Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
When I was a kid, my stepfather asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. “A magician,” I answered quickly with worldwide clarity.
He huffed at that answer. “That ain’t a job, son. Wearing makeup and doing a little dance at parties ain’t a job to seek. Best start looking yonder.”
I took exception to that and returned with “I said a magician, not a clown, asshole.”
That earned me a good throttling, something I’ve always had a knack for goading.
Sad to say, he ended up being right about that fact, as my dreams of being the next Harry “Handcuff” Houdini never came to pass. So, I took his advice and looked yonder.
Eventually, that led to me becoming a cop.
Honestly, I wish I could tell you a noble reason behind that choice, like the desire to help my community or “saving the world one life at a time.” But as my mother used to put it, “Only the devil fiddles lies.”
I spent six years working the graveyard patrol. Shifts were divvied up based on seniority, landing me in the nocturnal hours. I didn’t mind much. At least, not at the time anyway.
The first watch started at 2230 (10:30 p.m.) and ended at 0715 (7:15 a.m.). I’d monitor the empty streets. Nothing kept me company but coast-to-coast radio and the mind-numbing click of my turn signal. Every hour or so, dispatch generously sent out a safety check to keep us sharp and awake. Kind of them but not all that necessary.
Nothing far-reaching ever happened in Colby, much less at 0230 in the morning. With a population of 5,500, crimes were low and life fairly slow-paced. Occasionally, petty crimes ran the gamut of traffic offenses, domestic disturbances, or underage drinking. In a town with little to offer its younger cliques, alcohol took precedence.
We were as rural as Thomas County had to offer. Halfway to everywhere. No tall trees or rolling hills. Just blue sky–kissing prairie; there’s no place like home.
At 0245 in the morning, the soft robotic voice of dispatch radioed a 21-3721 Criminal Trespass. Even before the details, I already had a hunch where I’d be heading.
I pulled onto the interstate, pushed up to 70, and held it there as the town lights became spectral dots in the rearview.
At 15 minutes out, the silos of the Windsor Mill grain elevator were inevitably visible. Once upon a time, the huge structures were used to stockpile grain, thousands by the bushel. But in an unforeseen tragedy, a fire ripped its way through the facility, killing four workers in the process. Left in financial ruin, the elevator was shut down and condemned but not quite abandoned. Its old, charred skeleton still belonged to the owner—Ralph Windsor, the same man who had made the distress call tonight.
The place had naturally become a beacon for tourists to explore and hoodlums to tag, so for Windsor, trespassing calls were typical.
Despite his relationship with the place equating to a dead limb, he never stopped safeguarding his perished property.
I pulled the cruiser onto the dirt path that sloped toward the fenced entrance. Ralph Windsor’s hunched figure was waiting by his truck. He was a burly man, face pinched with wrinkles and a mat of hair that rested greasily over his scalp.
“Evening, Ralph,” I greeted, crunching up the gravel toward him. “Kids sneaking in the pool again?”
He eyed me humorlessly and tweezed out another cigarette, a nasal twang guiding his voice. “Somethin’ else, I reckon.”
I followed him through the gate and across the forgone lot. The silos stood in 15-foot clusters over us, enormous gravestones marred by a great blaze. Adjacent to them was the decrepit ruins of the warehouse, its roof collapsed in sunder and the lower half reclaimed by nature. A breeze of rust-scented wind scraped my nostrils.
The incident had brought to light some safety violations as well as poor evacuation measures. To this day, Windsor was never keen on those details, not even after questioning by the media.
Despite pushing 83, he still had a firm farmer-like stride.
“Cut a hole in my fence, probably on camera too. I heard ’em sneaking around the basement area. Figured it was just some little shits come to tag. Nah! These were men, hootin’ and hollerin’ things down there I’d never heard in my life. A bunch of gibberish-speak.”
We walked along the haggard northside of the silos and came to a gaping hole punched into the concrete—the entrance to the basement.
“How many would you say you heard?” I asked him.
“Three, maybe four of ’em. I would’ve gone down there to scare ’em off, but …” his sundried face slackened, “it sounded like there was a tussle, like they was fixin’ to hurt someone down there.”
“Does it sound like they have weapons? Any gunshots?”
He shook his head and replied, “Not that I heard.”
I crawled through the hole, springing up a cloud of dust at my ankles. “You head on home, Ralph. I’ll take it from here.”
Whatever he’d muttered while walking off never reached me.
Shining the flashlight ahead, I traced the graffiti-festooned walls. There was always more when I came here, like a new generation added to the mold. The passage to my left opened up to a wide concrete room lined with machinery. Ancient pulleys once used to hoist things up the silos’ funnel now caked in soot and grime like a fossil’s vertebrae.
As I moved to inspect the area, a distant sound resonated from the shaft behind me. I followed after it, kicking up puffs of ash dust with every step.
Even though I’d often been called to this place, it was still very easy to get lost in the tunnels that snaked beneath the structures. It was like walking down a dark throat to a stomach that still smelled of fermented grain. Large patches of the walls were still smeared black from where the fire had eaten them. Cut off from the outside world, I was left in the muffled thud of my footsteps and the excessive pounding sounds.
Then something foul hit my nose—a putrid odor that changed the dark throat into a dark colon. I blew it out, clamping a hand over my mouth to keep from breathing it.
My light flickered, burning away the shadows until it settled on a shape slumped against the wall. A man. His neck was drooped and hanging at a bent angle. He was facing a room across from him as though he had collapsed backward out of it and into the wall. Judging by the blood behind his head, it was a nasty spill.
The hoodie he wore was peppered with holes, a knife’s handle still jutting out of one of them. Stab wounds—at least six of them. I realized then that the wretched odor I’d been smelling was coming from his bowels.
Just as I moved to check him for signs of life, a loud thud came from the room he sat across from. Only this time, it was punctuated by a resounding wet crunch. Hand on my sidearm, I leaned over my shoulder and glanced inside the room.
It was pitch-black, and within the dimness, a figure’s arms rose and fell violently. Another sound echoed, the squelch of something organic.
I veered around the corner, gun drawn and flashlight scattering the darkness. “Police! Hands up!”
Something heavy hit the floor.
The figure drew back sharply and clambered away; a white face sheened with blood. “Please!” the man whimpered, eyes bulging with panic. A piece of duct tape was noosed around one of his wrists. I ordered him to the ground. He didn’t protest.
Sprawled out between us was another man, a red spongy ditch where his face should have been. Spurts of blood still pulsed from the sagging folds. Bits of bone, teeth, and brain perforated the floor. The left eye had been smashed into the nasal cavity. And resting next to its deformed figure was the murder weapon, a sizable chunk of stained concrete.
I looked away, I had to. The need to vomit squeezed my gut but shrank back. It was for moments like these, in the raw grit of chaos, that we were trained to steel our nerves. Death was a part of the job, and even in quiet Colby, you witnessed all of its guises.
“Control the situation,” my instructor used to say. “Take a breath, put the thoughts somewhere else, board them off somewhere for a therapist to pry open—I don’t give a shit, just get the job done!”
I moved passed the corpse and cuffed the trembling man, reciting the Miranda as I frisked his pockets. “Do you understand these rights?”
He said nothing, his gaze flat on the floor and hundreds of miles away.
I hoisted him back to his feet and asked again, louder this time, “Answer the question. Do you understand these rights?”
“They wanted to make me an angel,” he murmured—the blood on his neck, not even his own, already drying into a flaky crust. “A bright, shiny angel.”
“Can you tell me what your name is?”
His eyes swiveled toward me, meshed in bright veins. “Angels, angels, angels! That’s what they kept saying. I didn’t want it. They were bad people.”
Drugs. Maybe LSD or ketamine. Something had to have been racing around his system, jumbling up all the parts. That was typically the case for suspects like this flashing in and out of coherence like the devil himself were whispering sweet nothings in their ear.
To make matters worse, the man had nothing on him. No license, no credentials, nothing to his name but the shirt on his back, sodden and red.
“10-40 to dispatch, I’ve got a few bodies here at location Windsor Mill grain elevator. Possible homicide. Suspect is in my custody.”
“Copy that,” the voice crackled. “Sending available units your way.”
I steered the man toward the exit, blocking out his deranged mutterings. At that point, I’d have given my left testicle for some fresh air.
Then something caught my eye, a large circle inlaid with six concentric rings. It looked like more than a mere tag, not sprayed but smeared over the wall in a red waxy residue. Grey chalky writings filled each ring that almost seemed to lean and spiral toward the circles’ center. I couldn’t come close to reading it. The writing was too jagged and obscure, like a cave drawing.
A mild jitter rolled down my neck—which only worsened as I traced the walls, finding the same sigil scrawled again and again. Cultish crests made up of celestial shapes. A few empty jars lined the corner, one of them in shattered pieces.
Something sprang into my peripheral: a fold of shadow snapping forward. I whipped the light toward it. A grey cat was poised at the entrance, the mouse it just caught still wriggling in its jaws. I kicked some dust at it, sending the scrawny thing bolting down the dark halls.
Without warning, the cuffed man lurched forward as if to vomit, ripping right out of my grasp. I went for my taser, fully expecting him to break for the exit. If only that was what happened.
Instead, he ran the length of the room, circling it over and over. After a good three or four times, his running slowed and altered into squirming wild fits, like a swarm of bees were smothering him. Considering his broken bulb of a mind, I wasn’t that shocked.
It was then, as a horrible scream rushed out of his throat, that I noticed something other than blood and shit in the air—something burning. Plumes of smoke had started to waft from his clothes. All at once, a trail of blue flames shot up his leg and lapped up his sides. It happened so fast I barely had time to catch the flames unfurl across his chest. Within seconds, he was engulfed by them. Hot air spewed outward in a sort of fwoomp!
The room flared up, spotlighting the copious sigils and our large misshapen shadows.
“On the ground, roll on the ground now!” I shouted over the piercing echo of his agony.
His lit bony frame flailed about the room until it smacked into the wall and flopped onto the floor, worming around wildly. Before I could move to stamp the flames out, they’d already risen to a sputtering thicket. A chorus of dying cells.
Human smoke glazed the ceiling and gave rise to a slew of new scents: fat frying on a stove, burning rubber, and pennies coated in charcoal. Fumes smeared my face with sweat and prickled the inside of my throat. The flames guttered, feeding off the air around him. And beneath them, his screams had changed into a guttural hiss—the sound of a tongue finally starting to sizzle. I needed an extinguisher, a bucket of water, a puddle of fucking piss—anything!
Considering my options, I pawed for my gun and unholstered it. At that rate, it was either let the poor bastard burn or put him out of his misery. Already straining to make out the human shape within the blaze, I took aim, held my breath, and pulled the trigger. His body convulsed once from the first bullet and went limp after the second.
I pried my eyes from the sight, realizing only then how much they hurt. There hadn’t been any gas, no substance drenched over his clothes, and no device in his pockets. It just happened—poof.
I needed air, a moment to let my wits fall back into place.
Then he started to move again.
At first, I passed it off as his body curling into itself like charring paper. No, the man rolled over, struggled to his knees, and stood back up.
I was convinced the smoke had finally reached my brain and choked it. The man who had burned to death, the one whom I’d shot twice, was now standing ramrod straight, staring back at me. His face was tight and blackened with an angry crust. Flakes of his own carbonized skin danced in the air. His now melted eyes ran down his cheeks in thick trails. What skin remained was pulling apart like melting wax. Soft. Sticky. Patches of his bones were exposed and browning into dull, rusty colors.
But despite how charred his features were, I could still make out the widest of smiles across his face. Head tilted, happy as a clam, as though blissfully unaware of the fire digesting him. A smile unfit for humanity.
Mad thoughts flashed through my mind, repeating the same words: an angel. A bright and shiny angel.
The man’s gnarled head cocked this way and that as though soaking up the room for the first time. No, I take that back. At that point, the shriveled, crusty face of the thing in front of me belonged to something else. It was eyeing me somehow behind the brittle film that filled its empty sockets. A look of awareness.
This wasn’t a freak accident, not some trick of the light, but a transition. I could hear the disembodied voice of a narrator describe the scene: “Watch carefully as it moves from one stage of its life cycle to the next, a beautiful metamorphosis.” Yes, that’s what it was. New life. A sleeping god finally able to stir.
I didn’t feel the gun go off, but I knew I clicked the trigger three times. Maybe more. The flames wobbled as the thing staggered back, several new holes now in its chest. Still, it did not drop that jovial smile. From behind, the handcuffs snapped as the chain-link pulled feebly apart.
Somewhere in my thoughts, a thin shriek resonated. I expected a reaction from what I’d done, maybe even retaliation.
Instead, the thing turned away from me and put its focus on the largest of the sigils at the back of the room. Drunkenly, it hobbled toward it. Black disintegrated clods that were once clothes fell from its frame.
When it reached the circle, I could only watch as it practically fell into it, went limp, and began to break apart. Layer by layer, its body crumbled and lost its structure into powdery fragments. A great heap of charcoal dust formed at its feet in mounds of black sand. As more of its shape collapsed, the flames slackened and continued to wither until both were no more.
The room once again returned to darkness.
A voice chattered over the radio, only to join the faint frequency of my shock.
I shined my light over the sigil, heat still radiating off of it, and scarred over its center was the vague silhouette of a man, left behind like an atomic shadow.
On May 6th, 2020, at approximately 0200, a grey cargo van pulled off beside the road and parked on the north end of the Windsor Mill grain elevator. According to the camera feed, two males left the vehicle, opened its rear, and dragged out a third unidentified male appearing bound by some means. They proceeded to cut their way through the fence and enter the grounds. Both individuals were later identified as Peter and Elliot Mosely, brothers.
After their arrival, at approximately 0245, I, Officer Tucker, was dispatched in reference to the disturbance. By the time I arrived on the scene and located both suspects, they had succumbed to severe injuries—one by several stab wounds, the other by a crushed skull from a slab of concrete. Both brothers were pronounced dead at the scene.
A number of symbols were painted around the room, signifying some unknown ceremonial practices.
It can be deduced that the third male broke free from his restraints and killed both men. I quickly secured the man but was unable to question him, most likely due to narcotics. Before I could bring him into custody—by some unknown means—he had lit himself ablaze, perhaps by some sort of suicide.
Suicide—that’s what I called it in the report. It felt so wrong, a counterfeit truth I could swallow easier. And yet, it could not wall me off from the nightmares. Practically any lick of sleep I could get was jolted aside by the stink of burning hair or the sight of a man-shaped figure in the corner smiling ever so wildly.
I requested the bodycam footage and showed it to a buddy of mine at the station.
His response, a passive shoulder roll. “The guy was hopped up on God-knows-what, of course. He couldn’t feel his nerves melting. By that point, he was probably thinking, ‘Boy, it’s stuffy in here.’ It’s crazy what the shit out there can do to people, almost like it makes them superhuman or something.”
I eyed him irritably, “Would it also make them combust?”
He laughed. I didn’t.
I tried to convince myself he was right. I really did. But it was no use. Somewhere in all this, there was a hole that kept growing deeper.
As I put in the request for a lateral transfer, my paranoia only worsened. I feared that whatever was inside that man, maybe something in the air, had also slipped into me. Festering. Waiting to ignite. A bright, shiny angel.
Inevitably I’d have to go back to that place if another trespassing happened—and God knows it would. Whenever that thought returned, the world around me only went grayer.
The identity of the kidnapped man was still working its way through our system, so I looked into the brothers’, Peter and Elliott Mosely. No such luck, both their records were clean. The two had made the drive to Colby from a small town near Colorado.
I checked the history of the town, searching for any housefires, occult crime, or calamities that struck the residents. What can I say, I was desperate?
My search led me to an abandoned, burned-down church that rested on the outskirts of the community. Miniscule as it was, a lead was a lead.
I honestly didn’t think I’d find anything in the old, rotted woodwork and splintered flooring. But lo and behold, tucked away along the scorched outer wall was the familiar faded shape of their sigil. The exact one I’d seen! It was hard to tell, but it almost looked as though the black smear of a hand had been streaked over it. About the symbol’s meaning, I was able to find someone online who transcribed one of its rings using an old Hungarian alphabet system:
F R E E O F F L E S H
I don’t know how far I’ll get in all of this, and frankly, I’m terrified to keep going. What did it all mean? Were the others out there doing this to people? Was it happening now, in another forgotten, burnt up place?
Despite all my questions, one thing was certain to me: in the dark halls of Windsor Mill, even the angels burned.
Credit : Michael Paige
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