Moss-Eater

 

DJ Foghorn on GIMLI XYZ

‘There’s some freaky stuff happening out there at the moment, right? It’s like God has dropped acid and the world is having a bad trip. But you know what? I think it’s a good thing. There’s too many of us fuckers. Let’s cut the wheat from the chaff. Less mouths to feed. I’m all for climate chaos. Bring it on! It’s like when school closes because of the bad weather. Everyone gets to have fun. Sledding. Snowball fights. No fucking school run. Let the kids play, that’s what I say! Ring up if you agree or disagree on the Spleen-line now.’

Chapter 16: Moss-Eater

Ava Rivet entered the shabby reception of the Gimli rural municipality police station, took a look at the ten things that needed attending too – from signage and security, to the state of the house plants – and filed them under ‘to do’, that is – when she had twenty seven hours in the day. That morning she’d already fed her horse, her husband and her kids (insisting sleepy, grumpy Aron ate something; preparing Juniper’s oatmeal just so), made their lunches and got them all dressed, before managing to eat some granola and prepare a flask of soup for herself. Leaving Aron with strict instructions about a delivery she was expecting (even though she knew he’d probably go back to bed and forget about it) she had dropped Juniper off at the Elementary, and negotiated the school run traffic and roadworks on fifth avenue, before finally pulling into the police station forecourt.

‘Morning, chief,’ called desk sergeant Wilming, a slab of a man who could have been carved from the same wood as the counter.

‘Anything?’ asked Rivet, inspecting the report he handed her.

‘Quiet night,’ Wilming yawned. ‘A couple of drunks in the tank, sleeping it off. A false alarm from our favourite loopy pensioner, Mrs Moon, who heard “strange noises in her yard”. Insisted we sent an officer over. Can play you the call if you like. Sounded like cats going at it. Said we send someone over in the morning if there was any damage.’

Dumping her bag in her office, Ava poured herself a cup of joe from the filter machine. Looked at the stack of admin in her intray. The photo of her husband and kids on vacation in Florida. Her pride and joy palomino, next to it. ‘Good old Mrs Moon. We can rely on her for some entertainment.’ She turned on her computer, and nonchalantly leafed through the papers on her desk while it booted up.

A knock on her door made her look up. Wilming stood there, like an Easter Island giant squeezed awkwardly into a human space. He held a printout.

‘Oh, there was one report came in this morning. Farmer over at Blackrocks. Savaged livestock.’ He handed her the details.

‘Right, I’ll swing by once I’ve cleared some of the drift here.’ She sat down and took another sip. ‘Cheers, Wil. Clare’ll be in in a mo. Go home, get some beauty sleep. You need it.’

Ava drove onto the Blackrocks farm – one of the most isolated small-holdings in the area, at the butt-end of a bumpy, windy track, which made her grateful for a light breakfast. Dominated by Black Rock, a bare knuckle of crag thrusting out of the pines, the farm – a main house, out-buildings, a barn, and several vehicles in states of dilapidation – was not a wealthy one. Old man Franklin, who lived there, was a loner type. Lord knows how he made a living out here, let alone kept sane. Some thought he didn’t really manage the latter. But Ava, when she bumped into him at the store, buying his supplies had figured as simply the quiet type, one of the old school backwoodsmen who seemed to be a dying breed these days. One of those who found contentment, alone in nature. She could relate to that, in the increasingly rare instances when she could get out on Ghost and head for the trails. The solitude she savoured then only made her love her family more. The huskies in their pen went crazy as she killed the engine and stepped out of the patrol car. They growled and snarled at her, yanking the chains taut as piano wire as she walked by them to the porch.

‘Don’t mind them. They’re spooked, is all.’

Ava turned to see Franklin there, in his coveralls and baseball cap, thick checkered shirt telling of the chill in the air. The old man had weathered many a winter and looked it – face cracked and ruddy as a redwood – but even he could feel it. The Icelandic volcano had brought winter early to Manitoba – the sky an iron grey pall, which only let through a thin gruel of light.

‘Morning, sir. Came by as soon as I could.

”Preciate it, Sheriff. Best to see it while it’s fresh. Recky we’re gonna get some dustin’ pretty soon. This way.’

The old farmer led Rivet around to the back fields, a sweep of pasture cleared from the mountainside by sheer hard work.

The whole flock of sheep were savaged, their mutilated corpses strewn across the threadbare grass.

‘Breaks my heart twainwise to see it. Reared some of these gals by hand mysel’. After this … I just don’t know.’

Ava knelt by one and used a stick to lift up the twisted limbs. ‘What you think did it? Wolverines?’

Franklin shrugged, spat in to the mud. ‘The bad weather might’ve driven down a pack of wolves. But this isn’t their style. The sheep are hardly touched. They weren’t killed for food. Just for the hell of it.’

‘Humans?’

He shook his head. ‘Look at the lacerations around the throat. Whatever did this had a serious rack of claws or fangs.’

Ava stood up, scratched the back of her neck. ‘Beats me. Such waste…’ They both stared at it, hoping it would start to make some sense.

The wind-turbine creaked in the icy breeze.

‘I’ll take some shots. Send them to the specialist. See what they make of them. Do you need help with the clear up?’

Franklin shook his head.

Ava didn’t like the look of resignation in his eyes. She started to take photos on her phone. ‘We’ll send someone over in a couple of days. See how you’re getting on. By then we may have some answers.’

‘There ain’t no sense to things, Sheriff. Shit just happens, and keeps on happenin’. That cussed Rock stares down at I, don’t give a damn. Put everything I’ve got into this place. When I first came here it was scrubland nobody wanted. When I bought it folks laughed. Thought I was pissing in the wind.’ The dead field filled his vision. ‘Maybe they were right.’ He turned to her. ‘Don’t tell your dreams to the mountain, sheriff.’

Ava brooded on Franklin’s words as she drove back down the track. It was hard living by the lakes, for sure. It took a certain kind of bloody-mindedness to survive, a mania, even, to thrive.  To get to where she was, a Métis in an area with strong First Nations and Icelandic communities, she’d had to make all kinds of sacrifices. But she was as stubborn as her beloved Ghost. Once she set her mind to something that was that. She’d chew at her bit until it was through.

Reaching the two-lane blacktop, she drummed her fingers on the wheel, and, on a hunch, decided to head over to Mrs Moon’s place.

The house was at the end of a thin chain of properties that backed onto the fields. At one time it would have been a very desirable house in a ‘picturesque location’, but the current resident, renowned for her eccentricity, had filled the yard with kitsch Christian iconography – inflatable Virgin Marys, neon Jesuses, garish crucifixes and Bible quotes blinking on and off like road signs, a full-sized fibre glass nativity scene, and a scale model of Noah’s Ark, balanced on a garden rockery Mount Ararat. Mrs Moon stood on the doorstep, awaiting Ava’s arrival. She wore a sou’wester, white cardigan, a prim blouse with a buttoned-up lace collar, waders, and oven gloves.

‘Good Morning, Mrs Moon.’

‘Sheriff Rivet. Just in time.’

‘Just in time, why?’

Mrs Moon looked up in the broiling sky. ‘The end is near. Plain as day. The Good Lord is sending his rag-mop to wipe clean the filthy world. About time too! Your feet.’  

After scraping her boots, Ava was shown through to the rear of the house. Newspaper lined the floor. ‘Have you had a flood recently?’

‘No, silly piggy! But it’s coming. I am ready for Him.’ A light filled her eyes.

Ava felt a bit awkward, standing in the passageway. ‘So, you report a disturbance in the night?’

‘Oh, yes. The Devil, he moves amongst us.’

‘What exactly did you hear?’

Mrs  Moon’s face contorted with loathing. ‘It was the voice of the Lord of Flies himself, whispering his poison in the night. At first I thought it was the local cats, going at it, and I had my night-bucket ready to throw over them. But when I opened the window the most foul odour assailed my senses. The stench of pure evil. Saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over, I cast my night-soil into the shadows. There was a hullabaloo and the thing took off faster than a cat on a griddle.’

Ava took out her notebook, while giving Mrs Moon a sceptical look. ‘And what time was this…?’

‘The witching hour, of course.’

‘Any sign of disturbance out there?’

‘Come and see for yourself.’

Ava was shown through to the yard. The Stations of the Cross that had been recreated there were smashed to smithereens.

‘Satan’s hoof-prints are all over this.’

Ava gave the damage an appraising look. ‘Someone’s had a party out here, for sure. Have you got any neighbours who you don’t get on with, Mrs Moon?’

‘All of them. Oh, they all hate me. Think me crazy. But I think they’re crazy. I’m prepared for the Deluge! They’re not! They wallow in sin and risk their souls to eternal damnation, taking drugs, fornicating, watching that poison and filth…’

‘Right. But, no problems lately?’

‘This isn’t their handiwork, Sheriff! The Devil is coming for them. Mark my words…’

‘Okay. I’ll see if we can spare someone to come over and help clear this up, Mrs Moon. We’ll look into it. Thank you.’

‘Beware, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse approach!’

‘I’ll bear that in mind. Take care, Mrs Moon.’

Ava left the Moon property and decided to work her way along the lane, checking in on the neighbours, just in case they had witnessed anything. Whatever it was had really gone to town. She walked around the side of the yard and came to the large hole in the fence. Something had smashed through it like it was balsa wood. The trail through the undergrowth was as plain as day. The tracks were unfamiliar to Ava. Not wolverine, wolf or bear. Almost humanoid, but with long thin feet and distinct claws. She took a couple of photos, laying her pencil by the side for scale. The prints were at least a foot long. And sunk deep in the mud. Whatever it was at least two hundred and fifty pounds. Maybe more. She radioed in her position to the station; then she followed the trail.

The destruction led through the yards of several properties. She met anxious home-owners clearing up the mess, patching up the fences, raking up broken detritus. In one garden there was spore, reeking to high heaven. She made a mental note to collect a sample on the way back, but didn’t fancy carrying it with her.

Finally, the houses thinned out and she reached a scrappy no-man’s land where a well-known user had his shack. It was a beaten-up old place that only someone off of their head on heroin would find amenable. Ava had known ‘Junkie Jon’, as he was known in town, since he had been a lad, when he had been part of the Runestone Cowboys entourage – one of Eddy’s pals. But whileas the Redcrow lad had kept on the right side of the law, more or less, except for a few high-jinks, the unfortunate Jon had slid down the slippery slope of drug abuse like it was a helter skelter. He had received help from the drop-in centre, but relapsed with pathological frequency. The cleaner he got, the more catastrophically he fell back. If he hadn’t been more harm to himself than anyone else, he wouldn’t have been tolerated for so long. But they only had so many resources, so much time, and there was always too much to do.

The trail ended at the shack. The place was in such a state it was hard to tell if the whirlwind had passed through here or not. The outside, patched up with bare MDF and old doors, was sprayed with anarchist symbols, pentagrams, dicks, needles, skulls, and a barely legible scrawl: The Road of Excess leads to … The Palace of Wisdom a Shit Heap

Ava called out. ‘Hey, Jon? You in there? It’s Sheriff Rivet. Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I’m just checking in. There’s been some local break-ins and damage.’

The loose corrugated roof rattled; a smashed window slammed back and forth, teased by a devil of wind.

‘Okay. I’m coming in.’

Ava unclipped her service pistol and slid it out. Holding it poised before her, she kicked open the door and swung inside.

It was the stench that hit her first. A combination of squalid living conditions, the iron tang of offal, and emptied bowels.

Covering her mouth and nose with her scarf, she ventured deep. At the far end, amid the junkie detritus, hanging upside down from a beam, ankle bone impaled on a rusty nail, was what remained of Jon. One leg had been gnawed down to a stump, from which jutted a thigh bone. Of his torso, only the vertebrae and ribs, raw red and tangled with gore, remained. As the corpse turned the other half of the face was revealed – ripped down to the skull.

Ava stepped back and tried not to gag.

What the Hell had done this?

Heart beating, she carefully checked the rest of the property, then called in.

Going back outside, Ava gulped down the icy air.

Round the back of the shack she saw the bloody trail led off into a dark wall of trees, restlessly shuffling themselves in the wind.

When Ava pulled into the station, she was concerned to see a number of pick-ups parked any which way in the carpark. She recognised a few – local farmers, forestry workers and property maintenance guys, ordinary folks, scraping by.

She was still shaken up by what she had seen. Corpses no longer bothered her – but this one was different. It hadn’t just been mutilated; it looked gnawed. There had been a couple of nasty bear attacks in her time, and she’d seen all the grim photos in the training – the stuff they didn’t show in that Grizzly Man film. But a half-eaten human being, for real … not something Ava had come across before – fortunately. A strong coffee would help. Normally one of Wilming’s donut would too, but the thought of anything at the moment was out of the question.

As soon as she walked in the door, she was assailed by anxious citizens, demanding her to act. ‘There’s something bad out there, Sheriff, what are you going to do about it? … We need to form a possé, hunt the critter out … Rivet! I have a livelihood to earn! … I’ve got kids who play out in the bush! It’s not safe! … What are you doing to protect us?’

A couple of officers were doing their best to pacify the anxious citizens.

She pushed her way to the counter, where Clare was firefighting. When she saw Ava, the receptionist rolled her eyes at the commotion.

‘When did this shit-storm break?’

Clare, a well-preserved middle-aged mother of two with Queen Crimson shellaced nails, wore large, cherry-red rimmed glasses and a vanilla gillet over a mustard-yellow sweater. ‘Mrs Moon called in to the radio station. Old Foghorn got hold of it and has been whipping up the panic.’

Ava hit the counter with her fist, ‘That fucker Fredricksson !’

GIMLI XYZ’s notorious shockjock was the bad odour of Ava’s day that didn’t go away. He loved nothing better than stirring up the shit. If there wasn’t a problem, he would make one. Parking. Recycling schemes. Taxes. Fishing restrictions. Incursions on liberty, in his eyes. The interfering state. Preventing good, honest Gimlungar just getting on with the business of living, or enjoying their hard-won leisure. Now he was turning a problem into a crisis. Freaking out half the town – turning them into scared, trigger-happy citizens. The last thing she needed.

Taking a deep breath, she banged her fist on the counter until the hubbub died down. She stood on the staircase, looking across the anxious faces. ‘Okay! Listen up everybody. I’ve been to check the damaged properties. It ain’t nice for the folks concerned, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s certainly ain’t whatever hogwash Foghorn has been coming out with. We’re looking at possibly a rogue grizzly…’

Sounds of alarm drowned her out until she waved for calm.

‘But we’re onto this okay! A professional hunter will be despatched. Return to your homes. Secure your properties. Be vigilant and report anything unusual, but there is no need to be alarmed. This stuff happens round here. We deal with it. We get on with life. So, quit your girly whining and scram! I’ve got a job to do!’

Reluctantly the crowd started to disperse, but in the car lot she saw some of the men converse. She knew the sort. Hunter types. They would load up with rifles and head into the bush. All she needed, a bunch of trigger-happy preppers, blasting away at anything that moved out there. But she couldn’t stop them. Didn’t have the manpower. All she could hope for is that they headed up the wrong creek. But she had to track the thing down and deal with it before it found another victim. Next time it might not go for the weakest of the pack.

Sitting down with a sigh in her office, her gaze flicked to the photos of her kids. The answer machine was flashing its light at her: 27 messages. On an impulse, she punched through to Clare. ‘Hold the calls for a moment.’ She speed-dialled home. Drummed the desk. ‘C’mon, c’mon…’ Finally, it was picked up. Fumbling. A yawn. ‘Hey, Aron. Thank goodness. Are you okay there?’

‘Whatsupp, Mom? Checking in on me?’

‘Yes, I am. Just wanted to make sure you were safe, that’s all.’

‘I was working on my assignment; your delivery hasn’t been yet…’

‘Sure, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Can you just do me a favour? Check all the doors and windows. Keep ’em locked. And your phone charged. Any noises out back, call me straight away, y’hear?’

‘Mom, what gives? You turned Winona on me? What’s with this paranoid shit?’

‘Hey, language! Do you hear me!’

A sigh. ‘Sure. Doors. Windows. Cell.’

‘Thanks. I’ll get us pizza tonight – your favourite. I love you. Bye.’

She breathed out. Then thought of her daughter. Maybe she could take her out of school early today? No. That would set a bad example. Cause panic. She had to remain calm. The strong one. And she had to deal with it. The buck stopped with her. She called her husband. Got an earful when he finally picked up. ‘I know. I know. But it’s important. Can you do me a big favour and pick up Juniper this afternoon? It’s all hitting the fan here. You may have heard. But nothing to worry about. Except … I know. The children. Aron’s fine. But get her home safe. I’ll get back when I can. Love you, hon.’

For the next couple of hours she sorted out the body. Returned to the scene with forensics and the clean-up squad. Fortunately, nobody had discovered the grisly remains except for a couple of wolverines. The area was sealed off. Somebody bagged the scat. Inevitably the gawkers came, but she had her deputies Emil and Wichiwa ensure nobody crossed the line. She sat in her patrol car, and finished off the essential paperwork. Her comms set crackled to life. She listened to the message with gritted teeth.

‘Roger. Over and out… Damn!’ she hit the dashboard.

Ava looked at herself in the rearview.

‘You can do this. You can do this.’

She got the rifle from the trunk, cartridges, a pair of bins, and a flask of soup.

Her deputies looked at her with incredulity. ‘Sheriff…?’ said Wichiwa.

‘State can’t send a hunter until tomorrow. I’m going to take a look while the trail is still fresh. I’ll call in every hour. If I miss one, then send for back up. Don’t let anyone follow me. Hold the fort.’

And she walked behind the shack, following the tracks into the trees.

It started to snow.

The trail was easy enough to follow through the pines even as the tracks began to disappear beneath the fresh fall – branches were snapped back, snow displaced, but more than anything there was the reek, lingering in the frozen air. It had a sickly sweet putrefying quality to it – the noisome burn of a compost heap, writhing in maggots – mixed disconcertingly with a heady musk, a powerful male tang like you got from a buck moose. The long, raking marks either side of the footprints worried Ava the most – were they its hands? Sometimes she came across them slashing the trunk of a tree grabbed in passing – brushwood shredded off like so many bristles to a razor.

The snow was falling in thick flakes now, flurries swirling before her, making it harder to see. She constantly scanned the ranks of trees, which climbed higher into the rough hills of the wild country – a vast wilderness that spread for hundreds of miles into the interior. Looking at her watch, Ava reckoned she had six hours of daylight, tops. No more than three hours in, then she’d have to turn back.

She stopped to do her coat up properly, glad of its fur-lined hood, and her Columbia Thermarator gloves – a present from her husband.

Perhaps the creature was nocturnal and had retreated to its lair. If she didn’t catch it now, by nightfall it would be on the prowl again. What it was, and what had driven it to the edge of Gimli, she couldn’t figure.

But somewhere up there, in one of the caves that riddled the hillside, it was sleeping off its feast. It had forsaken Franklin’s flock for Junkie Jon. Clearly had a taste for human flesh. She shuddered.

Bracing herself for the slog, she was about to set off when a twig snap made her level her rifle at the undergrowth.

Something was making its way through the trees to her, something large and dark.

Trying to steady the barrel, she held her ground. Waited. If the thing was flesh and blood then it could be killed.

But if it wasn’t…?

She didn’t get to find out, for emerging from the trees, holding up his hands, was elderly First Nations man, dressed in a thick lumberjack shirt, trapper hat, jeans, and carrying a light pack, rifle slung over his shoulder.

‘Hi, Sheriff.’

With a sigh of relief she recognised him. ‘Is that you, Running Bear?’

The old man shrugged. ‘Last time I looked.’

‘What you doing up here?’

‘Fancied a stroll. Nice weather for it.’

She laughed at this, and, taking off her glove, shook his hand.

‘Figured if I made enough noise, you wouldn’t shoot me. Looks like you’re ready to kill something with that thing.’

Ava lifted the barrel up skywards. ‘There’s something mean out here. It’s killed someone in town. You’re not safe.’

The old man looked at her with an amused twinkle in his eye. ‘I’ve been hunting in these hills since you were still in diapers, Ava Rivet. I’m on the same trail as you. Figured something needed to be done.’

She went to protest, but the old man looked more than competent. She’d heard of his prowess out in the bush. He was a bit of a local legend. A bit of back-up could come in handy. Finally, she nodded. ‘Okay then. What are we tracking here exactly?’

Running Bear looked up into the hills. ‘Something bad.’ And he set off.

Ava went to protest, but simply had to follow before she lost him in the white noise of the blizzard.

Running Bear set a relentless pace. Ava developed a stitch, keeping up with him. After a solid hour of climbing they reach a line of crags jutting out to form ledges beneath which could be found shelter. They rested up a while in one, first checking the shadows carefully. The tracks had been obliterated but the stench had got stronger. ‘We’re not far now, but must save our strength,’ said the old man, squatting down and getting out his pipe. He stuffed it with a thumb of tobacco and, striking a long, wax-covered, match on the rock, passed the flame over it. He held it up. ‘To all my relations,’ he uttered, before taking it into his mouth. ‘Ah.’ He breathed out the pungent smoke. 

Ava gratefully sat down on a rock and pulled out her flask. She offered some to her guide – for now he surely was the expert – but he shook his head.

‘Smoke soup is the best.’

Pouring herself a cup, she cradled its welcome warmth. She scanned the white forest, not looking forward to the trek back.

‘You said it was something bad. What do you mean?’

The old man looked mournfully out at the blizzard. ‘There is a crack in the world. And it’s letting through bad things through. This … false winter. It’s all part of it. My bones know it.’

Ava took a sip. Frowned. ‘But what exactly are we up against here? Some intel here would really help.’

‘Nothing the rational mind could grasp…’

She waited, shifted uncomfortably in her thick coat, suddenly feeling hot.

He gave her a piercing look. ‘Do you believe in legends, Sheriff?’

‘Now is not the time for fairy tales, sir.’

‘That’s our problem. We shut the imagination out, and with it the world of the spirits, the ancestors. Cut off from our roots, is it no wonder the tree topples?’

Ava finished her soup and put the cup back on the flask. ‘You’re talking in riddles now. Give it to me straight, sir. We don’t have a lot of time.’

Wendigo,’ he hissed, the sound carrying into the back of the cave and echoing back in diminishing whispers.

‘You have the blood in you, Sheriff. You should know. Many of our people, up and down this land, have legends of it. I have heard many tales. But I have not come across one until this day.’

‘Wendigo? Come on, I thought that was just a boogerman to scare kids.’

‘Wind-walker, moss-eater, it appears when there is evil in men’s hearts, to draw them away. Madden them, with the call of the wild. Murder. Greed. The destruction of nature. It feeds on these. We have brought this doom upon ourselves. It is our judgement.’

‘So … you think it’s a good thing?’ She looked shocked, incredulous.

‘I have family. I want to protect them, just like you with your’s, sheriff.’ He got up. ‘Are you coming? If we don’t stop it now, it will kill again tonight. And it may be one of your kin it gets.’ Shouldering his pack and picking up his rifle, the old man headed out into the snow.

The reek led them down a steep-sided gulley, gouged out by a tumbling waterfall at the far end, which sent white-maned rapids thundering over the jumble of rocks. The going was slippery and they had to take it very carefully, to avoid not falling into the icy flow. Ava noted how their prey was very light on foot, despite its size. ‘Looks like it skipped over these like a fricking mountain goat,’ she observed, as she negotiated the next boulder.

The old man signalled for her to be silent.

Beyond the waterfall a dark opening could be discerned. Either side, Running Bear pointed out a narrow, slippery ledge leading to it. He pointed to one for himself, and Ava for the other.

Then he set off, descending to a shelf over which the water fan-tailed out. Scrambling over the drier rocks, he made his way to the other side of the waterfall.

Cursing silently to herself, Ava pulled her rifle off her shoulder and approached her side.

She thought of her kids, her husband, her horse, and hoped she would see them again. The waterfall thundered on her right, soaking her with spray. She made her way between its curtain and the rock to where the cave mouth gaped.

Running Bear was crouched there, rifle aimed into the dark.

The stench here was almost unbearable. Only the waterfalls constant cloud of vapour stopped her from gagging.

The darkness seemed to have a presence to it, as though she could reach out and touch it. She had to use all of her will to push through the invisible barrier that seemed to be before her. All her senses were screaming run. But she had to ignore them; she had to go the other way, further in, into the dark.

They could hear it now, its heavy breathing a rusty saw through bone.

Suddenly the sound stopped.

Even above the thunder of the waterfall Ava could hear the pounding of her heart.

Then, a low growling – like a volcano, building in power until the sound became movement, shaking the very walls of the cave.

The thing leapt towards them and all Ava saw was a flash of long, pale limbs; long white fingers with too many joints as though it had spiders for hands – nails like icicles, still red with the gore of its victim. It was all ribs and maw, a child’s nightmare sketch of hunger. Eyes like whirlpools peering out from a wrinkled, flaccid face – its skin like an ill-fitting suit, except for a grotesquely swollen belly.

They fired in unison, blasting away shot after shot into the dark – the flashes lighting up the monster as it twisted and convulsed, spurting hot pink blood.

Then finally, it stopped moving.

Just the sound of her heavy breathing in the dark. Even the waterfall was drowned out, as the blood roared around her body.

She was still alive.

‘Running Bear, are you…?’ she called into the dark.

There was the scratch of a match on rock, and a single, yellow bulb of flame lit up his stoic features. He passed the match over his pipe.

‘Still kicking.’

He took a long draw of the smoke.

‘A thing like that … never thought I’d see in all my days.’ He shook his head, lost in the wonder of it. ‘These are lean times, and then some.’ Finally, he noticed Ava standing there, trembling. ‘Sit. Catch your breath. You done well, Sheriff. You done well. Your kin are safe. Gimli is safe. For now.’

He looked at the limp form. ‘Who knows what the dark will throw at us next?’

***

Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

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