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Things Darker Than Man



Estimated reading time — 31 minutes

It was 3.00 AM on July 17th, 2004 when I found myself outside the site of the seventh murder in four weeks. My partner Jim McAllister and I had been the first responders to this particular incident, the first two to survey the carnage before the forensics team and clean-up crew made it to the scene. We had followed a twisted breadcrumb trail of broken glass, debris and blood up to the master bedroom, where we found the mutilated body of the occupant, torn in half and adorned with tattered linen and ruby-tinged goose feathers. Her name was Sally McMahon.

She was a seventy-four-year-old woman who, according to her neighbours, lived alone and seldom had any visitors. There was no reason for anyone to have so much as let their dog run amuck through her garden, let alone kill her; yet here we were. We had ruled out the idea of it being an animal attack after the first victim’s post-mortem; a local farmer who we found torn to pieces in his ransacked kitchen. Initially, we had put it down to being a bear or even a particularly aggressive wolf, but that was before a spooked sounding forensic pathologist from the local hospital called in to Sheriff Alverson’s office to gravely relay to us that the bite marks found on the farmer’s body were thoroughly baffling. Allegedly, the corpse was covered with human teeth marks, and more alarmingly, teeth marks that were deemed “unrecognizable”.

We had all hoped that the following incidents- when they happened- wouldn’t turn out the same way. That they were animal attacks, or that the post-mortem would yield different results. Of course, even by this seventh murder, some officers who were on the scene were still throwing around the idea that these were all just the work of one very aggravated bear.

I had been standing outside the house, taking long, frequent drags on a cigarette and listening to the chatter of the other officers as the faulty streetlight above me played a fierce tug of war with the night. The detective assigned to the case, Donald Evans, emerged in the doorway and began to walk toward me, his face ashen, even in the mottled orange glow.

“Officer Lemanski?”

“Uh…call me Mikhail.” I said, extending my hand out to shake his. “You’re Detective Evans, right?”

“Yeah, that’s me. It’s my understanding that you were one of the first responders?”

“That’s right.” I said, my words muffled by the smoke that exited my mouth in a ghostly wisp.

“I get that these incidents are… uncommon around these parts, to say the least. But I need you to tell me if you or Officer McAllister noticed any details that stood out from the other crime scenes.”

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I forced my mind to delve back into the last hour and a half. Jim and I had entered the house at around 3:10 AM, firstly noticing an upturned cabinet and broken glass strewn at the bottom of the staircase. Upon reaching the landing, we found yet more ravaged furniture and broken glass, and more than that, a thick crimson trail of blood that led into the master bedroom. My mind drew a blank.

“It was gruesome, but nothing that really stands out from the oth…”

The handprints.

“There were handprints on the ceiling.” I said.

“What?” Evans nearly choked.

“There were bloody handprints on the walls and on floor. But there were some on the ceiling too.”

“You… you sure they were handprints?” Evans stammered.

“Sure as I am that we’re having this conversation right now. Bloody handprints. Pronounced too. Wasn’t like the perp threw the victim up there or anything like that. You can go and check for yourself.”

“I… How did… shit.” Evans jogged back to the house and disappeared up the stairs.

I looked over at Jim, who had been sitting on the hood of the car and staring into space ever since the forensics team had got here. The case was weighing on him, I could tell. With each passing incident, he grew quieter. His mind was on something, though.

The handprints on the ceiling had thoroughly frightened and confused the hell out of me. All of the murders up until this point had been grisly but none had really possessed any anomalous details aside from the lack of fingerprints and the bizarre teeth marks, both of which we were all used to by now. I was about to attempt to make conversation with Jim when Evans rushed back out of the house. He looked even more somber than he had before, almost sickly.

“You were… right about the handprints. We’re gonna take samples and see if we can identify the perpetrator from that.” He almost sounded choked up.

“Right.” I didn’t have much hope for that. No attempts at DNA fingerprinting or blood sampling had progressed the case at all in the last three weeks.

“The forensics team are saying… are saying that the corpse is covered in bite marks.”

“Human?”

“Probably. We’ll have to wait for the post-mortem. Could still turn out different, we don’t know yet.”

We knew. We knew all too well. Evans spoke with the same vain expectation that the other local officers did, and it was becoming apparent that there was no way to downplay this as something less serious than it was. There was a person out there doing this; someone who was savagely butchering people, seemingly without reason. These were serial killings, yet the words “serial killer” had yet to be used by our Sheriff or even Detective Evans.

“You and McAllister can head home.” Evans said, defeat lurking beneath his gruff, authoritative tone. “It’s been a long night and the forensics team will be here for a while.”

I wished Evans good luck in the hunt for any further evidence and motioned to Jim to get in the car. I looked back at the house as I turned the vehicle at the end of the street, knowing that soon, the dawn would pull the obsidian shroud from the street, and the townspeople would awaken to yet more unanswered questions.

A week later, my exhausted brain was jumpstarted one slow morning by a phone call whilst I was at my desk. I didn’t recognize the number.

“Mikhail Lemanski. Who am I speaking to?”

“Hi, Mr. Lemanski. This is Alice Corman from the Jefferson Herald. I was wondering if you had any additional information on the ongoing investigation into the string of murders in Torkton?”

Her words were a shot of adrenaline that went straight to my head.

“I…”

“Or perhaps any clarifying comments on today’s story that could make it to a later publication?”

“How the hell do you know about this? How did you get this number?” I barked sternly.

“Three days ago, we received detailed information about a series of killings in Torkton. Do you read the newspaper at all, sir?”

As if on cue, the most recent copy of the Jefferson Herald was slammed down in front of me by the exasperated Sheriff Alverson, the bold headline perched arrogantly atop the cheap, fragile paper.

“Terror in Torkton; The Sawney Bean Murders”

I looked up at Alverson’s scowl and then spoke into the phone; “Uh… excuse me for one minute.” I ended the call immediately and set the phone down.

I perused the article with growing disgust, already put-off by the tasteless reference to the Scottish cannibal in the headline; “In the early hours of July 17th, Jefferson county police were called to the scene of a suspected home invasion, only to be met with a grisly discovery; the mutilated, cannibalized body of Sally McMahon (74). This is said to be the seventh in a string of similar horrific incidents that the authorities have been keeping quiet, as not to frighten the citizens of Torkton.”

Looking further down the page, I saw my last name appear, as well as Jim’s. I looked up at Sheriff Alverson in shock.

“What the fuck is all this?!” I exclaimed.

Alverson’s steely gaze persisted; “I was hoping you’d know.” He said dryly.

My mind raced; “I never told the press shit. I know that this is the kind of stuff that they love to sink their teeth into. Especially round here where nothing happens and…”

A thought popped into my head. Jim. He had left his gun and badge on Alverson’s desk the day after the seventh killing, and no one had been able to contact him since then. I couldn’t think of anyone else who would’ve tipped off the press about this whole ordeal, because no one else at the scene- no matter how harrowed- had been quite as out of their minds as Jim was.

It seemed like the ever-irate sheriff had read my mind. “You think this was McAllister?”

“Looks that way. The only other person who would’ve been liable to let any information escape the scene was the lady who called it in, and we made a point not to give her all the details after finding out about the bite marks. We spared those details from past witnesses, too.”

“Well no one in this fucking precinct has heard from him since last week’s incident and no one has been able to contact him. Is he married, Lemanski?” the sheriff asked.

“No.”

“Kids? Girlfriend?”

“He lives alone, Sheriff.” I said, my voice descending into an unimpressed monotone.

Yeah, Jim had just up and left. His personality had been melting away ever since the case was opened; it wasn’t like him at all. But Alverson was, and had always been, an uptight, neglectful son of a bitch. In the eight years that I’d worked here, he’d never once made a real effort to get to know me or any of the other officers for that matter, despite the fact that he had very little else to do. Perhaps he had a chip on his shoulder because he was laid off from a big shot position in Seattle or something, but it’s not like his dismissive, cold self would ever tell me that story. I knew what was about to come out of his mouth.

“Well Lemanski, you know the dipshit better than anyone else here, so it falls on you to pull him out of wherever he’s holed up and talk to him.”

“With all due respect, Sheriff” I said, almost gagging on my words. “What would I even say to him? The papers have already printed…”

Alverson cut me off. “You tell him whatever you gotta tell him. Have him head down to the Jefferson Herald and tell them that forensics screwed up and that it was an animal attack. I can’t have these bastards making us look like we aren’t handling this, so they’re gonna pull that goddamn headline right now. This is a quiet town and I don’t want those fuckin’ Hoover boys down here. Cannibalism. Jesus Christ.”

Alverson was perhaps the only human being in the world who still used the term “Hoover boys” to describe the FBI after 1969. There was a joke about his ever so confidently spoken out-dated lingo amidst the officers, unbeknownst to him.

I shot up from my desk, unwilling to tolerate the unanswered “what if’s” of the situation.

“Sheriff, what if they don’t pull the headline? What happens then? What if they don’t retract their statements?”

Alverson, ever angry, stared at me with an expression that suggested that he was about to blow his top again. He shook his head as his mind attempted to come up with some kind of solution.

“Right, we interview every single man… no, every single person above the age of sixteen in Torkton. We get officers out there going door to door, demanding mandatory questioning for every man or woman, boy and girl above sixteen years. They can tell anyone who refuses that they will be immediately put down as a suspect. I can’t… I cannot have the local people think we aren’t handling this.”

It was all to do with how we appeared, not what we were actually doing. Bastard. Sure, it mattered that the people of Torkton felt like we were confident and assured in the way we dealt with things, but the fact of the matter was, we weren’t handling it at all. We were taking blind swings at an invisible assailant who had us all scared shitless.

“Sheriff…” I began.

“Go find McAllister.” He grumbled.

I pondered arguing for a second, and then decided that there was no way I was winning this fight. “Alright.”

I’d tried contacting Jim earlier in the week to no avail, so I knew that my only real option was to head to his place; that is, if he hadn’t packed all of his belongings together and jumped on the next plane to the east coast. As Alverson sauntered back to his office, I hurriedly tidied the small mess of papers on my desk and headed out to the lot, opting to take my own car instead of one of the precinct’s vehicles. I felt a weight upon my shoulders, as though the thick, humid air was pressing down on me. Jim’s sudden absence was simply another rung on this ladder of stress; I was already thinking non-stop about what I had seen, and when I’d once again find myself staring at another grisly picture just like it.

The rainclouds began to spit as I drove through the downtown area, their dark grey forms harbingers of an oncoming thunderstorm. Jim lived in an apartment complex about four miles away from the station, fairly close to the edge of town and far enough away from the centre for very few cares to be given about any renovations that it may have needed. I had only ever been there once to drop Jim off when his car was in for repairs, but it wasn’t hard to find.

The rain hammered down aggressively on the exterior of my car, the relentless metallic banging making me feel as though I was trapped inside a tin can at a shooting range. I pulled into the parking lot and grabbed an anorak that had slipped from the seat to the foothold in the back of the car, thinking of what exactly I would say to Jim, that was of course if he hadn’t locked himself in his bathroom and… well, y’know. That wasn’t an idea that I was particularly fond of entertaining.

I exited my car and walked briskly to the door of the apartment, dialling his room number into the panel by the door and hitting call as the rain lapped hungrily at my shoes.

“Jim, it’s Mikhail. If you’re in there, open up. I’m not here to drag you back to Alverson. Just here to talk.”

Nothing came through the receiver. Looking across the lot, I saw Jim’s car parked in the looming shadow of a pine tree. I tried calling again, this time trying to sound noticeably irritated.

“I know you’re in there, man. It’s been a shitty week for everyone who’s on that case, but I’ve gotta talk to you. Besides, it’s coming down out here and I’m cold as all hell. Open the damn door.”

The receiver crackled suddenly, and a hoarse voice spilled from the speaker; “Mikhail? Jesus, I… Yeah, uh… come on up.”

I pulled the door open and wasted no time in bothering myself with the elevator; I dashed up the stairs to the second floor, and marched down the corridor to his room. The door was open slightly, the deadbolt resting on the frame. I had barely even rapped on the door twice before Jim pulled it open, his eyes wide and a revolver in his right hand.

“For Christ’s sake!” I flinched and almost fell backwards at the sight of the weapon’s maw staring me in the face.

Jim lowered it and spoke through deep breaths and an apparent lump in his throat; “I had to make sure it was you, Mike.”

“You heard me on th- whatever.” I said, perplexed by Jim’s evidently rampant paranoia but unwilling to make him feel any more uncomfortable than he already was. “It’s me, man. It’s me. What the hell is this all about?” I asked, gesturing at the weapon.

“You better come in.” He said.

I followed Jim into his dimly lit apartment. I had expected it to be far messier than it actually was; there were no takeout boxes littering the floor or sloppily stacked up on top of one another, and no offensive smells emanated from the kitchen. Jim had clearly been drinking, however. On his coffee table sat a quarter full bottle of cognac, next to a cheap looking whiskey glass.

“How long you been working on that?” I said with a spiritless chuckle.

“Couple days, I guess. Strong stuff. You want any?” His words swayed like a tree in the breeze.

“I’m good. Jim, I’m gonna be frank with you, I came here from the station. I saw the newspaper and Alverson needs you to get in touch with the Jefferson Herald and tell them to pull that head…”

“Fuck Alverson.”

Those were not words spoken by the liquid voice in his blood. They were assured, steady, and serious.

“Fuck Alverson and fuck his callous bullshit. He’s handled this about as well as a blind shrew in a knife fight. I wouldn’t even dream of bringing what I found out to him because he’d have me in jail before I’d even got the whole story out. And believe you me Mike, I found some stuff out. I found some goddamn stuff out.”

“What did you find out?” I asked, bewildered.

“You’re gonna think I’m just a drunk asshole who snapped at the sight of too many spilled internal organs. But you’re my closest damn friend here, and I trust you’re gonna listen to me.”

“I’m listening.” I said.

“Firstly, yeah. I did give the Herald that information, and there is no way in hell I’m having them pull the story. No one is safe here, and they need to know what’s going on so they can take as many precautions as they can. The killer has no connections to any of the victims. Anyone could be the next casualty.”

“Hold on… you think you know who the killer is?”

He gave me a steely, sincere look. My blood ran cold as disbelief flooded my veins. Jim was completely serious. Somewhere inside my head, logic and fantasy were locked in a fierce duel, and fantasy was winning.

“Jim.” I said through nervous breaths. “Do you know who the killer is? If you do, how the hell did you find out?”

“I’m not a detective, Mike. Shit, I’m barely a police officer. But, I think I might actually have some idea.”

“Go on.”

Jim poured himself another shallow glass of cognac. “I used to frequent a bar downtown; The Fox Hole, you know it. There was a retired old park ranger who would always be there on Friday nights, and he had a catalogue of stories from his time, and we’d all sit around and listen to him. One night, I wanna say about six months ago, he told a story that he said was his last call before he retired. It happened last year. Went like this; a hiking party of about six people got stranded in the deep woods in Mount Pilchuck State Park, wandered off the trail by accident I guess. Two of the six people came back. Two. A woman named Estelle Palmer and a man named Reuben Grundy. Grundy was in a hell of a state when the rangers found them, allegedly said that he had no idea where the other four people had gone, that they had wandered off into the night. Here’s where it gets even weirder. Palmer said that the night before they had been found, there were still three of them, another man I think. Palmer had been in and out of sleep, and swore that she saw Grundy follow the other guy into the woods when he was going to piss or something. The man never came back, but Grundy did ten minutes later. She said he looked different; thinner, taller, and insisted that he’d had blood all around his mouth. She’d felt this overwhelming fear and just pretended like she was asleep. Of course, her story was written off as delirious rambling.”

Jim cleared his throat and took another swig; “Something about the story just kinda gave me a genuine feeling of dread that none of this guy’s other stories had quite done. Then, the old bastard puts the cherry on top; a week later the US forest service finds remains in the woods with what were presumed to be human teeth marks on them, but they’re so pulverized that they can’t place exactly who they were. Grundy and Palmer are both interviewed again but nothing comes of it; Palmer even tells the same story and says that she knows what she saw, but they write it off again. I told the old man before closing time that night that he’d scared the hell out of me but that I didn’t believe him, and he just looked at me with this deadpan expression and said; ‘Look it up, son.’ So, I did, and whaddya know? It happened. Multiple different news sources covered the story. It fucking happened. Was barely covered on TV.

“Right?” I started. “But Pilchuck State Park is huge, the surrounding area is…”

“Reuben Grundy lives in Torkton, Mike. He owns a ranch.” He fumbled around with a mess of documents on the coffee table. “Estelle Palmer used to live in Torkton too, literally a quarter mile down the road from Grundy. She’d lived here her whole life, by the look of things.”

“Are those… police records?” I asked.

Jim gave me an irritated side eye and continued. “Point is, after she came back from that expedition, she moved four towns away. Packed up and left in about a week, sold the farmhouse she lived in to someone who’d been on her ass about buying it for years. Her childhood home, from what I read. Whether or not Reuben Grundy was responsible for those people disappearing, she saw something happen in those woods that made it so she couldn’t even stand to be near him.”

Logic struggled onwards in its ongoing battle inside my brain. It strained and strained, but superstition’s blade was far too sharp. “Maybe she was a whack job.” I said. “You know what townie folks are like, live in the same place all their lives and…”

“Clean bill of mental health.” Jim exclaimed, waving a crumpled medical record in my face, clearly taken from a local clinic. “No history of schizophrenia, depression, BPD or even so much as a panic attack. No prescribed medications. It’s entirely possible that we could put what she saw down to hunger, dehydration or on the off-chance maybe even the delayed effects of a hallucinogenic trip. But the fact of the matter is, this woman up and left in a matter of days after that incident. It’s not like Torkton’s right next door to Mount Pilchuck, either.”

Jim dropped the medical record to the floor and shakily pulled up another document. He was excited, or terrified, or both.

“So, look here. Her new address is in May Creek.”

“Jim, Jim… you’re chasing a rollercoaster of a story here…” I said.

“If we take this to Alverson he’s gonna give us a whole spiel about how we’re idiots and then take it upon himself to re-hire me just so he can fire me. We take it to Evans and he’s gonna think we’re on a wild goose chase, because he’s a guy who deals with career criminals in Seattle and the odd home invasion. He’s probably been with the force for what, two, three years? Face it, Mike. Our higher-ups are stuck scratching their heads and we might actually have a lead. I know it sounds crazy, I know it’s a long shot, and its dumb luck that I heard that story, but we may have an actual suspect.”

In the moment, Jim’s obsessive joining of the dots had rendered me dumbfounded, unable to think straight; “So you’re saying…”

“The killer is Reuben Grundy” Jim blurted out. “Maybe I am just another drunk asshole who wishes he was a big shot detective and maybe I’m completely wrong, but if there’s even a chance that I’m right, we have to do something.”

Jim had a point, even in the midst of his fanatical behaviour. Alverson didn’t care and Evans, despite leading the charge, was being eaten up by his own fear. I saw it screaming behind his eyes the night of Sally McMahon’s murder.

“Alright, what’s the plan?” I asked.

“We visit Estelle Palmer in May Creek and we ask her about Grundy.” Jim said through shaking breaths. “What he was like, if he seemed different during or after the hiking trip, all that jazz. If we can convince her to help us beyond just talking to us, then maybe we actually have a chance at communicating it to Evans.”

“Either that or she chases us out of her house with a double barrel for even asking.” I said dryly.

“Ever the pessimist.” Jim retorted.

I laughed. “Get some fresh clothes on, sober up and let’s get our asses to May Creek.”

Jim and I arrived at Estelle Palmer’s residence in May Creek an hour later, having backtracked along numerous roads due to the exhausted GPS in my car. We parked across from Palmer’s house; Number Five, Fairbank Street. The place was not at all what I had anticipated; I had expected us to pull up next to an overgrown lawn brimming with tall weeds, and a crudely arranged patio that led up to a dingy porch with a grimy screen door. Perhaps there would have been a sign hammered on to the wall made of plywood, and scrawled on it in red paint would have been the words; “Trespassers will be shot”. It was nothing like that, if anything it was not unlike any of the other idyllic looking houses in May Creek. The lawn was a healthy burst of green, each blade of grass seemingly trimmed down to exactly the same size, and just by the curb lay a toy truck that must have belonged to a child.

Jim swept his hair out of his eyes and opened the door of the car; “Well, here goes. We either get our answers or we get a door slammed in our faces.”

We approached the door, peering through the living room window and catching sight of a woman sitting in a reclining chair, watching a young boy of no more than three years of age playing on the floor. She looked up as Jim rang the doorbell and stood up to exit the living room, motioning to the toddler to stay where he was.

Estelle Palmer swung the door open, a sense of immediate irritation glinting in her eyes. She was about thirty-eight years of age, with long dirty blonde hair that fell to her shoulders.

Noticing her annoyance, I began to speak. “Mrs. Palmer…”

“Miss. I’m not married.” Estelle said.

“Right. Miss Palmer…” Jim took over. “My name’s Jim McAllister and this is Mikhail Lemanski. We don’t mean to upset you but we’re…”

“Cops?” She snapped. Jim was visibly surprised. “I figured. Where you from? Sultan? Don’t tell me you’re from Seattle?”

“Torkton.” I said.

Her glare narrowed even further.

“It’s our understanding that you used to live there.”

“Yes. What’s it to you?” She seemed even more defensive now.

“We came to enquire about…” Jim struggled over unnecessary eloquence, even though he fully expected to receive the cold shoulder. Miss Palmer’s irritation reached its peak and she began to shut the door.

“It’s about Reuben Grundy.” Jim finally managed.

She stopped and peered through the crack between the frame and the door. Her annoyance had dissipated, and worry flooded her eyes.

“You can come in.” She finally said, ushering us inside.

The interior of the house was as picturesque as the exterior, the staircase adorned with paintings of famous North American mountains, the kitchen clean and well organized. Estelle led us into the living room, where the boy, who I presumed to be her son, looked up at us with that wide-eyed, curious expression that is so common in young children.

“Baby, go play in your room, okay?” Estelle said to the boy.

He looked down at the plastic dinosaur he was playing with, then back at his mother, before picking up the toy and sauntering down to the end of the hallway.

Before Jim or I could get a word out about her sweet her kid was, her worrisome expression returned.

“I haven’t seen Reuben in over a year.” She said. “When I moved here he used to call my cell five times a week before I changed numbers. Didn’t tell him I was moving here, of course I didn’t. What the hell’s he done?”

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“It’s not what he’s done.” I said. “It’s what we think he might have done.”

“Miss Palmer…” Jim started.

“Please, it’s just Estelle.” She said softly, seeming far less vexed by our presence than she had been minutes before.

“Estelle” Jim said. “The situation is this; my friend and I have reason to believe that Reuben Grundy may be linked to a series of a violent serial killings in Torkton. However, it’s little more than a hunch and the police investigation has been a complete mess from the outset, so we need your help. It’s my understanding that you knew Reuben for most of your life?”

Estelle sat down in the reclining chair, motioning for us to sit down on the couch.

“My whole life, yeah. His old man, Scott, owned this ranch down the road from my old house, and he inherited the whole place when Scott passed. We were in the same grade at school. He was always a smart, worldly guy, knew a whole lot about nature and cared a lot for the animals he reared on the ranch. Could name every damn plant in the woods.” She chuckled as she reminisced.

“Throughout your childhood, did he ever seem “off” to you at any point?” I asked.

“No, never. Not once did I have him pinned as the outcast, or the weirdo kid. Everyone in high school loved Reuben.”

“I have to ask about the hiking trip.” Jim said. “Four people disappeared and you and Reuben were the only ones who came back. You moved away a week after. What the hell happened?”

Estelle’s voice quaked as she spoke, fear mingling with the worry in her eyes.

“Reuben…” She trailed off, straining against the painful memories to force the words out. “Reuben changed on that trip. We were a week into it and there was clearly something strange going on with him. Usually he’d be musing about conifer trees and mountain lions, but he barely spoke, and when he did, the way he talked was fragmented and hoarse, like he’d forgotten his own native language. He seemed irritated when we tried to talk to him. He didn’t talk about much, but when he did… when he did, he said…” Her words crumpled to the floor again.

I leaned forward; “What did he say, Estelle?”

“He said he was hungry.”

An electric current surged down my spine. The silence rang in my ears like the whining aftermath of an explosion.

“I’d hear him at night. He’d sit out by the fire longer than anyone and mutter to himself. Saying things like “God I’m so fucking hungry” in this voice that I’d never heard come out of him before. When it became obvious that we were lost… that’s when people started disappearing. First Becca, then Miguel, then Ruth, and then Nick, the night before we were found. When Nick disappeared, I saw Reuben follow him into the forest. I didn’t hear anything, but Reuben came back later without him. He looked different; Sickly, pale, skinny, taller somehow. And I… I swear to God he was covered in blood.”

I looked over at Jim, who was staring intently at her. Jesus Christ, you drunk bastard. You brilliant, drunk bastard. You might actually be onto something.

“Maybe I was delirious, maybe I was. He looked the same as ever the next day, when the park rangers found us. I just couldn’t shake this feeling that I was still in danger, though. He talked in that cracked, hoarse way still. The police paid it no mind, wrote it off as the effects of dehydration and wrote my story off as a mirage. I moved as soon as I could when I got home. Stayed with my mom in Olympia for a short while before I found a place here in May Creek. Like I said, maybe I was crazy. I’m not saying Reuben Grundy definitely killed those people, but I am certain that something in those woods got inside of him and made itself a home. And I don’t think it ever left.”

Jim’s intense concentration turned to slight confusion; “What do you mean ‘something’?”

Estelle gave a half smile, as though she were embarrassed.

“I’m not one to believe in folk tales, Mr. McAllister. Never have been, even when my old man tried to scare me to death with them when I wasn’t much older than my son. But Reuben was always the same up until that trip, and he changed so suddenly. Call it what you want; a spirit, a sickness, the call of nature, whatever. Something took ahold of Reuben. Took him away. I’m not saying that if you investigate him you’ll definitely find the answers you’re looking for. But you might want to try.”

Noticing that Estelle was on the verge of tears, I grabbed Jim’s arm and said; “Thank you so much for your help. We should probably get going and leave you in peace.”

“Estelle” Jim said tentatively. “I don’t suppose we could convince you to come with us…”

“No.” She interjected. “I can’t see Reuben ever again, not after what I saw in those woods. He doesn’t know where I live, but I still lock every door and window at night, still watch the footage from the security camera every morning. Sometimes I think if I met him again it would lay some ghosts to rest, but something tells me those ghosts are real damned stubborn. I can’t put myself in danger. I’m the only thing that Robert has.”

She motioned down the hall toward her son’s bedroom. Jim looked as though he were about to persist in his argument, but he simmered down quickly.

“Thank you for your time, Estelle, sincerely.” Jim said as we stood up and walked to the door. “We’re gonna go give Reuben a visit. And we will find out who’s doing this, I promise.”

“Thank you.” Estelle replied. “Good luck.”

She silently watched us walk down the driveway to the car, a solemn look in her eyes. Perhaps she was reliving all those memories, or perhaps she thought she had just sent us further into something we would regret being a part of. I looked over at the house one last time as I started the car. Through the living room window, I could make out a blurred picture of Estelle cradling her son in a tender embrace. We drove.

I pulled the car up to Torkton Police Station at 6:15 P.M, having convinced a particularly irate Jim to stop off there first. I told him to wait in the car while I briefly went to talk to Alverson. Apparently, he’d at the very least done a good job of rounding up the local populace for questioning, as I had to sift through a chattering crowd of townsfolk who were gathered outside and inside the station. I ran to Alverson’s office, rapping sharply on the door.

“Who the hell is it?” Came a gritty, aggravated yell.

I opened the door and my gaze met Sheriff Alverson’s cock-eyed stare. “Where the fuck have you been, Lemanski?”

“Have you interviewed a man named Reuben Grundy?” I asked, ignoring him.

“Who?” Alverson said.

“Reuben Grundy. Rancher from the North end of Torkton.”

“Fuck should I know?” Alverson said, taking an aggressive swig of his coffee. “Officer Barnett has a checklist. Go ask her. Now where in God’s name have you been? You get McAllister to pull that article?”

I slammed his door and ran to the front desk, where I found Officer Barnett busying herself with an excel spreadsheet. I nearly collided with the desk, startling her.

“Eve” I said, letting out a long-held breath. “Have you interviewed a man named Reuben Grundy yet?”

Visibly confused by my urgency, she pulled up the records and perused them for about ten seconds.

“Uh… looks like we had him in a couple hours ago. We cleared him, he’s not down as a suspect.”

“Christ… where’s Detective Evans?”

“Monroe.” She said absent-mindedly. “Something came up from another case and he left a few hours …”

“How long did you have Grundy in the interview room for?” My words were ablaze with insistence.

“Five minutes, in and out.” Barnett replied.

You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. They didn’t even ask him about the hiking trip.

“Thanks.”

I dashed out of the station, feeling the mystified eyes of the townspeople boring into me. Jim was waiting in anticipation, craning his neck around as I ran toward the car. I threw the door open and clambered inside.

“They cleared the bastard two hours ago. Evans is in Monroe. We’re heading to Grundy’s place.”

“Let’s go.” Jim said. His tone was crawling with nerves. He had clearly expected it to come to this, but now the reality of it was sinking in. Fear brewed underneath my adrenaline rush.

The sun began to exhaustedly sink below the distant mountain as we sped through Torkton, painting a crimson outline on the remaining clouds. The stench of dread began to creep in through the cracked passenger side window with every inch that the sun receded. I began to wish it would take longer to get to Grundy’s ranch. Anything to stave off the terrible gut feeling.

“So, Evans went to Monroe? What for?” Jim asked, obviously desperate to break the silence.

“Barnett said it was another case. Whether or not that’s a lie… I don’t know and I don’t care. He’s shit scared and he’s not here, which makes him useless.” I replied.

“What about Alverson?”

“He wasn’t even doing so much as ushering the interviewees in. Just asked me about whether or not the Herald had been convinced to pull the front page. We’re on our own, Jim.”

As I said that, the row of buildings on North Avenue disappeared and Grundy’s ranch came into view, sitting less than a quarter of a mile down the road from where we were. I could see a modest looking, well-kept one-storey house that sat at the head of a sprawling two, perhaps three acres of land that I assumed all belonged to Grundy, as all throughout the grassland were grazing cattle, and out behind the house stood a barn, towering proudly over the tiny abode in all of its rustic glory.

Doing our utmost to compose ourselves, Jim and I parked the car at the end of the gravel driveway, preparing for what would hopefully be our final visit of the day. We walked up to the front of the house, trepidation hanging like a meat hook on the otherwise calming summer breeze. I knocked on the screen door and squinted through the glass. From the end of the hallway emerged a man, standing about six-foot four. He made a slow jog toward the screen door and pulled it open enthusiastically.

He was as tan as one might expect a rancher to be, dressed in tattered jeans and a polo shirt, and looked to be in his late thirties. He had thinning brown hair that stuck out in tufts from underneath an ill-fitting baseball cap, and a subtly auburn coloured beard. He gave a smile, his eyes glinting a little.

“Can I help you boys?” He asked, his voice a chipper, gravelly song.

I was thrown off for a second. I had expected a weathered, malnourished looking man covering his face with a wide brimmed hat. I had expected an inhuman rasp. I had expected him to tell us to leave him alone.

Jim jumped in. “My name’s Off… uh… Detective Cal Mariano, and this is Detective Dave Crowley. We’re here regarding the town-wide questioning of the residents of Torkton?”

Grundy chuckled nervously, his brow wrinkling. “Oh, right… there must have been some mistake. The police already interviewed me a few hours ago.”

“We understand sir, and we’re very sorry to trouble you.” I said, joining Jim in playing the role of ‘Detective Crowley.’

“See” Jim said. “It’s a big operation, and the Torkton police department are swamped, as you might imagine. Unfortunately, they missed a couple of vital questions when interviewing a few people, and they’ve sent us round to get extra details.”

“Oh right, of course.” Grundy said, his expression softening a little. “By all means, come on inside.”

Jim and I stepped into the hallway as Grundy closed the door. Inside, the temperature was cool, yet an unpleasant smell sat in the air. I heard the door lock behind us. Had the door been locked before? I couldn’t remember.

“Hope you boys’ll forgive me for the smell.” He laughed. “Got a rat infestation at the moment, and the bastards keep dying in the walls an’ underneath the floorboards. I try to keep the stench away as best I can ‘til I can dig ‘em out.”

“Right on, man.” I said, humouring his conversation. “Had a problem with rats myself about a month ago.”

Grundy led us to his kitchen, which seemed to be the biggest and most impressive room in the otherwise small house, with a large granite counter spanning its entire length, and a state of the art cooker sitting in the middle. On the counter was a hefty pile of raw meat.

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“Christ.” I remarked. “That all from your cattle?”

“Yessir.” Grundy exclaimed with pride. “All locally sourced to this very ranch. The butcher shops downtown love this stuff.”

“I’ll bet.” I said. “Now, Mr. Grundy, you mind if Detective Mariano and I ask you some questions? Shouldn’t take long.”

“Sure. Have a seat.” Grundy said, gesturing to the kitchen table.

He leaned against the counter, turning his attention to the pile of meat. He still hadn’t asked to see our badges.

“I’m listenin’, boys. Fire away.”

“Torkton station clocks your interview at about five minutes, correct?” I asked.

“Yeah, real quick in and out. Think they wrote me off because well… I don’t have a record and I mean, look at this place. I’m busy all the time, ain’t got kids to help me around the ranch.” Grundy replied.

“Of course, as far as criminal charges go, your record’s completely clean, Mr Grundy.” Jim said.

“Mhm.”

Grundy picked up a meat cleaver and began hacking at the steak. The instrument came down with a resounding thwack, separating a piece of the animal’s flesh from the rest of the flank.

“I suppose we’re here to ask about the hiking trip you took in April of 2003 with a party of five other people.” I said.

Grundy exhaled loudly as though he were sighing, however he didn’t turn around or stop what he was doing. The cleaver came down again. Louder this time.

“Oh, of course. I was a little surprised myself that they didn’t ask.”

“Well, let’s start with a general question.” I began. “What happened? What’s your story?”

“Huh… Got lost on the sixth day of the trip. We’d intended it to be a long trip anyhow, but we ended up having a hell of a time finding the foot of Mount Pilchuck and found ourselves lost in the woods with no idea which direction we were supposed to go. Becca disappeared on the first night that we got lost.”

He paused, falling into a reminiscent chasm for just a moment.

“And did you know Becca well?” Jim asked.

“Known her since high school. We were gonna get married this year.” There was a pain in his voice.

This isn’t our guy. Shit. This isn’t our guy.

“I’m sorry.” I said. “That must have been diff…”

I was cut off by the startling sound of the cleaver making contact with the cutting board, slicing cleanly through another piece of meat. Much louder than before.

“Yeah. I try not to think about it. It got… hazy after that, real hazy. There was this pain.”

It sounded like he was struggling through his sentences now.

“Pain?” I asked.

“Started in my head. Clouded my… vision.”

“How long did the ‘pain’ go on for?” Jim asked.

The electric current I had felt in Estelle’s living room sprung to life again. It was like a blade this time, grazing my spine with serrated teeth. I thought I had become accustomed to the stink of the dead rodents, but I knew what that smelled like. This was something different. Something that carried a far more bitter scent.

Hope you boys’ll forgive me for the smell.

“Two days. Spread to my hands and feet. Felt numb after that. And then… I guess I felt…good.” Grundy said, his voice assuming a strange grating quality.

He brought the cleaver down again, the abrasive thud accompanied by the wet sound of tearing meat. Grundy turned around to look at us. He seemed paler than he had before, his posture slightly crooked. The glint in his eyes was gone.

“What do you remember about the disappearance of Nick Lee, the night before you were rescued?” I enquired.

He paused, setting the cleaver down. Had I blacked out? His cheekbones now seemed sunken. His eyes were even darker. His fingers were freakishly long and thin. An eerie silence waltzed with the tension that had clouded the kitchen.

“It was just animals, at first.” His voice was a sickly rasp.

“What?”

“When I came back from the trip. It was just animals; coyotes, mountain lions, prairie dogs. None of my own cattle.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” My mouth was dry. The stinging scent of decomposition couldn’t be ignored.

“It was just animals until the feeling came back. There was something in those woods, boys. Something that called to me. Something that wouldn’t let me die. Something that told me….”

Grundy’s voice was no longer a rasp. It sounded like a ghostly moan, as though his voice were wrapped up in a violent gale. His eyes were cold black pits. His teeth were unnaturally long, forming yellow daggers in his mouth and forcing his face into a mocking grin.

Jim stood up, backing away.

“Told you what, Mr. Grundy?”

“Something that told me to eat.” Grundy finally said.

Despite his unnatural tone, his voice was somehow cold, matter of fact.

“I killed the people on that hiking trip. I knew all of them, and I killed them and ate their flesh.” Grundy said.

Oh my God. Oh my fucking God. Estelle was right. There was no logical resolution to what had seemed like a crazy hunch. We were two idiots, in over our heads.

“Why… Wh….” Jim could hardly speak.

“I tried eating animals and raw meat until that…. feeling came back.” He began circling the table. “That’s when I began breaking into houses. People I didn’t know, people I did know, some I liked, some I didn’t care for. I tore them all apart.”

I stood up and stumbled away next to Jim as Reuben Grundy stalked toward us, his sharp canines protruding.

“Why are you telling us this?”

“Because…” his icy tone slowly began to thaw. “… they can do what they like with me now. They can fry me, they can commit me as another criminally insane nut, because they think they can control me like every other guy that went out and killed young girls because mommy was too rough on them. It helps them sleep at night to know that those sick bastards are all just human beings that they can control, one way or another. But this rage inside me? This power?”

A thick rope of drool fell from his mouth and pooled on the floor.

“There are things darker than man in this world, boys. In the soil, in the mountains, in the trees, in some dark corner of a big city. It might make you feel better to believe that other people are the cruelest thing this life has to offer, but I’m afraid that just isn’t true.”

Grundy’s mouth was unnaturally wide, the bed of spikes inside no longer resembling anything remotely human. A small glimmer sat in the centre of his black eyes, like a tiny, brilliant star inside a black hole. Hunger.

Jim and I dived in opposite directions as Grundy lunged at both of us, an animalistic howl erupting from his throat. I heard a chair collide with the counter as I scrambled to my feet, coming face to face with the creature that had been-or still was- Reuben Grundy. Any disbelief I had could not be justified. This nightmarish picture was here in front of me, and it was very, very real. Just as his maw opened again and another monstrous groan emitted from within him, a gunshot rang out and Grundy doubled over in pain, screeching with the ferocity of a thousand banshees.

Jim stood behind him, his pistol drawn. Grundy twitched violently, the motion producing a sickening crunch, as though one of his bones had broken. Without a moment’s hesitation, Grundy jumped from the floor to the ceiling and took off down the hallway to what I had assumed to be the staircase to the basement, skittering like an insect. His harrowing howl echoed through the house like another angry gust of wind. Drawing my own weapon, Jim and I gave chase. The door to the basement hung wide open, and any vaguely pleasant smells in the house were now being eaten alive by the very clear aura of death. This wasn’t the smell of a rat problem, that was for sure.

For about ten seconds, the house resounded with clattering and screaming coming up from the basement, and as soon as it had begun, it suddenly ceased. Dead silence. I exchanged a terrified glance with Jim.

“I wish I was still drunk.” Jim grumbled shakily.

We cautiously crept down the stairs to the basement, the light dwindling more and more with each step. My hands were gripping the pistol so hard that my knuckles had turned white and an oasis of sweat had sprung from my palms.

Jim fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out a flashlight, turning it on and allowing the beam to illuminate the pitch blackness. The beam pierced the void that sat in the doorway, creating a tunnel of light that led our eyes to a sight that confirmed what I had feared the moment that smell had hit me.

The floor of the basement was piled with remains of all kinds; animal, human, arms, legs, insides. Some had clearly been dragged down here no more than a few days ago, and some were weeks-maybe even months- old, left on the ground to decay and denied a real burial. A shuffling sound from off to the left grabbed our attention, and Grundy stepped back into view, his metamorphosis having advanced even further. He stood well over seven feet tall, his rib cage protruding as though his skin were vacuum packed around it. His face was now ghoulishly inhuman, his eyes like hollow pits and his teeth like battle scarred tusks. Reuben Grundy perched like a gargoyle atop his morbid spoils; a king of the dead in his hall of treasures.

He spoke, a baritone growl sitting underneath his strangled voice; “Sorry. The… refrigerator down here is… broken.”

A sick smile spread across his face, and it was enough to tip Jim and I over the edge. We just started shooting, and we kept on shooting until both of our weapons had completely run out of bullets. When our eyes were no longer obscured by the obnoxious muzzle flashes, the flashlight fell on what was seemingly the lifeless corpse of the beast that Reuben Grundy had turned into. We were both shocked; having expected him to attempt to flee the basement or at least jump out of the way. The twisted monster now lay still among his quarries.

The entire Torkton police department arrived half an hour later, and the deeply panicked, white faced Detective Evans arrived another half hour after that. The whole clean-up operation took the best part of an entire week, but that first night was a harrowing ordeal, even for those who didn’t have to scrape up the remains or lay eyes on the creature that was responsible.

If it had been any other case, I would have relished the look of horror on Sheriff Alverson’s face when he knew quite how badly he had handled everything, and the realization that he would have to deal with “those fuckin’ Hoover boys” when a black SUV pulled up outside the crime scene. The expression on his face was one shared by everyone who had to wrap their heads around the fact that the near eight-foot tall monster that was dragged out of that basement had been, at one point, Reuben Grundy.

I was glad that the case had been closed, but I felt very little in the way of catharsis. Jim and I had come face to face with the unknown, and the unknown had filled our heads with something unforgettable. There are things darker than man out there; things we can’t control the way we can control the Dahmers and John Wayne Gacys of the world. We may have put an end to Reuben Grundy’s otherwise never-ending hunger, but whatever was inside him is still tearing its way through the forests and the mountains, searching for another viable host to infect with the burning rage it carries with it. I’m not so sure that we can always fight what we don’t understand.

Credit : Julian J. Alexander

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