sittin’ up late watchin’ TV. Then Jeremy came bangin’ on the door, hollerin’ to be let in.”
    “You heard him? Did he sound like your son?”
    “Hell, yeah he sounded like him. It was him. He was bangin’ away, demandin’ we let him in.”
    “Was he banging aggressively on the door, like he was angry?” Sam asked, while bringing one of his big boots up on the stool beside Dan, using it as a footstool.
    “Hell, I don’t remember. He wanted in. That’s all I know,” Dan said.
    Sam calmly said, “Continue. Jeremy’s knocking on the door.”
    “Like I said, Jeremy was bangin’ on the door, wantin’ in,” Dan cut his eyes over, probably too see if he’d gotten a reaction from Sam when he had injected the word banging again. He continued. “Lisa got up and let him in. He knocked her down, and attacked me.”
    “Did you notice anything strange about him?”
    “Well, the little prick killed his mother and tried to kill his father. That’s a little strange,” Dan spat.
    Sam shook his head again and grumbled. He should have seen that one coming. “I’m talking about physical actions — how he moved.”
    “He hit me from behind. I never got a good look,” Dan said, a driblet of spittle trickled down from the corner of his mouth onto the mirror below. “He was on me before I could react.”
    “A man of your size should have been able to defend himself against a boy Jeremy’s size. Wouldn’t you say he was faster or stronger than normal?” Sam said. He was normally too much of a pro to bait a question, but that kid bawling outside the door had given him an ulterior motive.
    Dan, however, didn’t take the bait. “He ain’t never attacked me before! How the hell would I know?” he exclaimed in a slur/shout combination. “The boy came up behind me and cut me twice that I remember, with a big knife or a machete or somethin’.”
    “Are you sure he had a weapon in his hands?”
    “Of course I’m sure. You think he did this with his fingernails?”
    “Did you see a weapon, Mr. Chamblin?” Sam said, with an only slightly hidden edge in his voice.
    Dan paused a couple of seconds before saying, “I didn’t exactly see the knife.”
    “Go on,” Sam said.
    “Well, after he hacked me, with whatever, maybe his damn fingernails, I blacked out. I guess that’s when the little prick turned on his mother and killed her.” After Dan finished with his story, he paused, waiting for a reaction, but Sam wouldn’t give him one so he added, “And that’s all I remember.”
    Sam didn’t say anything at first. He wasn’t sure what they were dealing with in Newton County, but he was sure Jeremy Chamblin hadn’t attacked his parents. He felt he should make an effort to right this wrong, but the question was how much should he tell this idiot?
    About ten more seconds passed before Sam said, “I know for a fact that Jeremy didn’t attack you and your wife, Mr. Chamblin.”
    Dan quickly replied, “That seems to be what everybody that wasn’t there thinks, but I was there. I saw him. He attacked me, then turned on his own mother. The little prick.”
    Sam’s temper was building, but he remained calm. “There are over two dozen witnesses who were with him at the church the night you and your wife were attacked. And I’ve personally interviewed two officers who remember seeing his car in the church parking lot that night.”
    Dan was a slow learner. He tried again to turn his head, causing pain to shoot through his neck once more. Once the pain had subsided he spat, “I don’t give a damn what you, or anybody else says, I know what I saw! The little prick tried to kill me! Now, are you going to do your job and arrest the little bastard, or are you gonna wait till he kills me, too?”
    That was all Sam could take. He took his leg off his makeshift footstool and kicked it across the floor, hard enough to make it scoot all the way to the far wall, but not so hard that it fell over or smashed into the wall. In one quick, fluid motion Sam came out of his reclined position in the chair and knelt down beside Dan. The speed in which the big man could move was astounding, especially considering he was seventy years old. Dan’s eyes were as wide as saucers; he could see the big man in his mirror. Sam’s mouth was only an inch, maybe less, from his ear; he could hear Sam’s deep breathing, now quickened by his anger. “Listen you no-good son of a bitch,” Sam whispered in his deep voice. “If you call that kid a prick one more time I’m going to forget I promised Dr. Thomas to leave you in the same condition I found you. I’ll bounce you off every wall in this hospital.”
    Sam paused, letting what he had said sink in. He could hear the tempo from Dan’s heart monitor doubling in speed. His own big heart was thundering in his chest to the point that when he quit talking, he could hear his own pulse throbbing in his ears.
    Sam continued. “The next time your boy comes through that door you are going to be so sweet you’ll drip honey. Got it?”
    Receiving no immediate answer, Sam looked down into the mirror at Dan’s wide frightened eyes staring up at him and asked, still in a hoarse whisper, “Are we clear on this?”
    Dan forgot his injuries again and tried to nod, causing his face to pucker up in pain again. This caused a smile to momentarily crease Sam’s face. He turned back to Dan’s ear and continued. “If I hear any different — and I will find out — I’ll come back for another little visit and I’ll break every bone in your worthless body.” Sam started to get up, then he thought of one more thing. He leaned back into Dan’s ear, “And if you think you need to tell someone about our little talk, go right ahead. Just keep in mind, no one’s going to take your word over mine.”
    Sam stood up. He looked down into Dan’s mirror and said in a calm, friendly voice, “Well, that just about covers it Mr. Chamblin. Thank you for your time.”
    When Sam strode back down the hall, he found Doctor Thomas at the nurses’ station, studying a chart.
    “How was he, Sam?” the doctor said, looking up at Sam over the top of his bifocals.
    “You might want to cut down on his pain medication,” Sam suggested.
    Reginald’s eyebrows wrinkled in confusion.
    “In fact, you might want to cut it out altogether,” Sam added with a grin. “A man like him could use a little pain.”
    Getting Sam’s drift, the old doctor smiled and replied, “It’s crossed my mind, believe you me.”
* * *
    Sam drove back to Newton at a considerably slower pace than he had left. He was normally a lead-footed driver, but today he needed time to think so he made the trip at a leisurely sixty miles per hour.
    He thought of his conversation with Dan. There was no doubt that Dan really believed his son had attacked him and his wife, yet there was also no doubt that Jeremy didn’t commit the crime. This seemed to coincide perfectly with what Bill had told him James had said about the beast: it could disguise itself. But, that was impossible. How could something disguise itself so perfectly that someone’s own mother and father wouldn’t know the difference?
    Sam had seen his share of weird cases in his career, but this one took the cake.
    Another thing was bothering Sam. Ever since his heated conversation with Dan Chamblin, he had a dull pain in the left side of his chest and on down his left arm. Sam was well aware what that could possibly mean, and had meant to talk to Doctor Thomas about it. But, Reginald had been busy and he was in a hurry to get back to Newton. He would have to add this to his long list of things to do when all this was over.

CHAPTER 17
Slumber Party

    The citywide curfew was anything but popular with the people of Newton, especially the teenagers, and when teenagers are unhappy, they inevitably find ways to make their parents miserable. The best solution for the problem was for the parents to find something for the teenagers to do.
    Lisa Beck had just turned fourteen, so the curfew didn’t affect her as much as many other teenagers. But Lisa whined about the curfew nonetheless. On Wednesday Lisa’s mother, Tina Beck, had suggested that Lisa invite her friends over for a slumber party Friday night.
    Almost fifteen years ago, Tina Beck had gotten knocked-up back in high school. The father was one of two local boys, both of whom pointed a finger at the other one and swore the child wasn’t his. Despite being only sixteen and having both her parents pushing for an abortion, Tina decided to keep the baby. Tina’s parents and friends warned her about what she was getting into, but, oddly enough, Tina found herself to be excited about the prospect of having a baby. This excitement didn’t wane in the least during the pregnancy, or even after Lisa was born — unlike many other teenaged mothers whose enthusiasm wears off after the third or fourth diaper change, Tina loved it. Tina left all her party-going high school ways behind and never looked back. Her baby, named Lisa after her aunt, became the center of her life. As her daughter grew older, Tina remained highly involved in her daughter’s life. In fact, there were times when Lisa would argue that her mother was a little too involved.
    Unlike many parents who would have thought a slumber party would be a major pain in the neck, Tina always enjoyed the company of her daughter and her daughter’s friends. All through grade school Tina had been the sponsor of the majority of the girls’ slumber parties. In fact, Tina was excited about the prospect of another sleep over; it had been so long since the last one. When she made the suggestion, Tina had been worried that her daughter might think she had outgrown slumber parties, but Lisa was beside herself with enthusiasm. As soon as Tina voiced her idea, Lisa was on the phone to her friends. Lisa called six of her closest friends, Megan Pierce, Theresa Barrett, Shelly Polk, Julie Pender, Janet Johnson, and Crystal Nickerson, and started making the plans. Tina then talked to all the parents. Julie and Janet’s parents were too concerned over the recent killings to allow their daughters to stay overnight, and it took quite a bit of convincing to persuade the other four parents, but, in the end, the party was a go. Megan, Theresa, and Crystal would ride the bus home from school with Lisa; Shelly’s mom would drop her off at Lisa’s at around six that afternoon.
    After a Thursday filled with anticipation, Friday finally came. Despite the fact that the girls were now teenagers, the party followed the normal routine for all adolescent slumber parties. The girls watched movies until dark — horror movies, in keeping with recent local events — then they gathered their sleeping bags into a little circle in Lisa’s room and gossiped about boys. They had a brief pillow fight, which Tina broke up, fearing someone might get hurt. Eventually they got to that well-known stage of the slumber party where all the girls gang up on the least popular girl, in this case Megan, and relentlessly picked on her until she wants to go home. Megan, still following the generations-old manual of late adolescence and early teen slumber parties to a tee, then went and told Tina that she wanted to call her mother — she wanted to go home. Tina came in and made everybody apologize. Tina had just left the room and Crystal had started picking on Megan again when a knock came at the door.
* * *
    The beast was on the prowl in Newton again. It slowly and stealthily made its way among the shadows. As the beast moved from backyard to backyard it would occasionally detach its vision and take a look inside. It seemed like the beast was not hunting but strolling leisurely through a buffet line.
    The beast was passing through a backyard, when it heard talking inside the house. It detached its vision and sent it through the walls. Inside one room was a woman watching a television. It didn’t enter her mind, not yet. The beast knew there were other people in the house so it continued the search. Then it hit the jackpot: five young girls, four of them giggling and talking, the fifth one pouting in her sleeping bag. If the one watching the TV could be killed before she made too much noise, maybe the neighbors would think the girls screams were just childish playing.
    The beast entered the mind of the pouting girl. Then each of the other girls. It returned to the living room and entered the lady’s mind. Then the beast outside opened its eyes, stood up on two legs, and walked around toward the front door.
* * *
    At Emilio’s trailer-house, just outside of Newton, James woke up with such a start, that he tumbled off the couch and onto the floor. It was dark in the unfamiliar house and James couldn’t find a light.
    “Emilio!”
    Now on his feet, James continued fumbling around, looking for a light, until his hands bumped a lamp, sending it teetering on the edge of the end table. James was able to grab it before it fell off. He reached inside the lampshade and turned the lamp’s switch, but nothing happened. The bulb was burned out.
    James was just about to yell for Emilio again when the overhead light came on. Emilio was standing in the hallway to the master bedroom in his underwear.
    “Dream?” Emilio asked groggily
    “Kids!” James yelled frantically. “There’s kids in the house!”
    At first Emilio didn’t understand what James meant. He stood in the hallway rubbing his temples. Then it sank in what James was talking about. He woke up immediately. “Whose house, James? Do you know whose house it was?”
    “I know her, but I can’t remember her name,” James said, calming down a little. “She’s not married and has a young daughter.” James became frantic again and added. “Oh God, there are five kids at that house.”
    Emilio had only lived in Newton for two years he was going to have to get some better details to figure this one out, and there was no way he was going to be able to piece together the ranting of a panicked person and decipher where this was happening. The only way he was going to be able to figure out where this was taking place was for James to pull himself together. The only chance for them to save the girls was for James to come up with a name or an address that they could call in to the dispatcher.
    Emilio walked over to James and grabbed him firmly by the shoulders. “Think, James, think. We need a name. Whose house is it?”
    James’ mind was tangled with thoughts of those little girls and thoughts of his son, when he’d found him ripped apart while still in bed. It was a struggle between two sides of his mind. One side of his mind pulled him toward the simple, yet temporary, happiness of hysterics, the other more logical side of his mind cried out for him to get a hold of himself.
    Finally, just as Emilio was about to resort to slapping him, James said, “I know her. I remember working her car, a little foreign car. She lives in town.”
    “James, we need a name or an address.”
    At first James didn’t respond, his panicked mind was busy recalling how hard it had been to get parts for the little hatchback. Right now he could remember the make and model of the girl’s car — Hell, he could probably even come up with the VIN number if he set his mind to it — but he couldn’t come up with the girl’s name.
    However, while his mind was fumbling along, he did manage to remember her first name. “Tina! Her name is Tina!”
    “What’s her last name! For Christ’s sake, think!”
    Then it came to him. “Peck! It’s Tina Peck!” James said
    Emilio quickly picked up the phone and dialed the Sheriff’s Department.
    While the phone was ringing, James spoke up, “No, I take that back. It’s Beck. With a ‘B’. Tina Beck.”
    “Sheriff’s Department?”
    “Clara, this is Emilio! We’ve got an emergency! Send someone over to Tina Beck’s residence immediately!” Emilio spouted out.
    “Who did you say this was?”
    “Emilio Rodriguez, you need to… ”
    “Now, what’s your emergency?”
    “Damn it Clara! That thing is attacking a house that’s got five children in it right now! Now get someone over to the Beck house, now!” Emilio shouted over the phone.
    Now it was Clara’s turn to panic. “Oh goodness. Oh goodness. Uh, hold on.” At first Emilio didn’t hear anything. He had just about given up on Clara and was about to run out to his SUV and use his radio to contact the Newton Police Department. Then he heard Clara talking on the radio. She was calling all cars in the area to the Beck house.
    As soon as Emilio heard that cars were on the way, he and James threw on some clothes, got in Emilio’s truck, and headed for Tina Beck’s house themselves.
* * *
    Tina sat in her rocker-recliner, still dressed in blue jeans and sweater. It was past one o’clock in the morning, but she was still up watching TV. There were only two bedrooms in the tiny house, and they were positioned right next to each other. With all the giggling that was going on in her daughter’s room, there was no way she was going to get any rest until the girls went to sleep. Not only that, Tina felt she needed to stay awake to play peacemaker if the girls started bickering again. However, it was beginning to look like the slumber party was winding down. Tina might actually get some sleep tonight after all. She could tell by the lack of light coming under the door that the girls had turned out the lights.
    Tina was comfortable and beginning to doze off. She was just weighing the options of going to bed or sleeping in her rocker-recliner when a knock came from the door. At first Tina thought it was the girls banging around and paid no attention, but then the knock came again.
    A mother in charge of her daughter and four other young girls for the night, Tina’s first reaction was alarm. They lived on Houston Street, only one street from where Alma Carroll was killed. The curtains were drawn, but they were thin cheap curtains and Tina could still clearly make out the shape of what appeared to be a woman at her door. Tina slowly stood up and without approaching the window, tried to look through a crack between the curtains and the window itself. She couldn’t tell who it was, but it certainly wasn’t a bear or a mountain lion, which was currently the favored local story as to what was doing all the killings.
    Tina watched as the shape in the curtain reached toward the door.
    Knock, knock, knock.
    Well, mountain lions certainly don’t knock before entering. Tina started for the door.
* * *
    In Lisa’s room, the knocking had stirred up the girls, none of whom had actually gone to sleep. They chattered and squealed that it was the werewolf-monster that ate “the lunchroom lady.” Lisa and Shelly went to the window to see who it was. They couldn’t quite see around a large holly bush that was situated between Lisa’s window and the front door. Behind them Crystal and Theresa were telling Megan that the werewolf-thing had come for her, causing tears to start welling up in the already emotional little teenager’s eyes.
    Lisa and Shelly pressed their faces to the window trying to see around the tree. Finally Shelly got a good look and called out, “It’s Megan’s mom!”
* * *
    The front door on the house had a glass window set in it. Tina pulled back the little curtain, and peered outside. “Mrs. Pierce?”
    “Hi, Lisa,” Margo Pierce said. “I just thought I’d come by and see if Megan was behaving.”
    This struck Lisa as being very odd. Why was Margo Pierce, the Police Chief’s sister, violating the curfew? Everything was wrong about this. Maybe Megan had snuck into Tina’s room and used the phone to call her mother, but it still didn’t add up. If Margo wanted to check on Megan, why hadn’t she just called?
    “Can I come in?” Margo asked, but Tina’s hand didn’t reach for the bolt lock. Strange things had been happening around Newton the last few weeks and she wasn’t going to take any chances. Although it seemed crazy with the woman standing right before her eyes, Tina had a strange feeling, intuition, maybe, that this wasn’t really Margo Pierce. Tina decided she would call the Pierce house and see if Margo was there. Margo could be a pain in the butt when she didn’t get her way, but Thomas Pierce, Margo’s husband, worked with Tina’s father at the Sabine River Authority office and was one of his closest friends. If Margo decided to get angry about being left in the cold a few more minutes, maybe Thomas could help smooth things over.
    “Tina?” Margo asked impatiently.
    “Mrs. Pearce, I’m probably being an overprotective biddy, but I’m going to call Thomas, and, well… I’ll explain later.”
    “Tina, it’s freezing out here,” Margo said sharply
    Just then Megan came bounding down the hallway. “Is it Mom?” The other four girls were right behind her, but stayed in the hallway.
    Tina turned around, “Megan…” was all Tina got out before a clawed hand crashed through the window in the door and grabbed her around the neck. The claws sank into her flesh as the hand tightened its grip. One of the claws severed Tina’s throat and windpipe, causing Tina’s attempts at screaming to turn from muffled cries to sickening gurgles. As the claws buried deeper into her neck, one of them severed a carotid artery, causing dark crimson blood to pump out of the terrible wound.
    The four girls in the hall screamed in unison and fled to Lisa’s room. Megan stood part of the way across the living room staring blankly at the gory scene, her mind numbed in shock.
    Tina was dying fast, but she wasn’t quite gone. Her eyes met with Megan’s and she managed to mouth the word “run.”
    Megan snapped out of her trance and screamed. She turned and fled down the hall, stopping at Lisa’s room. Inside she could hear the other girls screaming. The door was locked. Megan was still panicking. She didn’t think about going into Tina’s room, which was only a few steps further down the hall, and locking the door. Instead, she stayed in front of the door to Lisa’s bedroom, banging on the door and screaming to be let in.
    Outside, the beast had released its grip on Tina and was now repeatedly slamming its body into the front door, but it was an old solid oak door and was holding up. Finally, after the beast slammed into the door a fifth time, the hinges gave way. When the door fell, the beast’s momentum sent it to stumbling to the floor. It quickly regained its feet and lurched toward the hall.
    Megan was facing down the hall when the thing that looked like her mother started down the hall running on all fours. Once again caught in the coils of terror, Megan stood motionless, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Her mouth opened slightly in a half-hearted attempt to scream, which only came out as a squeak that would have been hard to hear even if there weren’t four girls in the room next to her screaming away and a monster-mom-thing grunting loudly as it ran toward her.
    Just as the beast was preparing to pounce, the door to Lisa’s room opened. Crystal’s hand darted out, grabbed a fistful of Megan’s ponytail and jerked her through the door.
    The beast leaped, but caught nothing but air. Its momentum caused it to pass Lisa’s room. As it landed the beast’s claws tried to grab the hardwood floor, causing long, deep grooves in the wood as it slid along. It stopped and returned to the door to Lisa’s room which was now once again shut and locked.
    Since the beginning of time old men have voiced the opinion that things just aren’t made like they used to be. What happened next would give great credence to their argument. The beast slammed into Lisa’s door, but it didn’t give. Apparently, when this house was built — back in 1932 — even the inside doors had been made of solid wood and were supplied with heavy bolt locks.
    The beast braced itself against the wall across from Lisa’s room and flung itself into the door again. The girls inside screamed and cried, but the door continued to hold. Over and over, the beast launched itself into the door. With every blow, the screaming inside the room would take on a louder and more frantic tone. The lock and the hinges on the door were holding, but soon a popping sound was heard and a large crack could be seen running from the top of the door almost halfway down. The girls screamed. Another blow was landed, followed by a cracking sound. The crack lengthened past the halfway point. The girls’ screams reached a new level and remained there.
    Just before the beast landed its next blow on the door, Shelly cried out, “Look!”
    The other four girls stopped screaming and turned toward the window. They could see red and blue flashing lights reflecting on the trees in their front yard.
    The beast landed another blow, and the crack increased in size until it was fully three-quarters of the length of the door.
    The girls started screaming again.
    In the hall, the beast had been so busy working on the door it didn’t hear Darren Woolford come through the front door. Darren could hear the screaming coming from the hall and started in that direction. When he came around the corner and started down the dark hall, he found himself almost face to face with the dark shape. Luckily, the beast was just as startled as he was. Instead of launching itself into Darren while he was unprepared, the beast turned and fled into Tina’s room.
    Darren raised his gun and fired, but it was too late. He heard a crash in the bedroom as the beast leaped through a window and disappeared into the darkness.

CHAPTER 18
Jana Parish Reporting

    Jana Parish’s assignment in Newton certainly hadn’t been the high point of her career. Her efforts to get someone in the Newton County Sheriff’s Department or the Newton Police Department to inform her of developments in the investigation had come to naught, as had her efforts to find out where the autopsies were sent. None of her interviews had been worth the effort; all she was able to get were a few locals telling how they were keeping their shotguns near their beds and the occasional city or county official saying “no comment.” Although rumors and gossip sometimes make the best news, the rumors currently floating around this town were so far fetched she didn’t think even the paper tabloids would touch them. Some said the creature doing all the killing was a rabid mountain lion — and this was one of the more believable tales. Others said it was a deranged serial killer who wore disguises to get people to let him in their houses — and, yes, most of them actually believed he was eating his victims. Dozens of people swore they had seen a creature of some sort, but every one of them said they saw it just as it rounded a corner or disappeared into the woods and could give no description. One man told that her he had seen large human-like tracks that had claws extending from the toes. One little old man spun a yarn about how this thing had gotten in a pen with someone’s hunting dogs at little village called Liberty and killed them all. An elderly black woman even claimed it was the Ku Klux Klan from Vidor doing all the killings, never mind the fact that only one of the five victims had been black. And at least two people shared the belief it was an alien similar to the one that kept chasing Sigourney Weaver around in the movies.
    Alice Pender had proved to be Jana’s only real asset in Newton County, and even this was a mixed blessing. Alice was the source of all of the gossip Jana had heard. It amazed Jana how Alice seemed to be able to hear all of this gossip and believe every single bit of it, even when it contradicted itself. Jana was sure if she asked Alice what she thought was doing the killings, the little old beautician would say it was a rabid mountain lion with a large supply of Halloween costumes, with clawed human feet, that ate dogs, was a card-carrying member of the KKK, and chased Sigourney Weaver around spaceships in its spare time.
    Despite her faults, Alice Pender was still one of the best informants Jana could ask for. The woman lived for gossip and the new spurt of rumors, and, combined with the special attention she was getting from a real live reporter, the current crisis had opened up an entirely new side of Alice. She went from being a simple gossipmonger, to the virtual gossip guru of Newton County. During the day she asked anyone she met if they knew anything new about the killings, and during the night Alice sat by the scanner until she fell asleep in her chair, sometimes as late as four in the morning.
    The phone rang in Jana’s room. Lana looked over at the clock beside the bed: 1:31 a.m. She reached for the phone. “Hullo?” she said groggily.
    “Mrs. Parish!” Alice said on the other line, almost shouting with excitement. “There’s been another killing! They called all cars to Tina Beck’s house and now they’re not talking on the radios.”
    Jana was awake now. She turned on the light and got a pen and paper. “Okay, Alice, tell me where they are.”
    Alice started rattling off the address, but she was chattering too fast for Jana to understand her.
    “Alice!” Jana said sharply. “Slow down, and give me the address.”
    When Jana got the address, she hung up the phone and opened the door into Bob’s room. She walked over to the front door to his room and turned on the lights. “Get up, Bob. We’ve got a lead.”
* * *
    Jana and Bob were dressed and in their van in no time. Bob drove with one hand while he held Jana’s scribbled directions in the other. Jana put her makeup on using the center rearview mirror.
    “Will you quit driving like that!” Jana snapped. “How am I supposed to put on my makeup with you swerving and hitting your brakes every two seconds?”
    “Do you want to drive?” Bob shot back.
    The distance from the hotel to the street they were looking for was only a few blocks — in fact the distance from one end of Newton to the other was little more than a few blocks — but Bob had misread Jana’s directions. It was not until they passed the city limits sign on Rusk Street that Bob had figured out they were heading in the wrong direction. Bob was now trying to make up for the time lost by the wrong turn.
    Finally they turned on to Houston Street and could see flashing lights ahead.
    “Bingo,” Bob said, grinning.
    As they pulled up to the scene they could see there were already two ambulances, two county patrol cars, and one city patrol car. There were also about six cars and pickups parked behind these vehicles. An officer was talking to a group of people near the back of one of the patrol cars; the people in the group were making frantic gestures, obviously demanding to be let in the house.
    “Those look like they might be our newest victim’s relatives,” Bob said motioning toward the small crowd. “Let’s see if we can get an interview.” Bob bounded out and got his camera out of the back. With Jana in the lead, they started across the road toward the small crowd where a deputy was having difficulty explaining to the small, frantic crowd that they had to stay away from the scene.
    Jana overheard the deputy tell the people, “The girls are okay. They’ve locked themselves in the room and won’t let us in, but I promise you they are just fine.”
    “Why can’t I see my daughter?” one angry parent shouted.
    “Why did Tom Barrett get to go in?” another called out.
    “Sheriff Oates wanted to take only a few people to try to talk to the kids. He didn’t want to upset them.”
    No across the road and approaching the crowd, Jana turned to Bob, “Please tell me you’re getting this.”
    “Not set up yet,” Bob replied, as he slung the camera to his shoulder.
    The deputy turned and saw Jana and her cameraman approaching. He obviously had his hands full with the gathering of parents, so he opted for reinforcements. He turned to the house and called out, “Bill! I need you out here.”
    Sheriff Oates appeared at the door to the house. He jogged across the yard on an interception course. A big man in a western sports coat came out of the door behind him; she recognized him as Captain Sam Jones, a Texas Ranger who had been brought in to help the investigation. The sheriff got between Jana and the crowd and put his hand up.
    Bob aimed the camera at the two of them.
    “Sheriff Oates, could you please tell us what is going on here?” Jana asked smiling her loveliest smile. Let’s see you get out of this one, you redneck son of a bitch, she thought.
    “I’ll tell you what’s going on Mrs. Parish: you’re in violation of a citywide curfew.” She could tell he had more to say but he managed to hold his tongue — this time. Oh yes, she had him now.
    Jana pressed on. “Sheriff Oates, is this another one of the strange unsolved killings that’s been going on in the area?” she asked, putting special emphasis on the word unsolved. “Is it true your department has no leads and no suspects on these terrible crimes? Is it true that a former suspect is now a deputy in your department?”
    The sheriff’s cheeks darkened. “Mrs. Parish, you go back to your van right now, or I will personally escort you to jail, by God.”
    Got him! Jana thought. Then she continued, “Sheriff Oates, are you saying…”
    “Sheriff Oates, please allow me to handle this.” Captain Jones interrupted in a smooth, well-enunciated Texas accent.
    Sheriff Oates turned to the Ranger and at first seemed like he was going to argue. Then he simply nodded and walked away without saying another word. At first Jana was somewhat at a loss. She wanted to corner the sheriff, and she almost had him. Still, there was hope; if she could pick up where she left off, maybe she could get some information from this big cowboy that might bring him down.
    “Captain Jones…” Jana started
    “Please, call me, Sam,” Sam said, removing his hat and extending his hand.
    Slightly baffled, Jana quickly touched his hand and started over. “Captain Jones, can you please tell us what is going on here?”
    “I do wish I could, ma’am, but since it’s all still under investigation, my hands are tied,” Captain Jones politely drawled in the smooth voice of a true Southern gentleman.
    “Is this another of the unsolved killings that have been going on in the area?”
    “Now, Mrs. Parish, like I said, I can’t say anything right now, but I’ll tell ya’ll what I’ll do, I’ll write up a statement and run it over to the Pineywoods first thing in the morning. For right now, though, y’all need to get back to the hotel.”
    Jana asked a few more questions, hoping either to pester Captain Jones into losing his composure or to stall long enough to catch something exciting on film. After five minutes, Jana started repeating her questions and Captain Jones brought this to her attention. He smoothly suggested that he might consider an interview if they would go back to their hotel. Of course he never committed to anything; he just suggested it might be possible. After about five more minutes of smooth talking, Jana and Bob were on their way back to the hotel, half convinced it had been their idea to leave.
* * *
    The next morning Captain Jones’ statement was delivered by the manager of the Pineywoods Hotel in a sealed envelope. The letter was every bit as evasive as Captain Jones had been in person. The statement said someone had died, but it didn’t even state that they had been killed. When it mentioned the cause of the death, the letter evasively said: foul play has not been ruled out.
    Jana also found that nothing came of the semi-promised interview. Every time she called the Sheriff’s Office and asked for Captain Sam Jones, the dispatcher would tell her he had just stepped out and he would return her call as soon as he returned. Of course, he never did.
    The rest of the day was spent running about town trying to find out what had happened, but in Newton it seemed the rumors were almost as common as the pine trees. It was next to impossible to decipher what had really happened. By the end of the day, one of the few things Jana was sure about was that someone had been killed the night before. Other stories, such as a half dozen teenagers killed and a shootout between one of the deputies and a serial killer could have some truth to them, but it was impossible to tell how much.
    When Jana finally went to bed late that afternoon, she was exhausted and aggravated.
    Later that night, Jana was in the middle of a dream about her ex-husband Lance that involved very little clothes and a lot of heavy breathing, when she felt someone shaking her. She could faintly hear someone through the fog of her slowly fading deep sleep.
    Jana, Get up.
    “Lance?” she mumbled drowsily.
    Jana heard someone laugh, then say, “No, it’s your other boyfriend.” She could now clearly hear Bob’s voice.
    Her eyes were still unfocused, but she could make out Bob’s shape beside her bed. “What are you doing in my room?” Jana snapped.
    “I saw something outside my window.”
    Jana was still groggy from her sleep and a little embarrassed about the dream he had caught her in the middle of, not to mention a little miffed that Bob had caused the dream to end. “Get out of my room right now! I have a right to my own privacy.”
    Bob said, slowly as if he was speaking to a child, “Jana, I think I saw our monster.”
    Jana finally grasped what he said. “Where?” she asked.
    “Across the street.”
    “What did it look like?” Jana said as she raised up in the bed. Her ample breasts were visible through her flimsy white nightgown.
    Bob was aware that before Jana had her baby she had been a quite a knockout, but in the last two years of working with her he never saw her as anything more than an irritable bitch. Now he found himself staring at her breasts wondering what they would feel like.
    Jana followed his eyes to her breasts and pulled the covers up to cover them. Then it was her turn to speak slowly, like she was speaking to a child. “What did it look like, Bob?”
    Bob blushed, but regained enough of his composure to make a sarcastic reply. “Hell, I don’t know. I left my animal cards back in New York.”
    Embarrassed, Bob retreated back into his room, and started getting dressed and gathering his camera equipment. He was just about to walk out the door when Jana came into his room. With the exception of makeup, she was dressed and ready to go. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asked.
    “I’m going to try and take a picture of this thing.”
    “Let’s go then.”
* * *
    Although the whole thing had been his idea, when they got in the van Bob started having second thoughts about the excursion. He didn’t want to admit it, but he really wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. He knew the chances of them getting caught by one of Sheriff Oates’ storm troopers was very high; it’s not like a white van with CURRENT EDITION stenciled on the side in long, slanted, one and a half foot tall red letters would be easy to miss. Of course, he also knew it was exactly what was on Jana’s mind. If they got arrested for violating the curfew, it would make her story all the better: Nationally Renowned Journalist Detained by Redneck-Fascist Sheriff.
    But Sheriff Oates wasn’t really what Bob was afraid of, and he knew it. Something was out there killing people — something was out there killing people and he was about to go try to chase it down to get its picture.
    Maybe I can get its autograph, too, Bob thought and chuckled to himself.
    “What’s so funny?” Jana asked
    “Oh, nothing.”
    They pulled across the street without turning on their lights. Bob stopped in the parking lot of an old gas station. “It went behind there,” he said, pointing to the left of the building.
    Jana opened the passenger door.
    “What do you think you’re doing?” Bob asked
    Jana waited until she was fully out of the car before turning to address him. “I’m doing my job. You know, investigative reporting,” she said in a voice that was more playful than her usual waspish sarcasm.
    Nevertheless, the comment stung Bob’s pride. He started to say something, but he decided against it. Bob stepped out of the van and checked his camera for film. The camera Bob had with him tonight wasn’t his usual shoulder-mounted variety with all its lights, bells, and whistles. When Bob traveled, he also carried with him his little handheld video toy. It was lighter and easier to handle than his big one.
    Jana led the way around the gas station. As she reached the corner of the building Bob half expected a hairy arm to reach out and grab her, but it didn’t. Bob followed her around the building. Nothing.
    Jana turned to him and put her right hand on her hip and threw her head back, striking a pose that had probably been sexy about seventy pounds ago. “Bob, you got me all excited for nothing.”
    Is she flirting? Bob thought, but was immediately distracted by movement behind Jana. “Look, over there,” Bob pointed.
    Jana turned. “Where?”
    Behind the gas station was a long tin storage building with ten large doors, each numbered one through ten on the door in white spray-paint. The movement seemed to have come from the direction of several metal garbage cans which were located the right of the building.
    “Let’s go,” Jana said.
    Bob started to protest, but Jana was already on her way over to the garbage cans. He jogged a few steps and caught up. He put his camera to his eye and took aim. As they drew nearer to the garbage cans Jana and Bob slowed down and started creeping toward the cans.
    There was a faint rustling coming from one of the cans. At first Bob thought it was his imagination, but as he drew closer the sound was clearer. It wasn’t his imagination. But still they crept forward.
    This is crazy, Bob thought. If that thing’s behind those garbage cans, there’s no way we can make it back to the van before it gets us.
    There was a six-inch opening in one of the garbage cans’ lid. When Bob and Jana crept within about five feet, the lid of this can suddenly fell off with a clang, and out jumped a small emaciated black cat. The cat let out a frightened meow and launched itself in the opposite direction as fast as its little feet could carry it.
    As scared as the cat was, it couldn’t have been half as scared as Jana and Bob. Jana screamed briefly, then put her hand over her mouth. Bob just stood there staring at the garbage can with his eyes wide open, surprised at how close he had come to wetting himself.
    When the shock wore off, Jana stooped down, put her hands on her hips, and laughed. Bob was still red-faced and only let out a little choked laughter at first, but then he loosened up and joined Jana’s lead.
    “Can you believe us?” Jana asked. Then added, “When we get back to the hotel we’re going to destroy that film.”
    “It was silly, wasn’t it?”
    They laughed for a little while longer, then started back to the van. When they were halfway between the storage buildings and the gas station, Sheriff Oates stepped from behind the building.
    “Well, what have we here?” he said.
    “Oh, hell,” Bob said
    Jana turned to Bob. “No, this is perfect. He doesn’t have his Ranger buddy with him to do his talking. Just keep that camera rolling.”
    Bob put the camera to his eye and followed Jana as she walked up to the sheriff.
    “Sheriff Oates, I have some questions I’d like to ask you about the unsolved killings that have been going on in your county.”
    The sheriff didn’t say a word. He just kept walking toward them, smiling.
    “Do you think it is a person doing these killings, and if so do you have any suspects?”
    “We don’t exactly know what we’re dealing with, ma’am,” Bill said, still moving toward Jana at a brisk pace. Something wasn’t right. Bob didn’t like the way Bill kept coming on.
    Jana continued with her questions. “That’s not very comforting, Sheriff Oates. Don’t you think that it’s your job t…” Jana’s sentence was cut short by a hard upward swing. Swinging upward, claws that were unseen to both Jana and Bob made deep gouges from the side of her left breast to just under her chin; there the claws of the monster’s first and second digits gouged upward, piercing into her mouth from below. The beast then clenched its fist, bringing its fingers out of Jana’s mouth, the two claws splitting her upper lip in the process. With this firm grip, the Sheriff-Oates-thing pulled Jana to him. He opened his mouth grotesquely wide and clamped down on her face. His upper teeth were sunk into the left side of her forehead, and his lower teeth sunk into her face just to the right of her nose. There was a loud crunching sound as the beast brought its jaws together. Jana’s arms, which had been weakly struggling, shot out straight to her sides at first, then slumped.
    Bob found that his muscles refused to cooperate. He watched the whole thing in stunned shock. The Sheriff-Oates-thing let Jana slump to the ground, then turned its gaze on Bob. It then crouched down on all fours preparing to pounce.
    Finally, Bob’s muscles did something — he pissed himself.
* * *
    Carl Price cruised down Highway 190 and noticed the Current Edition van parked across the street from the Pineywoods Hotel at Marvin Palmer’s old gas station. Bill had warned Carl, who was filling in for Chad on the night shift, not to leave his car without calling for backup, so Carl pulled up in the parking lot and used his door-mounted spotlight to look around the building. Despite Bill’s instructions, Carl was hesitant to call for backup, because he knew the person backing him up at nights was none other than the sheriff himself. Bill hadn’t been getting much sleep during the current crisis, and it didn’t seem to be helping his temper.
    Carl didn’t see anything, so he decided to pull around behind the gas station. The cruiser slowly rounded the corner of the store. As the back parking lot came into view, Carl continued to use his spotlight to light up the shadows behind bushes and corners. He had no idea why the troublesome reporters would be violating the curfew, but he imagined if they were desperate enough to break the law for a good story, they would be desperate enough to hide from the law to keep from getting caught.
    Carl was so intent on pointing the spotlight into various corners that he pulled right up to the bodies before he saw them. When his vision returned toward the front of the car, Jana was only some twenty feet away, right in front of the headlights. She was facing toward him. All that remained of her face was her lower jaw and part of her left cheek, but this was covered with blood; her head looked like a mass of bloody pulp with blonde hair.
    “Oh, God!” Carl gasped, and started fumbling for the radio. “C–Clara, this is sixty-two, I need backup behind the old gas station on 190… and an ambulance, over.”
    “Could you repeat that last part, sixty-two?”
    “We’ve got someone down behind Marvin’s gas station on 190.”
    “Ten-four,” Clara answered
    Carl stared at the bloody mess in front of his car. Behind Jana he thought he could make out another body. Probably the cameraman, he thought. Carl pointed the spotlight in that direction, and sure enough, there was another body. This one actually seemed to be in worse condition than the one in front of him.
    Carl picked up the mike again. “Clara, be sure and wake up the sheriff on this one.”
    “Ten-four.”

CHAPTER 19
From Bad to Worse

    Sam had returned to Austin the day before in an effort to speed up the process of getting a new team of bloodhounds and more law enforcement personnel to help patrol Newton County. As soon as Bill called to let him know what had happened, he set out on his return trip as fast as his sports car could carry him. After he arrived, he sought out Bill and found him in the squad room.
    “This is bad,” Sam said as he came through the door. “Real bad.”
    Bill was seated behind Carl Price’s desk. Needless to say, Bill wasn’t using the computer. The computer was on, but its screen saver was active. While winged toasters fluttered across the screen, Bill was intently searching for something in the large storage cabinet behind Carl’s desk.
    Bill motioned for Sam to close the door behind him.
    “You just thought we’ve had problems with reporters,” Sam said, this time it was his face that was flushed bright red. “When word that a reporter and her cameraman were killed by a strange animal in the streets of downtown Newton, Texas, reporters are going to swarm on this town like locusts.”
    There was one thing that Captain Sam Jones absolutely couldn’t stand and that was being in a situation that was out of control. Throughout Sam’s life he had always had an uncanny ability to avoid such situations by either quick wits, smooth talking, or, when necessary, brute force. However, it seemed none of these assets had been able to pull him through the current crisis. Up until now he found himself barely able to keep things from falling apart. Now it seemed the death of these two big-city reporters was going to push the situation into the out of control zone, and this made Captain Sam Jones none too happy.
    “I can handle one overweight ex-bimbo from Current Edition, Bill, but I’m not sure if I can keep it up when the major networks send their heavy hitters.”
    While Sam was talking, Bill found what he was looking for in the bottom of the storage cabinet, under several reams of printer paper — an old VCR. Bill set the VCR on Carl’s desk, beside the computer.
    “Can you hook one of these things up?” Bill asked, as if he hadn’t heard a word Sam had said.
    “Yeah,” Sam said hesitantly; the question set him back a little. “Mind if I ask why?”
    “That,” Bill pointed at a little video camera sitting on the edge of Carl’s desk, “was found at the scene. If we’re lucky, our cameraman may have caught whatever killed them on tape.”
    The video camera didn’t solve the dead reporter problem, but it sure did make Sam’s gloomy day start to look a little better. Perhaps this was the big breakthrough they’d been waiting for.
    Sam picked up the VCR and took it over to the TV that was on the top of a filing cabinet across the room from Carl’s desk. While Sam untangled the wires to the VCR, Bill pressed the button on the intercom and told Debra to get in touch with James and Emilio and have them report to the sheriff’s office immediately.
    Once the VCR was set up, Sam used the remote to fast forward until they could see the front of Marvin’s old gas station on the screen.
    Sam pressed play.
* * *
    James followed Emilio into the squad room.
    Emilio glanced up at the TV and commented, “Aw, man, I didn’t bring popcorn.”
    “Oh, good y’all are already here,” Bill said, “We just got started.”
    Sam pressed pause, stopping the scene at a dark view behind Marvin’s gas station. Jana was still in the shadows, only her dark silhouette was visible.
    “Have a seat,” Bill said. “This tape ought to be real interesting. It was found in a camera near the body of one of this morning’s victims.”
    Emilio took a seat, and James leaned up against the wall.
    Sam pressed play.
    Jana continued around the corner of the building. Once she was out of the shadows, she was clearly visible. She stopped and looked around. Then she turned back to Bob, apparently attempting to look sexy, said, “Bob, you got me all excited for nothing.”
    “Bob, you stud,” Emilio commented.
    Then Bob and Jana thought they heard something near the garbage cans, and they began slowly working their way in that direction. Bob stayed behind and to the right of Jana, enabling him to get a good shot of her as well as a good shot of the area they were approaching. As they drew near the garbage cans, Emilio leaned anxiously forward in his chair. And when the cat flew out of the garbage can, causing the lid to fly off with a bang, Emilio jumped like a kid watching a horror movie, giving Sam and Bill a good laugh. Jana and Bob then had a little discussion about how silly they thought they were acting, then started back toward the gas station.
    “What the hell is that?” Emilio asked in a shocked voice. No one answered. Everyone in the room was silent.
    The thing was at first hard to make out, but as it stepped into the light of the security lights behind the gas station they were treated to a much better view. It was walking upright like a human. It looked to be close to six feet tall, and very wide at the shoulders. Its body was built a lot like a human’s except its arms were slightly longer and its legs were slightly shorter. The creature was also covered with short, coarse hair that looked black in the poor lighting, but might have been a dark brown. It resembled a cross between a man and an ape, with one major difference: its head. From the neck up the creature was completely hairless. The skin looked black and leathery. Two small dog-like ears poked up on top of its head. The beast’s jaws were oversized for the rest of its body, and no lips covered the two rows of jagged, oversized black teeth, some of which looked to be almost an inch and a half long.
    “Oh, hell,” they heard Bob say, but he sounded awful calm to have something that looked like that walking toward him.
    “No, this is perfect. He doesn’t have his Ranger buddy with him to do his talking. Just keep that camera rolling,” Jana said
    “What the hell?” Emilio said, confused by Jana’s comment
    “She thinks it’s Bill,” James answered. He had seen this before, but from a different viewpoint.
    “Sheriff Oates, I have some questions I’d like to ask you about the unsolved killings that have been going on in your county.” Jana asked the approaching beast. A few seconds passed then she asked, “Do you think it is a person doing these killings, and if so do you have any suspects?”
    The beast was picking up speed toward her but still not hurrying.
    “That’s not very comforting, Sheriff Oates. Don’t you think that it’s your job t…”
    “Dear God,” Emilio said when the beast brutally tore into Jana. Even though James had seen this happen through the beast’s eyes the night before, he grimaced and turned his eyes away from the screen. The brutality of Jana’s death apparently even got to Sam and Bill. Sam uttered, “Jesus,” at the same time Bill said, “Damn,” in a barely audible voice.
    When the beast pounced on Bob, the camera dropped to the ground. They were treated to a staticky upside-down shot of the back of the gas station accompanied by gross, wet sounds as the beast took savage bites out of its newest prey.
    When the scene was over, they rewound it to the picture of the beast when it first stepped out of the shadows. This was the best shot of the beast. Sam hit pause.
    At first no one spoke. They all sat in silence, staring at the horrible beast on the screen before them.
    James broke the silence. In a dream-like voice, he said, “It goes in their mind… it goes in their mind and makes them see someone or something they’re comfortable with. Then it walks right up and kills them. But the changing is all done in its victim’s mind.”
    “In other words, it doesn’t change itself,” Sam helped out. “It changes how you perceive it.”
    “Yeah,” James said, still dreamily staring at the vile-looking creature on the TV screen.
    “Well, how’s this going to help us?” Emilio asked. “I mean, does it really matter how it disguises itself.”
    Sam now had his eyes closed and was rubbing his temples. “At least we now have concrete proof that something is out there that’s not exactly normal,” he said, “It’s up to you, Bill, but I say it’s time to let the boys know what they’re dealing with. I know it risks an information leak, but I think it’s a risk we’ve got to take.”
    “I agree,” Bill said. “But, I don’t think we should tell them about James' dreams just yet.”
    “Why not?” Sam asked.
    “Well, this tape is gonna be hard enough for them to believe. If we try to tell them that we’ve got ourselves some sorta psychic helpin’ us out, it may be too much for them to swallow. Besides, I don’t see where letting them know about James would help us any.”
    “Sounds good to me,” Sam said.
    “And I think James needs to start stayin’ up here with us. That way the next time he has one of his dreams there will be less of a delay before we can act on it.” Bill looked at James. “And, son, you may turn out to be too much of an asset not to have under protection.”
    James couldn’t help but wonder if he was under protection or under observation.
* * *
    It was one o’clock in the afternoon before everyone from the various law enforcement branches operating in Newton County were assembled in the squad room of the Newton County Law Enforcement Center. Bill was the only law enforcement personnel not present. He was on patrol, so all of his deputies could be present. The squad room would have been small for a meeting with just the original deputies, police officers, and game wardens. But now that the current crisis had almost doubled the law enforcement personnel operating in the county, it was practically shoulder-to-shoulder. To make sure everyone could see the small TV screen, Sam resorted to a technique that would be quite familiar to elementary teachers who had shown films to crowded classes: Sam had the first few rows of officers sit on the floor, the intermediate rows sit in chairs, and the last few rows stand.
    Sam stood with one arm propped on top of the television, his big fingers slowly drumming on the top of the TV. He waited until everyone was settled. When he finally spoke, there was a stern seriousness in his voice. It was the voice of a hardened United States Marine Corps officer. “Before we get started I want to get one thing absolutely clear: nothing that is seen or heard in this room today is to leave this room. No exceptions. You are not to talk to your wives about it, you are not to talk to your parents about it, you are not to talk to your children about it, and you certainly will not talk to the media about it.”
    Sam stopped to let what he had said sink in. Then he restarted in the same tone. “You’ve all been aware that something out of the ordinary has been going on in the area. All of you have — or should have — read the case reports, and most of you have been to one or more of the crime scenes. As you are aware, the strange tracks around the bodies and the half-eaten condition of the bodies has led us to believe that we were dealing with some sort of animal. However, this animal has all too often made its way into houses through locked doors. Stranger yet, many of these killings took place right in the front doorway, as if the animal had somehow convinced its victims to open the door and let it in.”
    Sam reached and pulled a small cup of water from behind the TV and took a drink. He then replaced the cup and continued. “As you already know, last night our killer struck again, killing a reporter and her cameraman. As it turns out, the cameraman was filming when the creature attacked.”
    Sam flicked the light-switch and pressed play on the VCR. “I think the video will speak for itself.”
    The gathered officers watched as Current Edition reporter, Jana Parish, slowly walked around the corner of the building. They then watched as Jana and Bob approached the garbage cans beside the storage building. When the black cat made its hasty exit from one of the garbage cans, about half of the officers jumped, causing a small round of laughter that quickly tapered off when Sam put a finger to his lips. They continued to watch as Jana and Bob walked back to the building.
    Then the beast stepped from around the corner. A startled murmur passed through the audience. When the beast stepped from the shadows, the murmur grew louder, almost drowning out Jana’s one-sided interview with the approaching beast. But when the beast made its gruesome assault on the reporter a hush fell on the room, one could’ve heard a pin drop. This silence continued on until Sam pressed stop, right after the beast attacked Bob.
    Sam started rewinding the tape.
    “Captain Jones, do you… ” one of the highway patrol officers started, but was interrupted by Sam.
    “I’m not finished. I’ll answer questions when I’m through.”
    Sam rewound the tape to the clear picture of the beast when it stepped out from the shadows.
    “Notice that Mrs. Parish, as well as her cameraman, thought they were being approached by Sheriff Oates. Apparently, this beast makes people believe it’s something that it’s not. That way it can take its prey off guard. It also explains why so many of the victims seemed to have unlocked their doors to let this beast in. But that’s not the most disturbing thing about this video. Pay close attention is what Mrs. Parish says to say this creature. Watch and listen.”
    Sam pressed play and the audience sat in silent wonder as Jana calmly interviewed the approaching beast. Sam pressed pause just as the beast started its swing.
    Sam started up again in his lecture hall/marine officer combination voice. “The first thing she says to the creature she seems to think is Sheriff Oates sounds like a typical opening for a reporter, and the next thing she says also sounds like a canned question. But, the third question is different.”
    Sam then picked up a small spiral notepad and read off. “‘That’s not very comforting, Sheriff Oates. Don’t you think that it’s your job?’ Then she is cut off.” He put the notepad down and continued. “She seems to be reacting to something the creature said. Now, if you can imagine a creature that can somehow manipulate your eyesight, it’s fairly easy to imagine something that can manipulate your hearing. But that’s not the worst of it. We aren’t able to hear what he says, but the way she reacted leads me to believe that the creature answered her second question intelligently.”
    There was some murmuring at this statement, and even a snicker here and there, but Sam had expected this. After all, he was telling them something that went against just about everything they’d ever been taught, from grade school on up.
    “I know this must sound like a crock to most of you, so I’m going to take a break here to answer a few questions before I press on.” Sam pointed at the highway patrol officer who had started to ask a question earlier. “I believe you had a question.”
    “Yes, sir, I was thinking maybe the tape could have been altered by a computer or something.”
    “No, I don’t think so,” Sam answered. “I’ve seen my share of doctored videotapes and if it is, I’ve certainly never seen one this good. Also, there wouldn’t have been enough time between when Mrs. Parish and Mr. McCoy were killed and the time the bodies were found to fix up the video after the killings, and the wounds correspond too well with what’s in the video for it to have been made beforehand.”
    Carl Price, who was sitting on the edge of his desk, spoke next. “No offense, sir, but I find it hard to believe this thing is going into people’s mind and doing their thinking for them.”
    There were numerous murmurs and nods of agreement at this.
    Carl continued, “Is it possible this thing somehow makes them hallucinate? Maybe it releases some sort of gas or something.”
    “Possible, but I don’t think so. If that were the case, then, how did it make Mrs. Parish and Mr. McCoy have the same hallucination? Remember, they both thought they saw Bill.”
    Then Sam received help from an unexpected quarter. Darren Woolford spoke up. With a slight tremor in his voice, Darren said, “It was dark, but I did get a glimpse of that thing in the Beck house.” Darren pointed at the TV. “That thing there was what I saw. It looked like that.”
    Max Davis spoke up from across the room, “Wait a minute. If that’s the case, why did Darren see that thing looking like that,” Max pointed at the TV, “instead of looking like Mary Poppins or Puff the Magic Dragon?”
    This caused a round of laughter, even Sam cracked a smile.
    “I think it’s because he caught it by surprise,” Sam answered. “But I’m not sure.”
    One of the new game wardens spoke up next. “Captain Jones, when you said that thing answered Mrs. Parish intelligently, were you meaning intelligent like a person?”
    Here was the question Sam had been waiting for. “Yes, that is exactly what I meant,” Sam replied, receiving the expected mumbles of disagreement. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but judging by some of the other things this creature has done it’s probably accurate. Remember last week when we tried to track it down with the dogs. Only two days later that creature traveled almost twenty miles from where it last struck and attacks the bloodhounds. I, myself, find it hard to believe a creature like that,” Sam pointed at the screen, “could have human intelligence, but in light of what all has happened, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’d be better off overestimating this thing than we would be underestimating it.”
    Sam paused, once again to allow the importance of what was said to sink, then he continued, “This brings me to our biggest problem. How do we stop this thing? So far as I can tell, there is no way to tell the difference between this creature and whatever disguise it takes on. For now, the best we can do is patrol the area heavily, especially inside and just outside the city limits. Also, from here on out, anyone patrolling at night will have a partner and will remain with their partner at all times. Furthermore, for the remainder of this crisis, or until further developments, all partners must be quartered together.”
    There were several groans at this, and one officer spoke up, “What about our families?”
    “For the most part, we have taken care of that with our new schedule.” Sam indicated a stack of photocopied papers resting beside the TV. “We’ve tried to schedule most of the officers who have families locally and might have difficulty sparing a room for daytime duty, which won’t require a partner. Still, quite a few of you will have house guests for an undetermined amount of time.”
    Sam’s audience groaned once more.
    “I know this is something of an inconvenience, but it is necessary,” Sam replied. “When this is over, I’ll personally see that the State reimburses everyone involved for any extra expenses.”
    Sam then picked up the schedules he had indicated earlier and handed them to one of the game wardens sitting on the floor in front. “Take one and pass them around.”
    Sam waited until everyone had a schedule before continuing. “More than eighty percent of the patrols will be dusk-til-dawn shifts in northern Newton County, centering around the city of Newton.”
    Sam then went over the schedule from top to bottom, before dismissing the officers. He knew that many, if not most, of the officers at the meeting were unconvinced of what they were dealing with. All of their lives they had been conditioned against belief in such supernatural beasts, and one meeting was just not enough to change their mindset. However, even if their conscious mind refused to accept what they saw, the sight of the creature walking right up to Jana Parish and ripping her apart would stay embedded in their subconscious. They were now just a little better prepared for the beast lurking in the woods around Newton.

CHAPTER 20
Sweet Beulah Land

    The cells at the Newton County Jail were empty of their normal inmates. Ironically, their current occupants were law enforcers rather than lawbreakers. Two days ago Sam had arranged for all of the inmates to be transferred to Jasper, freeing the jailers for patrolling, except for Jack, who was convinced that he was still needed at the Sheriff’s Office. This had also enabled them to use the cells to house Bill, Sam, and now James.
    That night James bedded down in cell number nine, right across the row from cell number two, where he had spent four nights when he’d been under arrested for the murder of William Youngblood. This visit was much less formal. No fingerprints were made, no front and profile pictures were taken, and the door to his cell was kept unlocked. James’ suitcase sat in one corner of the cell, and his cell was now equipped with clean sheets and a feather pillow. It was still a jail cell though. The walls were that sickly shade of blue, and names and obscenities were still carved into the pictureless, windowless, walls.
    The only decoration was a small potted cactus Emilio had put in James’ cell earlier in the day as a joke. The more James got to know Emilio Rodriguez, the more he reminded James of Greg O’Brien. Emilio was not quite as rowdy as Greg, but they both had the same brand of humor; the rare kind that allowed them to laugh at themselves just as easily as they could laugh at someone else, and enabled them to tell a knock-knock joke to a seven-year old with the same enthusiasm they would tell a dirty joke to a barroom full of drunks. Right now, James’ new friendship with Emilio was painful. James realized that what Emilio and Greg had in common was they both loved life. And now Greg was dead.
    These thoughts floated through James’ head as he tried to get some sleep. He tossed and turned for hours. Twice he would almost drift off and then he would see his wife’s arm, hand and her ring, bloodied and in the doorway of their home. James would wake up and have to fight back tears and an incredible urge to pound his pillow with his fists.
    It’s my fault! All my fault!
    Normally when one falls asleep they distance themselves from the cares of the real world, but when James finally fell asleep about three hours after bedding down, he drifted right into the savage mind of the creature that had killed those most dear to him. James didn’t get any rest when he slept at night — not while he was having those dreams. Still, he would bed down, hoping that he would see something that would help them kill the damned beast.
    As James drifted off, this time for real, his sense of smell and his hearing increased as they began to merge with the beast.
    His sense of taste also merged. This was something that had bothered James tremendously and had a lot to do with his loss of appetite over the last couple of weeks. He had tasted everything the beast had eaten while he was ‘riding along’ in its warped mind.
    Another change that had gradually taken place in these dreams was that James now seemed more conscious of what was going on. The difference between his visions had always been that the visions felt more solid and less abstract than normal dreams, but these dreams of the beast took this reality to an entirely new level. It was almost nothing like a dream, it was more like watching a 3D movie that had smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.
    The beast was inside the city limits. Tonight it seemed to be moving with more caution than before. It would wait briefly in a shadow, then dart across a small area that was lit by the streetlights. At one point the beast sat in the shadows, watching a Newton City Police cruiser pass by.
    James tried to wake himself in time, but couldn’t.
    The beast pressed on, and James relaxed and ceased his attempts to wake up. He was curious as to where the beast was heading. Finally the beast came to the corner of Kaufman Street and Main Street. It peered over at the Newton County Courthouse; then its gaze fell on the Newton County Jail. Bill’s cruiser, James’ pickup, Sam’s Mercedes, and Clara’s little hatchback were parked in a parking lot that was otherwise empty. Despite the fact that the beast was currently in a well-lit area, it stood up and sniffed the air.
    Part of James wanted to wake up, but another part of him was curious. Curiosity prevailed.
    As if realizing he was exposed, the beast suddenly dropped to all fours and loped back into the shadows. From there the beast continued to look the area over. It watched as Darren’s cruiser pulled up beside Bill’s car. Darren and his partner, Tom Weatherford, a former police officer who had retired to the area, stepped out of the car and started toward the Sheriff’s Office. James again debated trying to wake up, but the beast was making no attempt to enter their mind, and Darren and Tom were too far away for the beast to rush them before they could draw their guns, so James assumed it wasn’t going to attack.
    He was right. The beast sat there and watched for another ten minutes or so, then turned and left, just as stealthily as it came.
    As the beast began to slowly make its way out of town, James began to feel as though he had let a golden opportunity slip by. If he had awakened while the beast was right in the middle of town — within view of the Sheriff’s Department — there was the possibility that every unit in town could have converged on the spot in only a few minutes.
    The beast traveled through the woods for about an hour before it came to a small clearing, if you could call an area covered with brush and three foot tall pine saplings a clearing.
    James recognized this clearing. It was in this weed choked vale that the beast’s new lair was located — the old white building that James had, as yet, been unable to identify. James began paying close attention to the beast’s peripheral vision in hope that he could see something that would tell him where the lair was as the beast approached the building.
    No such luck.
    Then something attracted the beast’s attention. Although James shared the beast’s senses while he was tagging along in its mind, he was not as accustomed to using its finely tuned perceptions: he missed whatever it was the beast heard or smelled.
    One thing he didn’t miss was a sign that came into the beast’s vision when it turned to look in the direction of the sound or smell. The sign was old, its paint cracked and peeling from the years, but the words could still be made out. It read:
    Beulah
    Church of God
    Sunday Services: 11:00 a.m.

    The rest was hidden by the brush and saplings, but James was sure he had found what he’d been looking for.
* * *
    Despite being excited about his discovery, James was also exhausted from lack of real sleep. When the beast curled up in a corner under the “Beulah Church of God,” and went to sleep, releasing James from the depths of its mind, James also fell into a deep sleep.
    He dreamed. This time it was a real dream.
    James was in his front yard looking at his house, only it was different. The grass and all the trees were dead. Not grey winter-dead, but the deep brown and black of real death.
    He started walking across the yard toward his house. The walk was farther than it had ever been. It was as if every step he took only brought him an inch or so closer.
    Halfway there he looked down and saw the skeleton of a dog. There was a faded blue collar around its neck, with a little metal tag shaped like a fire hydrant dangling from it. He knew without looking that the tag would have his name and address on one side and Answers to: LADY on the other.
    He began to feel a panic creep in. He started running toward the house.
    Angie! Jimmy!
    It seemed as if James was running in place; he was running as fast as he could, but he only approached the house inch by inch. Maybe not even that much; it almost seemed as if he was standing still.
    Then he was suddenly at the door. It wasn’t as if he had run a few inches at a time until he had made it to the door; it was more like he just disappeared from the middle of his yard and reappeared at his front doorstep.
    James reached for the door, but before his hand touched the knob, the door slowly began creaking open on its own.
    God, don’t look at the floor, please don’t let me look at the floor.
    Standing inside the door was a strange combination of James and the beast. It looked like a variation of the villain Two-Face in the Batman comics. The thing in the door was split down the middle with one half looking like a mirror image of James, and the other half looking like the beast-thing that he seen in Bob McCoy’s video.
    The James-beast-thing pointed toward the floor.
    Don’t look at the floor.
    The James-beast-thing began to laugh in a horrible gurgling voice that echoed strangely through the house. It seemed the echoes grew louder the more they repeated themselves until the sound was deafening and James was forced to cover his ears.
    James looked at the floor.
    Angie’s arm and hand were visible from behind the James-beast-thing’s legs, as was the blood splotched wedding band on her finger.
* * *
    James awoke with a jerk, clutching his feather pillow with both fists. Before, when he’d awake from one of the dreams of his wife’s death, which now haunted his precious few hours of real sleep, he would be crying. But no tears were in his eyes now. His mind was set on the vision he had before his dream. His mind was set on revenge.
    He dressed quickly. He glanced at a small battery-powered alarm clock sitting by his bed: 8:15 a.m. He’d slept late. Bill and Sam would already be up.
    James walked down the hall and past both security doors that hadn’t been locked since the inmates had been transferred to Jasper. He trudged on, not even exchanging pleasantries with Debra when she wished him a good morning.
    He opened the door to Bill’s office without knocking.
    Bill and Emilio were in the office going over some of the final details of the game wardens’ schedules when James burst through the door.
    From the perturbed look on Bill’s face, he was probably about to remind James about the knock-on-the-sheriff’s-office-door-before-entering-by-God policy, but he only managed to get out, “Ja… ”
    “Have you ever heard of the Beulah Church of God?”
    Bill and Emilio seemed confused. They were only silent for about two and a half seconds, but it was too long for James.
    “I saw that damn thing’s den,” James snapped. “It’s under an abandoned church called the Beulah Church of God.”
    Bill spoke up, “There used to be a black church down an old dirt road just past Old Phelps Road. I think it was called Beulah Land or something.”
    “Well, what are we waiting for?” Emilio said coming out of his seat.
    As they started out the door to the Sheriff’s Office Bill called out down the hall to the dispatch office, “Debra, tell Banks to meet us at the city limits on North 87.”
    “Is he at home?” Debra called back.
    “No, he’s got the daytime shift in the city limits today.”
    “Do we need to contact anyone else?” Emilio asked. “What about Sam?”
    “Sam’s out at his dad’s place. It’ll take him too long to get here,” Bill said as he stepped out of the building and started across the parking lot at a trot, “And there’s only one road leading to that church and too many cars will make too much noise.”
    Bill went to his cruiser and James and Emilio ran across the parking lot toward Emilio’s SUV.
    “You drive,” Emilio told James.
    At first James didn’t know why Emilio wanted him to drive, but as soon as they got in the Blazer, Emilio took the AR-15 down from where it was attached to the roll-cage behind the seats and laid it across his lap. James recalled that he had seen several marksmanship awards and trophies on Emilio’s mantle, including a second place trophy from a statewide NRA meet in San Antonio. Emilio checked the rifle’s magazine, then checked its chamber. Satisfied that the rifle was ready for action, he set it in the seat beside him, the barrel pointing toward the floorboard.
    Bill led James and Emilio out of town. At the city limits sign they were joined by John Banks' city patrol car. The three patrol cars sped out of town at around ninety miles an hour without their lights or sirens. Only three miles out of Newton, at the familiar intersection of Highway 87 and Farm to Market Road 1414, they turned right, the opposite direction of James’ house. From there they continued about five more miles, when Bill put on his right blinker. Instead of turning right, he moved off the shoulderless road and got out and started walking to the Emilio’s SUV, which had pulled off the road behind him.
    “What’s he doing?” James asked, as they pulled off the road.
    Emilio pointed at what was less of a road and more of a break in the trees to the left of Farm Road 1414. Although Emilio was fairly new to the county, as a game warden he had made it his business to know every hiking trail and old logging road in his area. “That old road hasn’t been used for anything but logging and illegal hunting since the seventies. His car’ll never make it. Hell, I’m not sure we can.”
    James rolled down his window to talk to Bill, but the sheriff passed up his door, opened the door, and behind him and got in. At almost the same time the right rear door opened and John got in the other side.
    Emilio reached down in the floorboard and pushed the four-wheel drive lever to: 4W LOW. He sat back up and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
    The SUV, now set in low-geared four-wheel drive, crossed the road then the ditch, and proceeded on down a barely visible road. Wheel ruts weren’t visible except where they had turned to mud holes. There were even chest high pine saplings growing in the middle of the road. These saplings were bent almost flat to the ground as the SUV passed over them and as they came out the other side they snapped back up, though they were not quite as straight up and down as before the four-wheel-drive ran over them.
    Everyone sat in silence as the truck made its way down the path.
    James looked in the rear view mirror at John Banks. He could see the confusion on the man’s face. The police chief was the only one present who didn’t know what was going on, but from what James knew about him, he wasn’t the type that liked to admit he didn’t understand a situation. He sat in silence nervously fidgeting with his seatbelt strap. Finally his curiosity got the better of him.
    John shifted nervously in his seat. “What’s this all about, Bill?” John asked, his round head bobbing on his shoulders as the truck plunged through yet another mud hole.
    Bill didn’t answer immediately. James knew Bill had informed Chief Deputy Carl Price about James’ visions, since he was Bill’s second-in-command at the Sheriff’s Department, but they had decided against telling Police Chief Banks. Telling John would be like placing an ad in the Newton County Reporter, or putting up a billboard downtown. John told his wife, Lula, just about everything, and Lula Banks was good friends with Alice Pender, the town gossip. It would only be a matter of hours, if not minutes, before their little secret became common knowledge in Newton.
    John was about to repeat the question when Emilio helped Bill out with a simple, yet effective, fib. “A local kid was down this road last night with his girlfriend and thought he saw some sort of bear-like animal at the old Beulah Church.”
    Only a four-wheel-drive could make it down this dirt road, and very few kids had access to one of these. And if this kid had a four-wheel-drive it was very doubtful he would pull all the way down the road to the Beulah Church just to do a little groping when ducking behind the first row of trees would do just as good. Nonetheless, John fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.
    Emilio continued, “He thought he saw the thing take off under the church. If it’s there, maybe we can catch it sleeping.”
    You don’t live with someone for twenty-two years without having some of their bad habits rub off on you, and John’s wife’s love of gossip had certainly rubbed off on him. With a sly grin, John leaned forward in his seat and asked, “Who was down here parking? Was it Sherry Tice’s daughter?”
    This time it was Bill’s turn to be thinking on his feet. “They didn’t leave their name.”
    “Oh,” John replied somewhat sullenly. Satisfied but not happy with the answer, he leaned back in his seat and became silent.
    They continued slowly down the muddy dirt road for about a half a mile further before Emilio put his rifle across his lap and said, “It’s right around this curve.”
    As they started around the next curve, James could make out a steeple piercing through the tops of the trees. The steeple had been white at one time, but years without a fresh coat of paint had left it an ugly color that was somewhere between light grey and tan. For some reason this steeple looked foreboding; it looked like it was peering through the trees, watching them. Sort of a scout for the hellish beast that had taken up residence there.
    A chill raced up and down James’ spine.
* * *
    The beast awoke. It could hear something in the distance.
    It made its way to the opening in the skirt around the church, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. However, the sound of something approaching was unmistakable.
    It sniffed the air. The scent was familiar. It smelled like one of the vehicles the beast’s favorite prey transported themselves in.
    Though its vision was poor in the daylight, the beast could make out something slowly making its way through the underbrush. The beast saw a metallic reflection coming from the same direction as the sound. The reflection came again. It seemed to be heading this way. Then the large object became even clearer and something large and green could definitely be seen between the trees.
    The beast crawled out from under the house and ran for the woods.
* * *
    As the SUV came around the corner, the small, white, one-roomed church came into view.
    James saw something dart from the side of the building. “Look!” he said, pointing at the dark shape.
    But Emilio was a step ahead of him. He had already opened the door and was stepping out of the slow moving truck. He brought the AR-15 to his shoulder. The beast was well over one hundred yards away and moving quickly toward the trees. Emilio had only about one second to aim and fire before the beast disappeared from sight. This single shot was followed by a series of seven more shots fired blindly into the area where the beast had entered the woods.
    Emilio raced ahead with the rifle still to his shoulder and pointing in the direction where the beast had entered the woods.
    Bill passed in front of the truck, followed closely by John, both with their pistols out.
    James followed their example. He stepped out of the car and drew his own pistol. He set off after Emilio.
    They crashed through the brush and saplings until they finally caught up with Emilio. He had stopped about thirty yards from the edge of the woods. His rifle was still at his shoulder and leveled toward where the beast had last been seen.
    Out of breath, John gasped a couple of times before blurting out, “Did you get it?”
    “Hush!” Emilio snapped.
    They stood there with only the sound of John’s gasping breath breaking the silence, as Emilio listened for any movement.
    “I’m not sure, but I think I hit it,” Emilio said in a quiet voice that was almost, but not quite, a whisper. “We still need to be careful. It may not be dead, and I don’t want to blunder into that thing while it’s wounded.”
    Emilio craned his neck, trying to see over the brush and high grass, then, without turning his eyes from the woods before them, he said, “I’m going to move in. We need to spread out, but not far. Bill, I need you and James to stay about ten feet on either side of me and advance as I do. I’ve got the firepower, so I’ll cover all three of us. You two worry about covering yourselves and me should it catch me off guard. John, I want you to follow behind us at about twenty feet. If that thing should get through and take one of us down, it’s your job to kill it before it kills us.”
    John’s job would be all but impossible should it become necessary, and they all knew it. They had all seen how fast that thing was and how quickly it could kill. If it got through to someone, that someone was going to die.
    They all spread out, and once Emilio saw they were in place he started moving slowly forward.
    The tall grass and brush was just over waist deep. Emilio told the others to spread out a little more so the beast couldn’t bowl them all over in one quick rush, but James feared it would take advantage of the tall grass and come in low, taking one of them out, then turning on the others.
    James’ heart was pounding so loud he was certain that if they were to stop and listen they would all be able to hear it. He held his pistol tightly in his hand and his eyes constantly swept the woods before him. It wasn’t hot, but sweat was beginning to trickle off his forehead.
    Just past the edge of the woods, Emilio stopped. Keeping the AR-15 aimed at the woods, he slowly dropped to one knee. He took his left hand from the gun’s forearm and reached down to the ground. His head stayed up, only his eyes looked down.
    “It fell here.” His hand moved some more pine straw and twigs. A smile creased his lips. “Blood.”
    “You hit it?” John asked, between pants. James suddenly found John’s labored breathing immensely irritating. The police chief was overweight, but there was little doubt that he should have gotten his wind back by now.
    “Think so,” Emilio answered. He got back to his feet. “But I doubt I killed it. Not enough blood.”
    They continued slowly into the woods, but they didn’t go much further. James could tell there wasn’t enough blood on the trail for the creature to be mortally wounded, and like Emilio said earlier, he didn’t want to blunder into the beast while it was wounded.
* * *
    There was a loud bang, then a sharp pain ripped through the beast’s shoulder as the.223 bullet tore its way through, entering on the outside rear and passing out the front, grazing the upper part of the beast’s shoulder bone as it passed through. The shot caught the beast in mid-stride, and, when its weight came down on its arms, a numbness shot through its right shoulder and on down its arm, causing it to fall headlong at the edge of the woods. The fall may very well have saved the beast’s life, however, since just as it fell there were seven more loud bangs, and the beast could hear a series of crisp popping noises above it as the bullets passed just overhead at supersonic speeds.
    The beast had an extremely high pain threshold. As a result, it had never really felt pain. Even when Chelsea had knocked it to the ground, the horse hadn’t done so with enough force to actually hurt the beast. Now, the beast felt pain for the first time. Although a bullet tearing through a shoulder would have been much more painful to any other creature, it was a new and entirely alien feeling. The beast was scared at first — another new feeling — then it burned with an intense hatred for the creature that had caused this pain.
    The beast scrambled to its feet, and, with its right arm drawn into its chest, it lurched off.
    After it traveled another fifty yards away from its attackers, the beast ascended a small rise. It placed itself behind a tree, and peered through the woods at the approaching four figures. It raised its snout and sniffed the air. One of the four, the one walking behind the others, was unfamiliar; the beast assumed this one was unimportant. But, the other three were very familiar, one very much so. It had smelled all three of them when it occasionally returned to areas where it had made kills.
    A cloud passed overhead, briefly obstructing the glaring sun, at the same time the wind shifted in the beast’s direction. This enabled the beast to get a fairly good look at what was approaching. Yes, it had seen and smelled them before, often, in fact. The one on the right was the one it had named The Dying One in its speechless mind. Every time the beast had returned to a place where it had killed, his smell would be there. It could smell disease on the old man’s breath.
    The one on the left had been named The One Who Sees. The beast knew of a strange tie between itself and The One Who Sees, but it wasn’t until just now that it understood that when The One Who Sees slept, he was able to see inside the beast’s head while it was hunting.
    The one in the middle was the primary target of the beast’s hatred. He was now called The One Who Caused Pain. The beast saw a large object in the hands of The One Who Caused Pain. It recognized this object as the thing The One Who Caused Pain had used to inflict the injury to its shoulder. The beast watched as The One Who Caused Pain instructed the others to spread out. The beast took a long look at each one present. Hatred spread through its mind, especially for the creature in the center. Its rage was so powerful that the beast almost lumbered down the hill and charged the four, but it knew how badly the big object had hurt it and saw that the other three creatures had similar — if somewhat smaller — objects. It reluctantly decided against an attack.
    The beast quietly descended the other side of the small hill and moved further into the woods.

CHAPTER 21
The One Who Caused Pain

    When Bill, James, and Emilio arrived back at the station, Sam was there waiting.
    “What happened?” he asked as they came through the door.
    “Let’s step into my office,” Bill said.
    Once they were settled in their customary seats, Sam asked. “Will someone please tell me what the hell happened this morning?”
    Sam had just returned from a short trip out to his father’s place and was told that Bill, James, and Emilio had lit out this morning without telling anyone where they were going. He knew it had to be a development in the case. Sam had been in Austin when Jana Parish was killed and now this. All he could think about was, I’ll be damned if I let any of them out of my sight again.
    “James saw where that thing’s been hidin’ durin’ the day in one of his dreams. It was underneath the old Beulah Church,” Bill explained.
    “Beulah Church? Never heard of it.”
    “A black church down a dirt road off fourteen-fourteen. It hasn’t been used in years.”
    Sam still didn’t remember it, but he nodded and waved his hand for Bill to go on.
    “We took Emilio’s truck down the dirt road to the church. When we came around the corner, it came out from under the church and made for the woods. Emilio got out and fired at it, and we think he winged it.”
    Sam’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
    “Sure did,” Emilio said, making like he was holding an invisible rifle in his hands. He pulled an invisible trigger and added, “I plugged the hell out of it.”
    Bill continued, “We found blood, but not much. I don’t think it’s mortally wounded, but at least we know the damn thing bleeds.”
    “Did you try to track it?”
    “Not for long. Like I said, I don’t think it’s mortally wounded, and we weren’t too big on the idea of following that thing into the underbrush.”
    Hearing the fact that the beast wasn’t mortally wounded repeated twice, Emilio decided he should throw in, “I think it may have been walking on three legs after I hit it. It may have a crippled arm now.”
    Everyone, Emilio included, had the sinking feeling they had just missed their best opportunity to kill the beast. They had caught it unprepared, at its lair, and probably asleep. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. They couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if they had stopped the noisy four-wheel drive a few hundred yards from the church and crept up. Emilio’s shot had been nothing short of amazing, but he kept wondering if he’d just been a little more accurate. Bill wondered if he had taken his time, or maybe if he’d brought more men with him. Sam was kicking himself in the ass for not being around when it all happened; he wondered if he had been there if they might have bagged the beast. And James privately wondered if things might have turned out better if he’d awakened during the dream and they’d tried to kill the beast while it was in town. They had come so close to come up empty-handed.
* * *
    When Sam placed Emilio in charge of all the game wardens currently operating in Newton County, Emilio had been flattered. Now he looked at his new position as more of a pain in the ass than anything else. First off, it was an odd position for him to be in; over three quarters of the game wardens under him had more years of experience, and not all of them exactly appreciated being passed over. He also found that it was a lot more work than he’d expected. Not only was he still working the all-night patrols, but when he came in the next morning, he had to check in with Bill and Sam, who, since they’d had a full night’s sleep, invariably wanted to talk for hours on end about the current situation. Afterwards Emilio still had to do all the necessary paperwork and interview any game wardens who thought they saw anything the night before. And, just when it was beginning to look like he was going to get to go home and get some rest, a game warden would want to talk to him about a problem with his schedule. Emilio went on duty at eight each evening, and he usually didn’t get home until around noon; a full sixteen-hour shift, sometimes longer.
    Yesterday, just after Emilio had gone home, one of the game wardens had seen some buzzards circling off Lee’s Mill Road. When they investigated they found what appeared to be the remains of a hunter who had been killed several weeks ago, possibly near the beginning of hunting season. It appeared to be another victim. As usual, Bill had called Emilio out to look at the scene. Sure enough, there were tracks all around the area. James said he hadn’t seen this one, but judging the advanced stage of decomposition, the hunter had been killed during the first week of the month when James was on Xanax and not having his visions. By the time Emilio was finished at the scene, he was only able to get a two-hour nap before going back on patrol that night.
    Today had turned out to be almost as long a day as yesterday. After this morning’s excitement out at the Beulah Church, Bill and Sam wanted to talk even longer than usual. It was past noon before he was able to leave Bill’s office. As it turned out, there wasn’t very much paperwork to do, and only a couple of game wardens came in to talk about their patrols, but it was still almost three before Emilio could head home. He was dead tired, and would probably only get three hours of sleep before he went back on patrol.
    Now I know how James feels, Emilio thought as he fought to keep his heavy eyelids from shutting while he pulled down the short dirt drive to his trailer.
    Parked in front was another game warden vehicle, this one a pickup. It belonged to Bret Fuller, a game warden from West Texas who had been assigned as Emilio’s partner. He wasn’t with Emilio this morning because he had gone home to get some rest while Emilio worked over the details of the schedule with the sheriff. Emilio would be glad when Bret was gone. The man was too nit-picky clean, and he snored worse than anyone Emilio had ever heard. It sounded like Bret had a sawmill running wide open in his throat. Even with the door to his bedroom shut, and wads of toilet paper crammed in his ears, it still took some time before Emilio could get to sleep with all the racket. He doubted it would be a problem today; he was exhausted.
    As he got out of the car, he saw Bret coming from around the side of the building.
    “You’re running late today. What’s up at the office?”
    “It’s a long story,” Emilio said as he walked toward his door.
    Emilio was normally a perceptive man. He probably would have wondered why Bret had been around the side of the building. Or maybe he would have noticed Bret was approaching him just a little too eagerly. Or he might have just felt something was out of place, even though the beast had yet to become so bold as to attack someone in broad daylight. But, right now, Emilio was exhausted and his mind was set on getting into his bed.
    When he got almost a third of the way from his truck to the door, he heard something coming from inside the trailer. Snoring.
    He turned and ran for his truck. The beast, which was about halfway from the side of the house, dropped to all fours and darted toward him. Given a lead of about fifty feet, Emilio was able to get to the Blazer, get inside, get the key in the ignition, and he even managed to turn the key and crank the engine before the beast reached him.
    But the beast was there before he could put the truck in gear.
    The beast’s clawed hand burst through the driver’s side window, sending shattered glass flying throughout the cab. Emilio flung himself across the seat just in time as the beast raked its claws across the back of the seat, leaving five deep tears that would have been on Emilio’s upper chest and throat.
    Emilio reached up and tried to put the Blazer into reverse, but missed by one and put it into neutral.
    Just as the beast began to prepare for another of its catlike swipes with its clawed hands, Emilio brought his feet out from under the steering wheel and kicked, his boot catching the Bret-thing in the mouth. The blow threw the beast off balance, and when it lashed out only the claws of its two lower fingers managed to find their mark. They made two deep, painful, gouges across Emilio’s upper left leg. The hard swing continued and smashed into the dash, destroying the SUV’s radio, and ripping several wires belonging to the police radio and lights.
    Emilio lashed out again, this time missing the beast’s face. However, the boot connected with the beast’s right shoulder; a direct hit on the bloody exit wound made by the.223 bullet this morning.
    The beast recoiled and howled in pain. It staggered backwards, out of the window. Still lying across the seat Emilio reached up and threw the truck into reverse, bringing his feet back to the floorboard and slamming on the gas. He rose up just in time to see a utility pole in his rearview mirror.
    The SUV slammed into the pole, but luckily the air bag didn’t deploy. Emilio reached for his rifle, but saw he didn’t have time. Looking through the windshield, he could see the Bret-thing running toward him on all fours.
    “Come on, you son-of-a-bitch!” Emilio yelled, as he threw the truck in drive and put his foot to the floor. The SUV took off in a cloud of dust.
* * *
    The beast was furious. Here was the one who had dared inflict pain. It had been so close, almost had him; it had even drawn blood. It could smell him. It could smell his blood. But, then he had lashed out and caused pain again. Its vision was poor in the daytime, but as the big green vehicle bore down on a collision course, it saw The One Who Caused Pain through the glass. Hatred reined in its dark heart, pushing all thoughts of caution into a dark, forgotten corner.
    With a shriek, it leaped into the air.
    With arms outstretched the beast propelled itself across the hood, smashing claws first into the windshield. The windshield spider-webbed where the beast’s clawed hands struck the glass, followed by its head and its body. The beast flipped over the roof of the truck and landed on the ground behind it.
* * *
    The impact shook the SUV, then the beast flipped overhead and out of sight. Emilio slammed on the brakes, but not soon enough to prevent a collision with the rear end of Bret’s pickup. This time the airbag did deploy. Since Emilio hadn’t had time to fasten his seatbelt, the airbag slammed into him as it met him halfway to the steering wheel, busting his nose and almost knocking the wind out of him.
    Emilio glanced in the rearview mirror; about thirty yards behind the truck he saw the beast picking itself up from the ground. Emilio’s first reaction was to back up and run over it again, but when he reached for the gearshift he found the engine had died.
    “What the hell’s going on out there?” Bret yelled from the porch. All the commotion had awakened him from his deep slumber. Despite the cold, he was standing in the doorway wearing only his boxer shorts and a t-shirt.
    “It’s out here, Bret!” Emilio screamed
    “What in the world are you talking about?”
    “The beast!” Emilio shouted, “The thing that’s been doing all the killing!”
    Emilio looked in his rearview mirror. It wasn’t there! Where was it?
    “Oh my God!” Emilio yelled.
    In his mind he could picture the creature approaching in one of the SUV’s blind spot, coming in low with its body coiled and its long claws and teeth ready. Emilio frantically tried to get his AR-15 from its mount behind the seat, but his trembling hands were having difficulty with the latches.
    He glanced into the rearview mirror. No sign of the beast. How close was it now?
    He finally got the rifle down and opened the door, but when he stepped out and put weight on his injured leg, he found that it wouldn’t hold him. He collapsed to the ground.
* * *
    Bret was one of the many who were still unconvinced that there was nothing more than a particularly imaginative serial killer running around in Newton County. Not having a very high opinion of this local game warden who appeared to be the local sheriff’s pet, his first thought was that Emilio was drunk.
    “What has gotten into you?” Bret snapped as he strode toward the wrecked vehicles, still without a weapon and still clad only in his boxers and a t-shirt. “Have you lost your ever-loving mind?”
    He was even with the hood of the pickup, almost where Emilio was lying, when he saw something that changed his mind entirely about what they were dealing with. In the middle of the spider web-cracked glass was a single black claw that was almost two inches long.
    “Call for backup!” Emilio yelled. He was still on the ground, but he had the rifle in his hands and was keeping an alert lookout for movement.
    His mouth agape, Bret continued to stare at the claw embedded into the SUV’s window.
    “Call for backup!” Emilio screamed.
    This time Bret snapped out of it, ran to his truck, and got on the radio.
* * *
    The beast hit the truck hard. It flew over the hood, its rage momentarily lost in its pain. It hit the ground and rolled.
    The first time it tried to rise, it slipped back to the ground, but on the second try it was able to gain its footing.
    The beast had numerous injuries. It had lost the claw off the first finger of its right hand, and its middle finger was broken with the bone showing through the skin near the middle knuckle. A deep, bloody gash ran the length of the beast’s right forearm. Its left ankle was throbbing and already beginning to swell. Two ribs on its left side were broken, two more cracked; pain shot through its chest with every breath. The beast’s injuries would have proved incapacitating if they had been inflicted on a human, but not to this vile creature with its tremendous pain threshold.
    When the beast rose from the ground, it could vaguely make out the object used to cause the pain earlier in the day resting right behind him in the vehicle. The collision had knocked some of the blind rage out of the beast but hadn’t lessened its hate. It would withdraw to the woods for now, lick its wounds, and rest for the night. But tomorrow it would come for them all. It would come for The One Who Sees, The One Who Caused Pain, and The Dying One.
    It would come and it would kill them.

CHAPTER 22
The Calm Before

    The hospital’s clean white walls and polished floors were a stark, almost shocking, contrast to the pandemonium outside. Despite the slight cracks in the ageing plaster walls, the old hospital’s hominess was almost able to shine through, creating a mark of noticeable serenity amid the chaos. However, the illusion was incomplete; the sounds of reporters chattering questions and Sam attempting come up with answers that were both adequate and evasive could still be heard from just the outside the emergency room entrance.
    This morning the first real wave of news crews had engulfed the small town of Newton, Texas. The Pineywoods Hotel in Newton had been filled the night after news of Jana Parish’s attack got out, and by noon even the hotels in Jasper were filling up. By the time Emilio had been attacked that afternoon, it seemed there were more vans and communications vehicles owned by the networks than there were pickups owned by the locals. And now most of those vehicles were parked outside Jasper Medical Center, where Emilio Rodriguez had been taken.
    Bill’s hard-soled cowboy boots echoed through the hall as he made his way toward the emergency room.
    A small, almost petite man stood outside the door to the emergency room smoking a cigarette. Bill immediately recognized Doctor Paul Hewlett.
    “How is he?” Bill asked.
    “Pretty good, Sheriff Oates,” the Doctor Hewlett replied. “Two deep lacerations on his left leg. A lot of muscular damage, but not quite deep enough to hit any major vessels. He’s lucky. He’ll be on crutches for some time, but it could’ve been a lot worse. I’ve finished stitching and the nurses should be about through bandaging him up by now.”
    “Can I go in?” Bill said with a nod toward the emergency room door.
    Hewlett didn’t reply immediately, and when he did, he didn’t exactly answer the question. He took another long drag on his cigarette before asking a question of his own. “What’s going on over there in Newton County?”
    Bill wasn’t exactly in the mood for chitchat, but he’d always felt a doctor in his hospital was due the same respect as a captain on his ship so he answered the question as best he could. “We’re not sure.”
    Hewlett nodded toward the thong of reporters outside the glass emergency room doors. “They said it was a wild animal at first; now they think it’s a serial killer, but those weren’t knife wounds.”
    “No, doctor, they weren’t.”
    “Claws?”
    “I believe so.”
    “Big claws.”
    Bill nodded.
    The doctor took another drag. “You guys really don’t know what’s out there, do you?”
    “No, we don’t,” Bill replied stiffly, his cheeks darkening a touch as his patience began to wear thin.
    Hewlett caught Bill’s tone and backtracked a bit. “I’m sure you’ll catch it, whatever it is?”
    “We will. Can I see my boy now?”
    “Sure,” Hewlett replied. He turned and led the way through the door and into the emergency room.
    In a way, the emergency room was very similar to the hall outside — plain white walls, slightly aged but still in good shape. In here, however, much of the wall space was covered by charts and instructional posters on emergency medical procedure. Three nurses were over by the sink, two removing their latex gloves while the third cleaned her hands with disinfectant. Emilio sat in a chair against the far wall. His left pants leg had been ripped open all the way up his leg, and his upper thigh was thickly wrapped with bandages. He looked a little pale — perhaps from blood loss or perhaps from the recent scare — but his face was beaming its usual smile.
    “Howdy-doo, sheriff.”
    “How’s the leg?”
    “Oh, it’s still there.” He patted a pair of crutches resting against the wall next to his chair. “I think I’ll be on these for a while, but I really doubt it’ll be as long as they’re telling me.”
    Bill turned to Doctor Hewlett. “I need talk to him alone.” He turned to the nurses and politely added, “If you ladies don’t mind.”
    “No problem,” the oldest of the three replied. “We were just cleaning up.”
    Bill turned back to the doctor. “You are through with him, aren’t you?”
    “Just a little paperwork is all, but Captain Jones said he would take care of that before he left.”
    “Thank y’all,” Emilio said to the nurses as they filed out the door.
    “You’re welcome.”
    Hewlett turned and followed the nurses into the hall.
    Emilio started to say something as soon as the door was closed, but Bill held up a finger for silence. Bill walked over to the ER’s intercom and made sure it was turned off before he turned back to Emilio. “How much do they know?” Bill said with a nodded toward the door.
    “Only a little gossip and what they’re hearing on the news. The doctor was full of questions, but I think he was more concerned about infection than picking my brain for gossip.”
    “What about the girls?”
    “The nurses? They were a little curious, but Judy — that’s the head nurse, Judy Trotter, I think — she was pretty heads up on the situation. She told them to mind their jobs and save their questions.”
    “Good.”
    “Sheriff, I really don’t see why we’re so worried about secrecy here. Ever since that reporter died we’ve been top story in the nation. It’s only a matter of time before it gets out.”
    “But as long as we keep ’em thinkin’ it’s a series of unsolved murders we can keep it a State operation. I don’t want the Feds jumpin’ in and screwin’ everything up.”
    “Why not bring in the Feds? They get a look at that tape and, who knows, they might have military choppers combing the woods within hours.”
    “They might have more gizmos to throw into the woods, but we’ve got James. You know as well as I do that they won’t believe us about him, and I think he’s the only answer to whatever the hell is out there.”
    Emilio also knew that a lot of Bill’s desire to keep the problem local stemmed from his mistrust of the Feds. He remembered a year ago when a Detroit city police officer who had grown tired of city life and move to his wife’s old home in East Texas. Despite the man’s experience and flawless record, Bill had balked on hiring him. Emilio had overheard the old sheriff saying that he simply didn’t trust a man who’d never pissed behind a tree. And in the eyes of Sheriff Bill Oates, all Federal agents were city slickers.
    Emilio started to push the argument to bring in the Feds, but he held his tongue. While Bill’s urban prejudice might have something to do with the decision, he had brought up another very valid point — James. How many would have to die before the Federal newcomers would realize his connection? And what of the helicopter squadrons Emilio had envisioned flying to their rescue? Was this a realistic hope, or was it just a typical American pipedream of calling ol’ Uncle Sam coming in with guns blazing for the quick fix? The machine always has a human head, and Emilio doubted if anyone could come down from Washington and do a better job than Sam and Bill had done so far.
    “What happened out at my place after I was hauled off?” Emilio asked, changing the subject. “Geraldo Rivera didn’t come in and trash my house did he?”
    Bill smiled and said, “We had our fair share of reporters follow us out, but that line of trees between your pasture and the road was a godsend. We blocked them at the entrance and there was no way they could get around. A few lugged their cameras through the woods to get a shot of your house from the trees, but they couldn’t get any closer.”
    “Good, I’d hate to come home and find Wolf Blitzer raiding my fridge,” Emilio said. “How bad do you think it’s hurt this time?”
    “Not a lot of blood, but it left a claw in your windshield.”
    “Great,” Emilio murmured sarcastically. “It broke a nail.”
    “It took a better beatin’ than that. May even be crippled. And the lack of blood doesn’t mean it’s not banged up inside.” Bill paused, and added. “I still doubt it’s mortally wounded, but it’s been shot and run over. There’s little doubt we’ve hurt it.”
    “Animals are always more dangerous when they’re injured.”
    “But it might make it careless. Look how it attacked you in broad daylight.”
    Emilio nodded; then reached for his crutches. “I’m ready to get back to the fort. Let’s get a move on.”
    “That’s another thing I want to bring up,” Bill said. “We’re going to run you out to your place so you can get your things; then we’re sending you back home to Midland.”
    “What?” Emilio replied, forgetting the crutches and turning back to Bill.
    “It’s for your own good. Your place isn’t safe. It’s already come for you once. It could come again, and this time you’re in little shape to put up a fight.”
    “You’re not sending me home, Bill,” Emilio said bluntly.
    “We really don’t have a choice.”
    “Yes you do. You can come up with another pillow and a blanket and move me into the jail with you. And I won’t just be in the way, either. I may not be able to go on patrol, but I’ll have even more time to handle the paperwork.”
    Emilio didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ll stay at my house by myself if I have to, and if you try to keep me away from my house I’ll stay in the damn woods. I’m not leaving,” he said, surprising Bill with an uncharacteristic burst of frustrated anger.
    “Okay, you can stay. I think I can come up with another one of Faye’s feather pillows.”
* * *
    The small line of light running along the far wall widened until the rectangle of light revealed the face of Captain Sam Jones. Sam was stretched out on the concrete bed with his sport coat still on. It was two in the afternoon, but for the last couple of weeks he’d had to catch what little sleep he could whenever he could find it.
    “Sam?” Bill said from the doorway.
    Sam’s eyes fluttered. He brought one of his big hands up to block out the bright light in the hall. “Don’t tell me we’ve got media troubles again,” Sam said his voice still hoarse and cracking from sleep.
    “No, it’s the FBI again.”
    Sam started to roll onto his side, but a pain in his upper back prevented him. “Bill, these hard beds are killin’ me.”
    “I know. I’m sleepin’ at my desk now. Takes longer to get to sleep, but I don’t wake up with a crick in my neck or a catch in my back.”
    Sam turned his head to Bill. His eyes were still adjusting to the light. All he could see was Bill’s outline. “What’d the Feds have to say this time?”
    “Same as before, for the most part. As long as we keep telling them it’s a serial murderer and the state’s handling it, they’re okay, but they’re starting to ask questions about some of the rumors they’re hearing.”
    “You think they know something we don’t?”
    “No. If they did they’d already be down here.”
    “True,” Sam replied. He tried once more to rise, but found the knot in his back was still there.
    “I wouldn’t have bothered you, but Anderson said he needed to talk to you.” Special Agent Steve Anderson was a friend of Sam’s; he was supposed to be helping keep the Feds off their backs. Bill had only met Anderson on a couple of occasions and didn’t hold him in quite the same high regard as Sam did. “I hope he hasn’t screwed something up for us.”
    “Actually, he’s been a lot of help keeping Washington out of this one.”
    “Anderson?” Bill asked, genuinely shocked. “That kid couldn’t find his ass with both hands.”
    “That kid just turned fifty-five and he’s got three grandchildren.” Sam laughed. “Bill, we’re gettin’ old.”
    Bill didn’t reply.
    “Anderson probably just found out about what I worked out with the State and wants to know what to tell Washington if they ask.”
    “Speaking of which, what did you work out?”
    Sam smiled, “Let’s just say being one of the living legends of the Lone Star State has its benefits. I called Austin and told them we need more manpower. They’ve got about two dozen more troopers and game wardens heading our way as we speak, and they promised more later in the week, perhaps even the national guard, although that would have to be okayed by Washington.”
    “Looks like something finally went our way,” Bill commented.
    Sam tried once more to get up and failed again. He grimaced, and glanced over at Bill. “Are you going to stand there or are you going to come over here and help me get up?”
* * *
    That night passed quietly. When James finally was able to drift off to sleep, he found he was able to get some real sleep, up until the middle of the night, when the beast awoke from its temporary lair in a dried-out creek bed.
    This time it was a new experience for James. He was used to his senses merging with those of the beast, including the sense of touch. But all day it hadn’t dawned on him that he would also feel the numerous injuries the beast had acquired during the day. The pain wasn’t as bad as James would have imagined due to the extent of the injuries; apparently he benefited from the beast’s high pain threshold just like he benefited from its heightened senses. But the pain was there, and was certainly a far cry from comfortable. The beast’s entire left side was sore, and every breath caused the left side of its chest to throb. Its right hand also hurt, especially the first two fingers.
    The beast pulled itself out of the creek bed. As it did, pain shot through its left ankle. It climbed up on the bank, and lay back down.
    James then saw something that reinforced his belief in the beast’s human-like intelligence. The beast grabbed its right middle finger and set the broken bone in place. The pain was extreme, but still not as much as it would have been if it had been James’ own finger.
    The beast then began to lick its wounds. James found the taste of the thing’s blood along with the mud from the creek bed to be unbearably repulsive. He began to try to wake up, and after only a few seconds was able to do so.
    Once he was awake, James got dressed and went to the dispatcher’s office, where he chatted with Clara and Jack for a few hours. Neither proved to be much of a conversationalist so at around three in the morning, James decided to try sleeping again. If the beast was up, he could check on it and see if it was hunting; if it was asleep, James could get some rest. He was hoping for the latter. When he settled back in and fell asleep, he drifted into a deep dreamless sleep. Obviously the beast was worn out from the day before and asleep as well.
    The next morning James, Emilio, Bill, and Sam gathered in Bill’s office to discuss James’ vision of the night before. James told them of the banged up condition of the creature, and they were hopeful it was dying. But James told them he doubted it.
    The next day was spent mostly dodging reporters. James, Emilio, and Bill stayed pretty much in the Sheriff’s Department under siege by the masses of cameras and recorders outside. Sam was in charge of playing ringmaster to the hoard of reporters, keeping them up to date on the progress of the investigations of the killings, especially the investigation into the death of Jana Parish. In fact, many of the Newton townspeople were sick of hearing her name. They felt the media was treating the entire tragedy like it was a dramatic play entitled: THE TRAGIC DEATH OF JANA PARISH (and a few unnamed peons).
    When the sun went down, James wasn’t tired, so he sat in the squad room and played poker with Emilio and Chad, who was staying at the jail as a sort of reserve.
    No one could have imagined what the beast had in store for that night.

CHAPTER 23
The Beast’s Gambit

    The beast moved inside the city limits of Newton during the late afternoon. It was much more difficult to move around with the townspeople and reporters still out and about, but it wanted to get into position before James went to sleep, enabling him to spy on the beast’s movements. The demonic creature limped on, every now and then entering minds and making people see it as nothing more than a large dog. But mostly the beast stayed in hiding, just in case someone happened to drive by and catch a glimpse before it could enter their minds.
    The beast hid under a house on Houston Street, only two houses down from where it had killed Tina Beck, a short distance from the Newton County Jail. It waited there until just after dark. Then it moved through the shadows, until it came to a small alley running behind the now abandoned stores on the square. Once in the alley, it found a back entrance to an old hardware store that had been closed for years. It looked up and down the broad alley and smelled the air. No one was near.
    The beast slammed a shoulder into the door. The rusty hinges gave easily and the door crashed to the ground after only one blow. The beast took one last look up and down the alley to make sure no one had heard the door fall. It stepped inside.
    An old display window at the front of the shop provided the perfect vantage point. The beast could clearly see the front door of the Sheriff’s Department, as well as the parking lot, while remaining in the dark shadows of the old store. It watched and waited.
    Time was of the essence. It wasn’t sure when The One Who Sees bedded down, but it didn’t want to be caught vulnerable when he did. It was fairly certain The One Who Sees would be able to wake up and warn the others before it could strike unless everything went perfectly.
    It was over thirty minutes before all the patrol cars that were to patrol that night left the station. All that was left in the parking lot were four vehicles.
    The beast pulled the bolt lock then slowly turned the doorknob, as it had seen the frail ones do so often. The door creaked open. The beast set out across the street as quickly as its wounded condition would allow, boldly loping across the road toward the Sheriff’s Department parking lot. Once there, it picked the vehicle nearest the front door and quickly climbed under it.
    It shut its eyes, not to release the vision, but to keep James from seeing where it was should he fall asleep before the beast could carry out its plan.
    The beast waited.
* * *
    James hated to drop out of the poker game. He was having a good time, and, even more importantly, he was winning. But he knew his primary reason for being at the jail was so his dreams could be used to catch the beast. So, at around ten o’clock, James got up, stretched and did his best to fake a yawn. “It’s been nice taking y’all’s money, but I’ve got to get some rest.”
    “Well, I think I’ve lost enough for one night,” Emilio said.
    But Chad was still shuffling for another hand when James got up. “Oh, come on,” Chad said. “I’m sixty in the hole here. Give me a chance to win some of it back.”
    “I don’t think so. The way I’m playing tonight, I’d just take all your money and have to feel guilty tomorrow.”
    Chad finished shuffling and distributed the five cards to himself, Emilio, and the chair James had just vacated. “Just a couple more hands.”
    “No thanks, I’m through for the night.”
    Chad picked up his hand and glanced at his cards. He wasn’t exactly an accomplished poker player; James could tell by the look on his face that he had a good hand. And if that was the case, it would be his first good hand of the night.
    “Hell, James, You’ve been sleeping all night and halfway through the day since you’ve been here,” Chad said crossly. “How on earth could you be tired?”
    Emilio was quick to defend James. He knew the reason James had been sleeping so much during the day, and he also knew the importance of James getting to bed and keeping an eye on the beast’s movements. “That’s hardly fair, Chad,” Emilio said. “James has been up here working reserve like you’re doing tonight, and still working with Carl during the day. He’s been pulling two shifts like this since he moved in with me a week ago.” It was a lie, but it sounded good.
    Chad sat there for a few seconds, studying his cards. Then he smiled and fanned his cards out on the table — three sixes. “Can you believe this shit. My highest hand of the night is a pair and as soon as James quits, I get three of a kind right off the bat.”
    “That does suck,” James agreed. Then in an effort to prevent any hard feelings he suggested. “Do you want to put ten dollars on the highest hand dealt? I haven’t seen my cards.”
    “Naw, don’t worry about it,” Chad said, as he scooped the cards together, pushing them into a neat rectangular pile before placing a rubber band around them.
    “Okay, I offered,” James said. Then he tried another fake yawn. “Goodnight.”
    As James was walking out the door, Chad said, “I want a rematch tomorrow night.”
    “You’re on,” James said.
    When James got back in his room/cell he became worried that he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep. The beast had slept much of last night, which, in turn, allowed James to get quite a bit of real sleep. Over the past few weeks, James had grown accustomed to only three or four hours of real sleep a day, but last night he’d slept for a solid nine hours.
    Despite James’ fears, it only took him thirty minutes to nod off, but by then it was too late.
* * *
    The Texas Department of Public Safety cruiser turned in the driveway at the Sheriff’s Office.
    As part of the governor’s moves to send Captain Jones more manpower, DPS officers Nathan Travis and Ron Kaiser had been ordered to Newton from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Their orders were to leave for East Texas first thing in the morning after they came in from their night shift; however, someone in the office at headquarters had dropped the ball. It wasn’t until around noon that they were contacted about the temporary transfer. Now, even though they were scheduled for a later shift, they were still running late. They would have to drive all the way to Newton, check in with the local officials, then backtrack fifteen miles to Jasper — where they were to be quartered due to lack of room in Newton — get settled in, then go back on duty in about an hour. All this running around, combined with the foul up at HQ that could have prevented it all, certainly didn’t set well with the two officers. In fact, they thought the temporary assignment itself was a crock.
    Nathan and Ron had heard the numerous rumors before they had been transferred. Hell, the death of Jana Parish was big-time national news; everyone in the nation had heard rumors of what was going on in East Texas. Rumors, yes, but the one thing the officers were not clear on was what was really going on in Newton County.
    It was seven o’clock when the officers reported in at the Newton County Sheriff’s Department. They found the chubby little police chief for this one-horse town, John Banks, had been left in charge while the sheriff had gone to check on his house and Captain Sam Jones was giving a statement to the media. Banks had asked them not long after their arrival if they had seen ‘The Video.’ When they told him they hadn't, he almost didn’t allow them to go on duty that night, which would have suited Nathan fine, but it hit a nerve with Ron’s tender ego. Ron thought this overweight redneck police chief was insinuating that unless they got some little tidbit of what the State and Federal governments were now calling continuing education they weren’t prepared for the wild woods of Newton, Texas. Ron, a twelve-year veteran, informed the police chief that time was running out if they were going to get their rooms in Jasper before they went on duty and that if they didn’t go on duty there would be a gap in this almighty schedule they’d been told about; a verbal briefing would have to suffice. Banks reluctantly agreed to let them watch the film tomorrow morning as soon as finished their patrol.
    The police chief didn’t have very much to say, and what he did have to say sounded ridiculous. He told them to be extremely cautious and not to stop to talk to anyone without calling for back up.
    “Even if you think you see your own mother, call for backup,” he had said, his face so red it seemed as if his overburdened heart was on the verge of bursting open. “This is something way out of the ordinary that we are dealing with here. Understand?”
    Ron and Nathan had nodded. Ron nudged Nathan. Nathan snickered.
    “Just trust me. You’ll see what I mean when you watch the video.”
    Later that night, as the two men drove past the Newton city limits sign, Banks’ warning was the furthest thing from their mind.
    “Twenty after ten,” Nathan said looking at his watch. “We could’ve slept thirty more minutes.”
    “I’m used to leaving early in case traffic is bad,” Ron answered.
    “Ron, I don’t think traffic is a problem around here.” Nathan glanced out his window at the humble homes nestled in the pine trees. “Looks like some of these bumpkins may not have running water or electricity, but they certainly don’t have to worry about the traffic,” he sarcastically grumbled.
    “We’d better check in before we go on duty,” Ron said.
    “Just radio in,” Nathan suggested.
    “Nah, we’d better drop by.” Then he added, with a sarcastic grin, “Hell, they might not know how to use radios down here.”
    When the two DPS officers, with twenty years experience between them, pulled into the parking lot at the Newton County Sheriff’s Department they were more unprepared for what was waiting for them than they could have possibly imagined.
    They would have sworn when they pulled in the drive and parked beside one of the Newton County patrol cars that no one was in the parking lot. But, as soon as they stepped out of their cars. Ron saw Police Chief Banks on the other side of the county car.
    Ron nodded at Banks, bringing him to Nathan’s attention, then said in voice that was just above a whisper. “I wonder if he’s going to go on and on about that damn film again.”
    “Oh, please no. Anything but that,” Nathan sarcastically mumbled, covering his grin with his hand.
    John Banks stepped up to the hood of the DPS cruiser, but moved no further. “Cold night,” he said, with grin.
    Ron and Nathan exchanged puzzled glances. “Yeah, it’s cold all right,” Ron answered, having moved to Texas from Oregon, Ron was convinced Texans had no idea what real cold was. Ron walked toward what he thought was Police Chief Banks.
    Ron was right beside Banks when he turned and said, with faintly hidden sarcasm, “Come on, Nathan. Let’s get out of this cold.”
    Nathan snickered and came around the car. As soon as Ron turned back around to walk toward the Law Enforcement Center, the beast struck. It quickly slashed Nathan across the throat.
    Ron heard a gurgling sound behind him. He turned. A clawed hand ripped across his throat.
* * *
    When Darren Woolford walked through the front door to the jailhouse there were six people inside. Past the first security door, Bill and Sam were sitting in the dispatcher’s office covering for Clara while she made a trip to the ladies’ room. They were currently in deep conversation about how to handle the newest media surge and the new possibility of FBI intervention into the case. The hallway to the ladies’ room was also past the first security door. Clara was just stepping out of the restroom on her way back to her office. The squad room was further down the hall, past the ladies room and directly across from the men’s room. The game of poker had shut down as soon as James had retired. Emilio and Chad had watched the ten o’clock news to see what was being said about their situation and to catch a few clips of Sam’s statement to the media. After the news anchor finished his comments on the situation, Emilio got up and went to bed. Chad had put the video of the attack on Lana Parish and Bob McCoy back in the VCR and was now getting ready to watch it again. Behind the second security door, Emilio was getting ready to bed down in his cell-turned-apartment for the night. He was carefully attempting to get his pants off over the bandages on his left leg.
    In the cell next door, James was just nodding off.
* * *
    Darren walked through the entrance and stopped at the first security door. He waved at Bill and Sam through the Plexiglas partition separating the dispatcher’s office with the entrance. Bill turned from his conversation with Sam and nodded.
    He pressed a button on the control panel and unlocked the security door.
    “Hi, Darren,” Clara said as she came down the hallway to the left of Darren.
    “Well, hello Mrs. Clara,” Darren said with a pleasant smile, then he continued straight ahead down the shorter hallway toward the door to the dispatcher’s office and the second security door.
    The hallway between the two security doors was short. The dispatcher’s office was located to the left and was separated from the hall by another large reinforced glass window and a door situated near the end of the hall by the second security door. Across from the door to the dispatcher’s office was the booking room; it was similarly situated with a large window for the first ten feet of the hall, then the door. The only difference was that the window on the booking room had blinds so it could be used as an interrogation and questioning room. Both of the doors had large reinforced windows in them. It was a huge steel door with multiple electric locks, but since the cells were not currently housing prisoners, the second security door was unlocked.
    Darren walked to the end of the hall and reached for the door to the dispatcher’s office.
* * *
    Inside the office, Bill was sitting in the dispatcher’s chair, and Sam was propped up against the wall, near the door. Bill was facing the door when he saw Darren through the window, reaching for the doorknob.
    Something wasn’t right.
    Then it was like Bill was suddenly drenched with a bucket of cold water. Everybody was supposed to be working in pairs at night, but where was Darren’s partner?
    Bill dove for the door, but he was too late. The door flew open with tremendous force, crashing into Sam, knocking the big man to the floor.
    The momentum from Bill’s lunge for the door carried him right toward the Darren-thing as it stepped through the doorway. Before they collided, the beast managed a short left-handed swing, connecting with the right side of Bill’s back. Using the clawed fingers that were buried deep into Bill’s side for a grip, the beast flung Bill on past him and into the hall.
    As Clara turned the corner from the restroom, she saw Bill fly out of the dispatcher’s office and slam into the opposite wall, leaving a wide bloody streak on the white wall as he slid to the floor. She screamed and ran back down the second hall toward the squad room.
    On the ground below the beast, Sam was trying to get to his faithful old Colt, but couldn’t reach it. He was lying on his left side and couldn’t seem to roll his body over to get to his shoulder holster. The reason he was having trouble moving was due to a severe pain that was shooting through his left side and down his left arm. The stress of the last few days, combined with the sudden adrenaline rush of the attack, had caused legendary Texas Ranger Sam Jones to have a heart attack.
    The Darren-thing turned from Bill and reached down for Sam. Suddenly two gunshots rang out from somewhere in the building and distracted the beast’s attention: it recognized the sound of the thing that had caused its pain.
    While the beast was temporarily distracted, Sam, despite being in tremendous pain, thought quickly and acted. He remembered James saying the beast had an injured ankle: the left one. Sam kicked out at the beast’s lower leg as hard as he could. His size thirteen boot connected on the beast’s injured ankle. The beast fell forward, landing right beside Sam.
    Sam finally managed to roll on his back and get his pistol out.
    The beast rebounded quickly, rising to all fours from its prone position.
    As Sam brought the pistol across his chest, the beast lunged. It bit Sam on the neck, savagely ripping out his throat, windpipe, and all the major blood vessels.
    Sam’s death throes caused him to fire his old.45 three times into the ceiling.
* * *
    The video had just reached the part where the beast takes a bite out of Lana’s face when Chad heard something that sounded like a scuffle down the hall.
    Chad Hudspeth certainly had his share of faults, but reacting slowly to threatening situations was not one of them. He immediately sprang from his chair, drew his pistol, and darted toward the door.
    Before he reached the door to the hallway he heard a scream. His adrenaline surged, his grip tightened around his pistol. Chad threw open the door and burst into the hall, his pistol before him, ready for action.
    The first thing he saw was Clara was running toward him screaming in terror.
    Or was it Clara?
    In Chad’s mind he saw the wicked looking beast walking right up to Lana Parish and ripping her apart. Was this Clara or was this the beast coming at him, ready to tear him apart?
    Chad raised the gun and leveled it at her chest. “Stop!”
    She kept coming, still shrieking at the top of her lungs.
    Chad’s mind felt like it was going to explode. Although it was actually only a split second, it seemed like forever. Several pictures shot rapidly through his mind: The beast slashing into Mrs. Parish. Clara’s old, wrinkled, but always smiling face. The beast biting into Mrs. Parish’s face. The group picture of Clara’s thirteen grandchildren she kept on the wall of the dispatcher’s office. Mrs. Parish sliding dead from the beast’s grasp. Clara’s #1 Grandmother coffee cup. The beast as it prepared to pounce on Mrs. Parish’s cameraman.
    Clara running at him screaming.
    The beast.
    He fired two rapid shots into her chest when she was within less than a foot from the end of his barrel. The hollow points reversed Clara’s forward momentum, sending her reeling backwards before she collapsed. Unmoving, she lay sprawled on her back in the middle of the hallway.
    Up ahead Chad heard what sounded like more struggling coming from the dispatcher’s office. It began to sink that he had just shot Clara McClellan. He gazed down at Clara. Two bloody spots between her breasts marred her yellow sunflower blouse. Blood was pooling onto the floor from the unseen exit wounds in her back. Her mouth seemed to move once, then she was still, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling.
    My God, what have I done?
    A gasp, then a sob escaped from his lips. “Oh, no.”
    Three shots rang out from the dispatcher’s office and Chad realized he had to pull himself together. The beast was still in the building. He advanced on down the hall, both hands gripping his pistol. His confidence shattered, his hands were now trembling furiously.
    As he rounded the hall, he could see Bill in the far corner, laying on the floor with his back propped against the door leading to the booking room. Blood was all over the wall behind him and the floor below him, but his chest was moving. Bill was still alive. Sam was about halfway down the hallway, also slumped against the wall, his head to one side. Although Sam’s head was the other direction, but Chad could still see blood all over his face, and down the front of his uniform. Chad couldn’t determine if Sam was breathing or not.
    Straight ahead Chad saw the second security door, which had been cracked open, slowly shut. He aimed at the door expecting it to swing open at any time.
    “Who’s there!” Chad yelled
    “Chad, is that you?” a voice, muffled from the multiple layers of steel came from the other side of the door.
    “Yeah, come on out, slowly!” Chad said, advancing down the hall with his gun leveled at the door. He knew this probably wouldn’t work because the beast had proven itself to be far from stupid, and if Emilio or James was back there, they would more than likely think he was the beast, just as he had with Clara.
    As he got halfway down the hall, he saw Bill’s arm slowly rise. Bill pointed at Sam.
    Before Chad had time to realize what Bill was trying to tell him, a clawed hand ripped across his belly. Chad screamed and doubled over in pain. He looked down and saw his own guts hanging out of the horrible wound across his abdomen. The Sam-thing sprang up with remarkable agility. Still doubled over and still screaming, he spun on his heels and lurched for the door.
    But the beast was on him before he made more than two steps. It landed on his back, sinking its teeth deep into the back of his neck. Chad quickly slipped into an unconscious state from which he would never awake.
* * *
    The first thing James saw when he drifted to sleep was the front door of the Sheriff’s Department. The beast walked through the door, waved at Bill, and passed through the first security door.
    Oh, God! Wake up!
    It strolled down the hall toward the door to the dispatcher’s office and the second security door.
    Wake up!
    It reached for the doorknob to the dispatcher’s office.
    James woke up. “It’s here,” he said, his voice drearily hushed as he came out of his sleep. He followed this weak statement with a loud cry, “It’s here!”
    He got up and fumbled around in the dark for his pistol. The lights inside the cells were controlled from the dispatcher’s office. They kept the hall lights on and the cell lights off at night, so the only way for the current residents to control the amount of light in their rooms was how far open they kept the doors. And James’ door was shut. Only a minimal amount of light was peeking through the window set into the door.
    James finally gave up his blind search and ran to the door, opening it for more light. Down the hall Emilio was also standing in the door to his cell. He was propped on the door’s edge without his crutches.
    “What’s goin’ on?” Emilio asked
    “That thing is here.”
    Two gunshots suddenly rang out from somewhere in the building. It sounded as if the shots had come from just the other side of the unlocked security door that separated the cells from the rest of the building. Forgetting all about his pistol, he ran for the unlocked security door. Emilio limped along right behind him. James started to open the door, but Emilio stopped him
    “Where’s your gun?” Emilio asked.
    “It’s in my room.”
    “Go back and get it. I’ll hold the door if that thing tries to get in.”
    “Where’s your gun?”
    “In the squad room. I left it in my desk,” Emilio said, leaning against the door.
    James hesitated. “What if someone tries to get back here to get away from it?”
    Emilio shook his head. “We can’t take that chance. Hurry and get your gun.”
    The security doors only locked and unlocked in the dispatcher’s office. Emilio doubted he would be able to hold it for long against the beast should it decide to come through. James had to be quick.
    Just as James disappeared into his cell, three more shots rang out. These shots sounded closer.
    “Hurry!” Emilio yelled down the hall toward James’ room as he pushed the heavy security door shut.
    “Who’s there?” a muffled voice asked from other side of the door.
    It didn’t sound like Sam or Bill, so Emilio assumed it must be Chad. Or the beast pretending to be Chad. “Chad, is that you?” Emilio called out.
    “Yeah, now come on out, slowly!” the voice answered.
    “Yeah, right,” Emilio muttered to himself.
    He waited a few seconds and was about to call out to see what was taking James so long, when a scream came from the other side of the door. “Oh, shit! Hurry!” Emilio yelled down the hall.
    Just then James came running out of his cell, pistol in hand.
    “What the hell kept you?” Emilio asked, but before he could get an answer an unexpected force slammed into the door, almost knocking him to the ground. Emilio placed his shoulder back against the door. James added his weight just as the second blow landed. Even though it was expected, it still almost knocked the door open. They prepared again for a third blow and weren’t denied. This time the blow landed and the force didn’t let up, as the beast on the other side of the door lowered its shoulder and began pushing. Little by little the door opened, until the beast was able to reach its right arm through the crack in the door and claw at the other side.
    The hand slapped the inside of the door just inches from Emilio’s face. It looked like Sam’s thick fingered hand with its chewed-short fingernails, but when it pulled back from Emilio it made a scraping sound, not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard, as the unseen claws raked across the metal door, removing the sickly blue paint in thin strips that curled as they were peeled away.
    The hand withdrew and struck out again, this time barely missing Emilio’s face.
    James had his back to the door and was leaning into it with all his strength and all his weight. He saw how close the beast came to removing Emilio’s face and knew he had to act or the next swing might not miss. James lifted the gun in his right hand until it was above Emilio’s head and pointing the barrel down at the beast’s hand.
    He pulled the trigger. The solitary gunshot echoed loudly in the hollow halls of the jail. The bullet passed through the beast’s already injured right hand long ways. The pain startled the beast into releasing its pressure as it withdrew its hand through the door, almost causing the heavy metal door, with the added weight of James and Emilio, to slam onto its already twice injured hand.
    Emilio and James kept leaning on the door for some time, unwilling to take the chance of the beast coming back and surprising them.

CHAPTER 24
The One Who Kills

    Ironically, it was Darren Woolford and Tom Weatherford who were first on the scene. They had been patrolling just west of Newton when Darren radioed in and received no response. Assuming something was wrong with his radio, Darren tried to reach the jailhouse with his cell phone. Still no reply. Although the last thing Darren would have imagined was that the beast had attacked headquarters, he decided they should drive by and check in. They drove up and started to the front door of the Newton County Hilton, still not expecting anything out of the ordinary.
    Then a dark shape bolted out of the door and dashed across the street on four legs. Darren recognized the beast and managed to draw his pistol but not until the beast was almost a hundred yards away. Still, Darren fired a couple of shots, but they didn’t have a prayer of finding their mark.
    While Darren was calling for backup, Thomas saw a shape lying on the ground near the front of the car. He pointed it out to Darren. Darren, with his gun still in his right hand, took his flashlight out and shined it in that direction and found the two dead DPS officers.
    Less than two minutes later another DPS cruiser roared into the drive, followed seconds later by another.
* * *
    It took the better part of fifteen minutes for James and Emilio on one side of the heavy security door and over a dozen officers on the other to convince each other that the beast was not on the opposite side of the door. By the time they did, Carl, who was now temporarily in charge, had arrived.
    And so had the media. The story that something big had happened at the Sheriff’s Department spread like wildfire. The circus had begun, and this time there was no Captain Sam Jones to play ringleader. It was still several hours before sunrise, but the reporters and cameramen, along with the concerned and curious citizens of Newton began to converge on the Newton County jail. It was all the law enforcement officials could do to keep them out of the building, much less enforce the curfew. Soon, live feeds of patrol cars and ambulances parked in front of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department were being sent to all the major networks across the nation.
    Pandemonium gripped the city of Newton.
    Both Bill and Chad had been unconscious but alive when the paramedics arrived, but Chad coded as the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance and they were unable to bring him back.
    As they were loading Bill, Carl asked one of the paramedics if Bill was going to be okay. The paramedic replied that he gave Bill a fifty-fifty chance.
    “Then he’ll make it,” Carl said as the paramedic hoped into the ambulance’s passenger side. “He’s a tough old bastard.”
    The paramedic paused and turned back to Carl. With a grim expression on his face, he said, “I’ve known Bill Oates since I was a boy. I know he’s a fighter. That’s the only reason I’m giving him that much of a chance.”
    Now Carl Price was sitting behind Bill’s messy desk. He felt uncomfortable sitting in Bill’s chair, but it wasn’t the disarray of the desk that bothered him — he just didn’t feel it was appropriate that he sat here, it was like he was committing some form of desecration to a sacred relic. He had wanted to talk to James and Emilio in the squad room from behind his own much neater, if slightly smaller, desk, but he found the squad room was too busy this morning for a private meeting.
    James and Emilio sat silently across from him.
    Emilio was dressed in a motley outfit. He was wearing his beige game warden shirt, but he was still wearing the only pants he had been able to find that slipped easily on and off on his thickly bandaged and slightly swollen leg — the Orange jumpsuit bottoms usually worn by the inmates. Emilio was constantly digging in one ear or the other. Apparently neither of his ears had popped since the discharge of James’ gun right above his head; the ringing was obviously driving him crazy.
    James was wearing his old jeans and a plain white t-shirt. There was a haunted, blank expression on his face — but hadn’t that expression been there all along? The changes hadn’t taken place overnight. Anyone who had been around him for the last month would have noticed the gradual metamorphosis, but they probably wouldn’t have imagined how drastic the change had been. His cheeks looked hollow from lack of proper nutrition; in fact, James had weighed around one-sixty-five when Angie was killed; now he weighed barely over one-twenty. The last six or so weeks of getting only two or three hours of sleep at a time had given him permanent dark circles under his eyes. Even his normally tanned complexion had paled, giving him a sickly look.
    Of all the changes, his eyes seemed to have changed the most. Lack of sleep gave them a permanent bloodshot look — almost like that of a career drunk. His eye-color even seemed to have changed; what used to have been non-descript brown eyes seemed to be a sickly combination of grey and brown. James now tended to avoid eye-to-eye contact unless he was talking directly with someone, but if someone did look in his eyes, and he returned their gaze, they would see a window into a mind that was not entirely stable anymore. They would see a touch of madness — not a wild, lunatic madness — but a cold calculating madness.
    “What happened?” Carl said, breaking what had been five full minutes of uninterrupted silence.
    There was another brief silence before Emilio answered, in a slightly louder than normal voice. “You know as much as we do, Carl.”
    Carl nodded. Emilio was right. Carl had already been thoroughly briefed. The question Carl had asked wasn’t really the question that he had wanted to ask. What he wanted to ask was, What do we do now? Carl briefly wondered why he hadn’t been told about everything until just six days ago, and why he hadn’t been in on all the meetings with these two, Bill, and Sam. But he knew the answer. He was a good chief deputy: he was efficient, he was reliable, and he knew his way around the computer. But once things got out of hand, Carl had always called for Bill. Sheriff Bill Oates, Texas Ranger Sam Jones, and even Game Warden Emilio Rodriguez didn’t need anyone to call on. They seemed to be born for handling emergency situations.
    And as for James, Carl kept trying to tell himself the only reason James was part of those private meetings was because of his visions, but Carl knew he was fooling himself. He wondered if he had been in James’ shoes earlier in the night if he would have thought and acted quickly enough to shoot the beast’s hand, or would he have leaned against the door, panicking, until the beast had enough of his arm through the door to take off Emilio’s face. Probably the latter.
    “What started all this?” Carl asked in a curious conversational tone.
    James sat staring blankly at the wall behind Carl.
    Emilio stopped digging in his ear. “Huh?”
    “What started all this?” Carl said in a slightly louder voice; then he continued, “I mean, where did this damn thing come from?”
    “Damned if I know,” Emilio said, finally giving up his digging and giving his ear a rest.
    “Was it something like the drought we had this summer, last summer’s record heat wave, or was it that freeze we had three years ago, or what? Why us? Why here?” Carl asked, as if to himself.
    There was a pause of about five seconds, then James spoke quietly, without taking his eyes from the wall behind Carl. “It doesn’t matter.”
    Emilio turned to James. “What?”
    “It doesn’t matter,” James said, without changing his volume, tone, or moving his fixed eyes.
    Emilio turned to him, “James, you’re going to have to speak up. I can’t hear a thing.”
    “I said, it doesn’t matter!” James said in much louder voice, practically shouting. “It doesn’t matter where the damn thing came from. All that matters is it’s here.”
    Emilio reached out to touch James on the shoulder, to comfort him, but James raised his hand in a don’t touch me gesture.
    There was another ten seconds of silence, then James spoke again. This time his voice was even and deceptively calm. “I’m so stupid. I should have seen it.”
    Carl started to say something like, You couldn’t help it. The thing came on so fast, but all he got out was “You cou… ” before James interrupted.
    “I’m not talkin’ about tonight’s attack.”
    Emilio and Carl exchanged puzzled glances.
    James sighed and let them in on what he had just figured out. “During the night I see through its eyes. During the day, when it sleeps, it sees through my eyes. How do you think it knew where to find my house, when Greg would be checking on my house, and where to find the dogs? Hell, how do you think it managed to escape just in time when we almost had it with the dogs and when we cornered it at the church. I was there both times. It saw us coming through my eyes. I can sometimes force myself to wake up during my dreams. Why can’t it do the same? It even knew that me and Emilio were staying here; that’s why it came tonight.” A strange smile creased James’ lips that didn’t exactly seem at home there. “I think it really hates me and Emilio. Especially Emilio.”
    “I’m flattered,” Emilio said.
    “I think it even knows that I see its movements when I sleep, that’s why it attacked so early in the night. It probably made sure it was in town long before I went bed.”
    “What do we do now?” Carl finally asked. He almost winced when he said it, expecting the answer to be, Don’t ask us, you’re the sheriff.
    James turned his eyes from the blank spot on the wall he had been staring at ever since they came into the room. He looked straight into Carl’s eyes. “I think I can kill it.”
    “How?” Carl asked.
    “Do y’all trust me?”
    “Sure,” Emilio answered immediately, but Carl didn’t say a word.
    “Carl?” James asked.
    “I want to know how you plan on going about killing this thing before I agree to anything,” Carl said.
    “If I told you, you’d think I was crazy. Hell, maybe I am, but I really think I can kill it. There’ll be no risk to anybody else, just me. All I need is a little help to set it up.”
    Carl was going to object, but he saw something else in James’ eyes other than madness. He saw hope. James thought his plan would work, and for now, that would have to do. Carl leaned forward. “I’m all ears.”
    Still looking at Carl, James said. “We don’t have much time before the beast is back in his lair, asleep and listening in on every word we say, so I’ll be brief. You’re going to send Emilio home to Midland, right?”
    “Hey wait a minute,” Emilio protested, shifting to the edge of his seat.
    “I hadn’t given it any thought yet,” Carl answered, “but if you’re right and Emilio is a target for that thing, then he’s not safe here, and he places everyone around him in danger.”
    “Your role will be minor,” James said to Carl. “In fact, if this doesn’t go right, and I end up dead, you’ll be able to say you had nothing to do with it — the Department will be completely in the clear.”
    Carl nodded. “I’m listening.”
    “Tomorrow I’m going to stay away from town. I would prefer to have a patrol car so it would appear,” James tapped his head with his finger to emphasize that he was referring to what the beast would see, “like I’m on official business. If that thing’s smart enough to pull off what it did last night, I don’t want to take any chances on it getting suspicious. I also need Emilio to be at his house, alone, all day tomorrow. From at least eleven in the morning till sundown. After that you can send him off.”
    James turned to Emilio. “I’ll stop by at one for a brief visit, and we’ll put on a little act for our friend’s benefit. You’ll say Carl tried to send you off today, but you didn’t want to go. Basically make up some bullshit, but be sure and mention that you will be at home all night, but you’ll be leaving the day after. I’ll mention that I’m going to be coming by to check on you at around one in the morning. At just after ten tonight I’ll show up at your house — the beast should be out and about and not listening in by then. You’ll take the patrol car back into town, and I’ll stay.”
    “Leaving you by yourself. Hell, no.” Emilio said.
    But another aspect of the plan had caught Carl’s attention. “If the thing is after both of you, why go through all the trouble to make it seem like Emilio’s the bait?” Carl asked. “Why not just use yourself, at your own house?”
    “I think it’ll be a little less cautious going after Emilio than it would me. Look at the way it attacked him in broad daylight the other day. Besides, if it’s figured out what I have, it may be a little wary of me.”
* * *
    The beast awoke just after the sunset. It pulled itself up and leaned on the log it had slept beside all night.
    The beast brought its right hand up to its face. The bullet had entered on the outside of the first knuckle of the first finger and passed diagonally through the hand until it exited near the joining point of the wrist and the hand. Tendons had been severed on the first two already damaged fingers, making them fold up, useless. The pain in the beast’s hand was even worse than in its shoulder, and it was sure it knew the cause of the pain.
    The One That Caused Pain. It had smelled him. It had heard him. It knew he had been there.
    The beast had hurt, and probably killed The Dying One, but The One Who Sees and The One Who Caused Pain got away.
    But tonight, The One Who Caused Pain would die.
* * *
    It was five minutes till ten when James drove up Emilio’s driveway for the second time of the day.
    Emilio was sitting on the edge of the unpainted wooden porch, his legs dangling off the side. A small grey suitcase was sitting on the ground by his feet, and his crutches were propped up beside him. James parked the patrol car next to Emilio’s battered Blazer and walked up to the porch.
    “Are you sure you want to go through with this hare-brained idea of yours?” Emilio asked.
    “I’m afraid so.”
    “Anything I can do to talk you out of it?”
    James leaned up against Emilio’s truck. He stood looking down at the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with Emilio, afraid that Emilio might see how scared he really was. He shook his head.
    “Can I at least stay and help you?” Emilio asked.
    “No. Only I can be here, and don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t.”
    “Well, I don’t understand what good it did us to go through all this crap to make it seem like I was going to be here tonight just to have my ass hauled out to West Texas,” Emilio snapped. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
    James didn’t answer, or look up; he glanced at his watch and said, “You’d better be getting on the road.”
    Emilio looked as though he had more to say, then picked up his suitcase and limped over to the patrol car. He put the suitcase in the backseat, opened the driver’s door and slid into the driver’s seat, carefully avoiding bringing his wounded knee into contact with the steering wheel.
    Before he shut the door, he said, “Please tell me this isn’t just a hare-brained plan to take a pot-shot at this killer and hope you’re lucky.”
    “It’s not,” James said, without turning to face his friend.
    Emilio shut the door then rolled down the window and said, “Good luck.”
    “Thanks,” James said.
* * *
    After Emilio drove off, James remained leaning on the truck, thinking. James remained propped up on the SUV for about five minutes. When he finished, he got up and walked into the trailer. He went to Emilio’s bathroom, and looked in the cabinets. Finding a bottle of Emilio’s cologne, he put it on, heavily. He then took off the clothes he was wearing and put on some of Emilio’s dirty clothes that were in a hamper in the bathroom; they were a loose fit, but they would have to do.
    After James finished in the bathroom, he returned to the living room. He turned on the TV, flipped to the weather channel, and plopped down in the recliner. He placed the remote on the floor beside the recliner, and Greg’s pistol was taken from its holster and kept ready in James’ right hand.
    The plan hinged on several minor details. If any one of them went wrong everything would fall through. The first minor, yet exceedingly important, detail was that James had to fall asleep, and this was no small task. Alone, James was about to face a creature that had killed his son, his wife and unborn child, his best friend and twelve other people over a span of a little over a month, and just last night attacked a jailhouse filled with armed men leaving five dead and one critically injured. It was hardly the best circumstance to be catching a nap.
    The second minor detail was that James would have to wake up, but he would worry about that when — if — he got there.
    James glanced at the clock: 10:09 p.m.
    For what seemed like an eternity, James sat in Emilio’s recliner, watching The Weather Channel. This had always been a foolproof way for James to get to sleep. A world ago, he could remember Angie picking on the fact that every time he tried to catch the weather before he went to bed he would fall asleep in his recliner. She would pass through the living room, see him watching the Weather Channel, and comment, should I bring you your pillow? But tonight it didn’t seem to be working. James then tried the time-honored tradition of counting sheep. That didn’t work either.
    James glanced at the clock on Emilio’s VCR: 10:31 p.m.
    James was beginning to worry that he wouldn’t get to sleep in time. This was a problem on top of a problem. The more he worried, the less likely he was to be able to fall asleep. It wasn’t until what seemed like the one-hundredth time that Your Local Weather scrolled across the screen that James finally began to even yawn.
    10:54 p.m.
    On the weather channel, a young brunette lady was pointing out the highs in the Midwest. In a way, she looked like Angie. Although her hair was a different color, it was long like Angie’s when they had first met. The young weather-girl’s eyes were blue, not blueish-green like Angie’s, but they had the same shape. James closed his eyes and concentrated on the girl’s voice. Her voice even sounded like Angie’s.
    … highs in St Louis will be around…
    … snow flurries are expected in the…
    … a cold front moving in…
    … and on to the West…
    …Diego expect a low…
    … rain and sleet through…
    … I love you, James.
    James was asleep.
* * *
    The night air was cold. Another front was moving in, pushing cold air ahead of it. In the distance, flashes of lightning could be seen dancing across the horizon as a storm approached.
    The beast crashed through the underbrush. It followed its own scent along a route it had traveled just three days ago. It loped along with its crippled right arm drawn to its chest. Its left side and right shoulder were somewhat sore, but not enough to restrict movement. The beast’s injured left ankle caused it to have a slight limp when walking on two legs; it was but a mere annoyance and certainly no hindrance to its mobility.
    The beast was battered, but it was still just as deadly as it had been a week ago. Maybe even more dangerous, as any animal grows more dangerous when it’s wounded.
    Of course the beast was no animal, not really. It had the heightened senses and instincts of a predator, the intelligence of a human, the sadistic depravity of a demon, not to mention the strange ability to enter other creatures’ minds and change their perceptions of itself. What was this beast? Where did it come from? Why did it come? Not even the beast itself knew for sure. But like James Taylor, The One Who Sees, had said, It doesn’t matter where the damn thing came from. All that matters is it’s here.
    The beast was now within about a half mile of the den of The One Who Caused Pain. It slowed its pace. Hatred hadn’t overridden the beast’s actions tonight as it had when it made its daylight attack three days ago.
    It continued along, crossing a road and passing into a thin line of trees. On the other side of the trees the beast could see the lights from the den of The One Who Caused Pain.
* * *
    James was still sitting in Emilio’s recliner, with Greg’s old pistol in his hand.
    He awoke suddenly, but, incredibly, he was calm.
    Here goes nothing.
    James closed his eyes, but he could still see. It was like all of his senses were floating ahead of him in an out-of-body experience that would have been very disorienting to another person, but it was something James had become quite accustomed to. Only this time he wasn’t riding along in some creature’s mind while his body lay asleep miles away. His plan hinged on the belief that if he and the beast shared the ability to see through each others mind as they slept, maybe they shared the beast’s other ability as well. So far it appeared as if James had been right.
    His senses shot forward and passed through the wall of Emilio’s trailer and sped across the front yard toward the row of trees that blocked the view of the trailer from the road.
    When James’ free-floating senses first reached the row of trees, he didn’t see or hear anything. This was something James hadn’t accounted for. He was working with his own human senses rather than the creature’s incredibly heightened ones. James knew the beast had been on the edge of the woods, looking at the trailer, and he was quite sure it had been to the left of Emilio’s driveway. So James moved to where the driveway passed through the line of trees. He then guided his senses along the tree line, moving quite fast, because time was of the essence. As his senses sped along, he almost passed right by the beast, which had moved just outside of the trees and was standing on two legs. James’ senses came to a stop behind the beast, turned toward it, and passed through its body.
    As James’ senses hovered in front of the beast, no more then six inches from its face, he took full note of its horrible ugliness. The skin of its hairless face was wrinkled and splotched, like that of an old man with liver spots, except instead of thin frail skin, the beast’s dark skin looked to be thick and leathery. Its ears were perched high on its head; currently they were raised high and pointed forward, but they would be laid back when the beast was running or attacking. Its nose looked extremely alien; it ran from the center of its eyes to above its mouth like a human’s, but it didn’t look at all human-like. It had an abnormally wide bridge — about one inch wide — and slits in its nose where normal nostril holes should have been. Its lipless mouth and its two rows of teeth were too big for its head; some of the serrated teeth were about an inch and a half, some were less than a half an inch, and there seemed to be no order to how they were distributed in its mouth. Its eyes were horrible. They had an elongated evil squint, and sloped down toward the nose. It appeared that its eyes lacked any color whatsoever, just a solid flat black. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then this beast had a soul as vile as the devil himself.
    James’ detached senses took the window to the left into the beast’s mind.
    Once inside, it was as if a hidden, computer-like part of James’ mind took over. Pictures, accompanied by sight and smell, and even touch and taste in some cases, began to speed through his mind at a speed so fast there was no way his normal consciousness could have made sense of it. He had been in the beast’s mind when it had performed this, but he never grasped what was really going on until it was his own mind in another creature’s: it was like a computer downloading another computer’s memory.
    James’ mind found the memory of Emilio, The One Who Caused Pain.
    James felt his mind touch the creature’s mind briefly. He felt intense hate. Not just for Emilio, but for anything and everything. It was as if the beast was the embodiment of hate.
    Or maybe the embodiment of evil.
    Then James’ senses were in front of the beast. They remained there briefly, before starting across the yard toward the trailer. James realized that his senses, or rather his detached consciousness, had been inside the beast’s mind when it sent its senses forward. Now James’ senses were along for the ride, in an out-of-body experience within an out-of-body experience.
    Unaware of its passenger, the beast’s senses passed Emilio’s battered SUV. It passed over the porch and passed through the wall into the living room.
    There, in the recliner, eyes closed and apparently asleep, was Emilio Rodriguez, The One Who Caused Pain. In his right hand was the remote to the television.
    It had worked.
    Then as the beast’s senses approached the face of Emilio/James something startled James, a minor detail he had left out. The beast wasn’t entering Emilio’s mind; it was entering James’ mind. When it searched James’ mind, would it be able to tell the difference?
    The beast’s senses passed into Emilio/James’ right eye, and began looking for a memory. The memories that flew by in a blur were all familiar to James. The beast found an image of James; one of him shaving in the bathroom mirror. There seemed to be nothing different from the several other times James had been along while the beast pulled an image from a mind. The beast didn’t seem to notice there was anything different about Emilio.
    Near the edge of the woods, the beast opened its eyes.
    Inside the trailer, James opened his eyes.
* * *
    A knock came at the door. ���Emilio?” the beast said in James’ voice.
    James didn’t answer, not out loud anyway. The part of his mind that had found the memory in the beast’s mind opened a direct link with this memory and answered in the beast’s head, using Emilio’s voice. Things must be boring in the big city of Newton; you’re an hour early.
    James got out of the recliner and slowly walked toward the door, Greg’s pistol gripped tight in his hand.
    “Hurry, it’s cold out here,” the beast said in James’ mind.
    Hold your horses. I’m coming.
    James put his hand on the doorknob.
    He took a beep breath.
    He swung the door open with his left hand and brought the pistol up with his right. It all happened in a split second, but that one instant seemed frozen in time for James.
    James, The One Who Sees, standing with a pistol leveled at his own likeness.
    The beast, The One Who Kills, standing with its left arm cocked back to swing at Emilio who was pointing a TV remote in his face.
    James pulled the trigger. Fire leaped from the TV remote/nine-millimeter. The bullet struck the beast under its right eye, just beside its nose. The arm that was coiled to strike had started its arch, but when the bullet passed through the lower part of the beast’s brain and exited out the back of its head, the arm shot straight out, jerked one time, and went limp.
    The beast collapsed on the porch, its illusion fading away. The hideous man-like creature lay sprawled on its back, its chest moving slowly with its labored breathing.
    James kept the pistol leveled on its face as he stepped up and stood over the vile beast.
    Then the beast’s dark eyes fell on James and seemed to recognize him. Its face shimmered and slowly took the form of James’ face once more. In a last defiant gesture the James/beast smiled and said, “Angie, I’m home.”
    James pulled the trigger and continued to do so until he had emptied the clip into the beast’s face.

EPILOGUE

    James met the Oates family in the third floor lobby of Saint Elizabeth Hospital. The presence of this large extended family came as a shock to James. Aside from Faye, Bill had never spoken of his family. Likewise, James remembered that the only family picture in the old sheriff’s office was an old snapshot of him and Faye. But, here they were; two sons, two daughters, nine grandchildren, and one great grandchild — one and a half if you gave credit for his youngest granddaughter-in-law, who looked to be at least eight months pregnant. If it hadn’t been for the sincere looks of concern on their faces, James might have suspected that the reason Bill never mentioned his family was that his gruff demeanor had alienated him from his own kin, but it didn’t take James long to realize just how much the old man’s family loved him. Especially the grandchildren; they were full of questions concerning their beloved Pawpaw’s welfare. It was difficult to imagine the ornery old sheriff surrounded by loving grandchildren, but the evidence was indisputable. James imagined he knew the answer to this mystery. When Bill was at home and among his family, he was the loving grandfather, father, and husband, but when he put on his badge and went to work, the entire county became his family — a family that required a considerable amount of tough love.
    The visit with the Oates family was brief, ten minutes at the most; nevertheless, James was relieved when the doctor arrived and informed him Bill was ready to see him. James still hadn’t recovered enough from what he’d been through to be comfortable among people. He doubted he ever would.
    On down the hall, the doctor pointed out the door to Bill’s room, then left. Bill had been adamant about seeing James alone. James stood at the door for quite some time before he found the courage to enter.
    Inside, James found a weary old man, decked out in a pastel green hospital gown resting in a white hospital bed. The old man’s cheeks and eye sockets were sunk in, his body appeared thin and frail, and his hair wispy and white. If it wasn’t for the western style moustache, James might not have even recognized Sheriff Bill Oates.
    “Well, don’t just stand there gawkin’, come in and have a seat,” Bill said, motioning to a chair. The gesture was slow and weak, but there was no sign of frailty in Bill’s voice. It was as stern and no nonsense as ever.
    “Thanks,” James replied.
    “This hospital food is gonna get me yet,” Bill commented while James took his seat. “Sixty-eight years of good home cooking and now they expect me to push this garbage down my throat?”
    “That bad, huh?” James asked conversationally.
    “Horrible. Now don’t get me wrong, they’re treating me pretty fair. It’s just the food.”
    There was a long stretch of silence, while the two men searched for words.
    Finally, Bill asked, “Did you catch Sam’s funeral on the news?”
    “No, but they told me about it.”
    “Would you believe some nurse in ICU tried to keep me from watching it? I’d just come out of surgery, and I overheard her telling Faye that she thought the service might upset me and that she didn’t think I should watch it. I gave her an earful right then and there. With what all me and Sam had been through I had damn sure earned the right to be able to say my goodbyes, by God.”
    James smiled. “So you got to watch the funeral?”
    “Some. They didn’t show the whole thing.”
    “I heard it was pretty long.”
    “Yeah,” Bill said with a smile. “Bigwigs came from all over. Ol’ Sam always could make one hell of an exit.”
    The conversation took another pause while Bill’s frail hand found a cup of water that was resting on his nightstand. He took a drink.
    After setting his cup back on the nightstand, Bill was silent for several seconds. When he finally spoke, the question came out in a familiar form — blunt and to the point. “What happened?”
    “I killed it,” James replied without pause.
    Bill’s eyes never left James’ as the old man pondered the brief answer. James found himself recalling an earlier time when he’d fallen under that stern gaze, when he was questioned about William Youngblood’s death.
    “The day after I came out of surgery I was visited by a couple of Federal agents, one from the FBI and another from the Center for Disease Control, of all places.” Bill said, “They were both singing the same tune. They told me to keep my trap shut about everything that took place in Newton County over the last couple of months. They reassured me that my department wouldn’t be used as a scapegoat, but flat refused to go into details about what really happened. I know one thing’s for sure, the story I keep hearing on the news isn’t even close to the truth.”
    “It happened out at Emilio’s,” James said. “That’s where I killed it. After I was sure it was dead, I called in and told Carl what had happened.”
    “You were alone?”
    “Yeah.”
    Bill nodded, if he felt any shock that James had faced down this terrible beast alone and come out on top, it didn’t show.
    “Carl sent a group of officers out to the scene in private vehicles. He did one hell of a job keeping all this quiet while he contacted the authorities in Austin. Apparently the State handed the ball to the Federal government, because in a couple of hours three unmarked military choppers landed in Emilio’s pasture. A group of men in biohazard suits loaded that creature into one of the choppers and left, while another group stuck around to read us the riot act on what we were and were not going to tell the press. Carl later told me the men were from the Center for Disease Control.”
    “I wonder why the CDC is involved?”
    “I think they believe this beast was some sort of genetic mutation.”
    Bill thought for a second, then asked, “Is that what you think?”
    “No,” James replied bluntly.
    “Well, they may be a little off on where that thing came from, but you’ve got to hand it to them, they’re doing pretty damn good at covering up the facts.”
    James nodded. “The media seems satisfied with what they’ve been told. It’s certainly gritty enough.”
    “A group of psychotic vagrants, my ass,” Bill sneered. “Why did they say there were three of them, anyway?”
    “To make the attack on the jail easier to swallow for one thing. If they made it look like one man killed that many officers it would’ve made us look real stupid, and they didn’t want that. If the officers involved are hailed as heroes, they’re less likely to blow the whistle. The way they told it two were killed in the so-called multi-task force ambush out at Emilio’s place, then they used the excuse that there was still another killer on the loose to keep the curfew in effect. They worked nights combing the area for a week before declaring that the last psycho-nut had been killed in a second ambush.”
    “Where’d they come up with the mug shots they’ve been showing on the news?”
    “Beats me. Maybe they’re computer generated. They’re sparing no expense to keep this one covered up.”
    “I noticed. You think they know something they’re not telling us?”
    James didn’t answer at first. The thought had crossed his mind before — maybe this beast was some sort of government experiment gone wrong. No, James knew this wasn’t the case. He wasn’t sure how he knew, he just knew. “No, they’re just scared,” he replied.
    Silence filled the room as both men began to feel they’d exhausted the current topic. It was a subject they would spend the rest of their lives trying to forget. Perhaps it was time to start.
    “So what are your plans?” Bill asked. “I heard you were selling your share of the garage.”
    “Yeah,” James said with a heavy sigh.
    “You don’t sound too excited.”
    “Well, I hate to leave. Newton’s become my home. It’s just… well… people don’t look at me the same anymore. I don’t know how, but it’s like they know about the connection between me and that thing.”
    Bill shrugged. “The Feds can hide stories from the media, but there ain’t a damn thing that can stop a tale in a small town once it makes its way to the grapevine. But I do know there’s going to be an awful lot of people who hate to see you go, myself included.”
    “Thanks, but it’s just not the same anymore. I think it’s time to move on.”
    “Where will you go?”
    “Well, Emilio said he could hook me up with a shop out in Midland.”
    “How is Emilio?”
    As usual, the old Texan drawled out all four syllables of Emilio’s name. Despite having heard this mispronunciation several times before, this time it struck James as quite amusing. He covered his mouth with his hand to hide his smile. “He’s good,” James said through his hand.
    “How’s his leg?”
    “It’s healing, slowly but surely. He’s got one hell of an ugly scar, but it’ll heal with time.”
    Bill motioned to his side. “I can relate.”
    “Me too,” James said, removing his hand from his face since the smile was no longer there to be concealed.
    Bill nodded solemnly.
    “What are your plans?” James asked.
    “I think I’ll retire,” Bill said. “Don’t look so surprised. The doctor said I’ve got maybe one more year left, the least I can do is spend it with my family.”
    “By God?” James asked, his smile returning.
    “By God.”

About the Author

    Byron Starr is the author of the nonfiction book Finding Heroes, the dark humor novel Ace Hawkins and the Wrath of Santa Claus, and the horror novella Flatheads. Byron lives in Hemphill, Texas.

    Discover other titles by Bryon Starr at Smashwords.com:
    Finding Heroes — http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/12178
    Flatheads — http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/12183

    Connect with Me Online:
    My Blog: http://www.byronstarr.com
    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/people/Byron-Starr/562339606
    Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/byronstarr

    Published by Graveside Tales at Smashwords
    Doppelgänger
    Published by Graveside Tales
    All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address
    Graveside Tales
    P.O. Box 487 Lakeside, AZ 85929, USA
    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental.
    Copyright © 2009 Byron Starr
    Cover Art © 2009 Bret Jordan
    This book is available in print at GravesideBooks.com and other fine retailers

    FIRST EDITION eBOOK

    This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Top.Mail.Ru