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(This is one of the first short stories I wrote, back when I first started pursuing this fiction thing. That was nearly two years ago. I like to think I’ve improved since then, but I think this is a nice effort. Or the whiskey thinks so, anyway.) 

Part 1

The air hanging around them could have served as a textbook example of the term “musty”. The density of it hung throughout the large warehouse, around every corner and over every pallet full of worthless goods. The humidity was stifling. It was a wonder that every surface wasn’t slick with condensation. You’d almost expect the hastily installed wooden furniture to start rotting under the occupants. Dust covered every surface, turning the floor a permanent, dead grey. It wasn’t the type of dust you’d find on top of a cupboard in the kitchen of a small woman, forever out of reach. It was the type of dust that accumulated mere seconds after you’d cleaned it off. It built up from the shuffling of long stationary objects and the endless tracking of outside contaminants by thick work boots. It turned to the kind of grime that would make the proudest, most tenacious janitor hang his head in resignation. The massive steel shelves organized in tight rows ignored more building and work safety codes than the building’s workers knew existed. They held more weight than they should and were of the kind of brand that shouldn’t have found in any commercial enterprise. Forklifts were the only machinery found here, and they sat by the massive steel doors, silent for the night. They were old, propane-using models. The new electric types required more of an infrastructure to account for the regular swapping of massive batteries. This wasn’t the kind of place for that infrastructure. The air was thick, so much so that breathing it made raised concerns for the respiratory health of future grandchildren.

The burning white of the overhead lights chased away the darkness that should have crowded the warehouse but did little to alleviate Rick’s desire to be absolutely anywhere else. He wasn’t the smartest of men, yet even he couldn’t help but stay a reasonable distance away from any shelving he found himself next to. He stayed completely silent, carefully monitoring his breathing, as if the slightest sound could cause the huge crates that towered above him to shift all on their own, tumble down and crush him. It’s what you were supposed to do on mountains after all. Or so he told himself. It wasn’t easy to relax while having to look dead ahead at the small gathering below the warehouse’s fake industrial light. A cheap, flimsy wooden table had been quickly set up along with chairs that strained every time you moved them. Seated around the table were the type of men who could make things happen with a simple snap of their fingers. The kinds of things you’d have nightmares about. He knew them all by name, yet only one of them was well known to him. Marco De Luca, relatively young for the position he found himself in. A handsome man in his thirties, he’d likely have been a movie star if it wasn’t for his heritage. He’d been born the son of a mafia lifer, and it had only made sense for him to follow in his old man’s footsteps. He was the leading man in an organization that specialized in the importation and distribution of drugs. Not the kind unmotivated college kids smoked in dorms. Not enough profit to be made on those. De Luca’s group focused on drugs that were made in basement laboratories and passed around by twenty-somethings at music festivals. The kind the media aired special investigative reports on every summer as if it would help the number of overdoses. It was a profitable market, where old-time business mentality, modern tactics, and vicious edge met. Rick didn’t know of the many fathers whose children needed a hospital stay after an all too intense run-in with suppliers protected by De Luca. Some of these fathers never even made it to the hospital.

Rick was here, in the musty warehouse, because he’d been born large and strong. He’d never had to bail hay or grease his hands in engines, but instead had to stand in a line of boys in spandex across from other boys in spandex. Lines that smashed into each other with only plastic shells and padding between their skulls. It was all he’d had to do for several years. It’s what had been planned for him until he was transported from field to hospital one too many times. It was right around the time the word “concussion” was being thrown around in the media, even with the pros. It was enough for his mother to prevent him from playing any further. He suddenly had to start going to his classes. All of them. He was no longer skipped over when pamphlets with logos from universities and lists of majors were handed out. He still wasn’t really told anything about any of them, but they were handed to him. They were handed to him days before they made him put on a gown so they could give him a rolled up piece of paper held by a ribbon. Lots of his friends and family were happy then, so he was happy too. The first few months after that were spent going to bars he was too young to enter and leaving department stores with cases of beer for his friends who hadn’t been born so large. He learned to love beer, down liquor and sleep with drunk girls. It was the kind of summer you found in movies, the kind that never seemed to end. But it did. Before long, his friends left Beauford, having actually read and chosen from the pamphlets that were handed to them. They promised to stay in touch, told him he should visit when he gets the chance. After they left, the only sign he’d get from any of them was the endless stream of pictures of shenanigans they’d get up to in those first few weeks of college. He would scroll through pictures every night after finishing a shift stacking boxes in this dusty, musty warehouse. He’d started working there after doing nothing but drinking beer and going to the gym for a few more months until his mother started pestering him to get off the couch. She wouldn’t stop hounding him until he found a job, but at least she helped him find one. She knew the man who oversaw hiring at the warehouse and got him in the door. All he needed to do was lift boxes, stack them, and scan them with a small device that beeped. He wasn’t too good with the device, and sometimes he needed help figuring out why it stopped working. After helping him with the device too many times, his coworkers just had him stacking the boxes. He was faster at it than the others since he was so much bigger. Nevermind that they had a pair of forklifts; for some reason, there were still boxes that needed stacking by hand.

He’d been working there for several years when his friend Ben came back to Beauford for a visit. They’d met at the bar, and Ben told him all about the girls he met and the adventures he’d had. Rick hadn’t said much, which was fine. He preferred to listen. When Ben found out that Rick was working at the warehouse, the conversation changed. That’s when he wanted Rick to meet people who were coming to town, business types. They’d helped Ben start working in business, and now he made more money than anyone Rick knew. That’s what led him to meet Marco De Luca. Soon after, he started letting Marco De Luca meet his business partners in the warehouse at night when everyone else had gone home. De Luca had convinced Rick to tell his manager he wanted to get more work done during the night since he didn’t sleep much anyway. The manager hadn’t been too sure; he hadn’t wanted to start a night shift because it would cost too much. When Rick said he’d work alone and that cash payment was fine, the manager had agreed quickly. That was about three months ago. Rick never saw Marco De Luca much outside of the warehouse, but the man was always referring to him as a friend, usually right as he handed over an envelope. The envelopes were always very full. “Good pay for good work. We’ll get you out of this warehouse someday.” De Luca would always say. Tonight, he wasn’t too sure if the envelope would feel as satisfying.

De Luca was sitting across from two men that Rick had never seen before. One was almost as large as Rick, his arms covered in tattoos. He wore a leather vest emblazoned with a skull framed by crow’s wings. It was scuffed and faded, much like the man who wore it. Like him, it seemed a relic of a time decades past. Long hair draped over his shoulders in twisted strands, obviously unwashed. Unkempt facial hair sprouted from his jaw. It had a blonde sheen that reflected the harsh light. A large scar ran from his brow, around his eye, and to the cheekbone. It was the kind of scar that made you wonder about the man’s luck. Whatever caused the scar should have plucked the eye out but somehow missed it entirely. He spoke with a voice marred by decades of tobacco and liquor and kept his arms crossed defiantly. He leaned back in his chair like he wasn’t aware it had four legs. Hostility radiated from him and the two men who stood off to his side, a barely respectful distance away from the table. The man seated next to him was much younger and in nearly every way his polar opposite. His hair was kept short, save for the very top, which was longer and swept back. His clothes were ripped and torn, especially from the waist down, but they were unmistakably new. There was a cell phone on the table, just in front of him, which his finger tapped constantly. His body occasionally shivered, a jitter running through a shoulder or down a leg. His voice was sharp and quick, sentences almost stumbling one over the other. He had no one with him. Another trio of men in the room, standing close to shelves and crates, were dressed much like De Luca, only with a tighter budget. It came across as more of a uniform than a conscious choice. De Luca raised a hand, and the two men across from him stopped speaking at the same time.

“Gentlemen, I understand your concerns. You’re not pleased with the arrival of a new competitor in your town. It’s understandable. You’re used to squabbling over the pie with each other. You don’t want to have to give up more than you’ve already needed to.” The man in leather clenched a fist against his vest. The younger man let out an exasperated breath. “However, I’d like you to understand something as well. I’m not here to claim any of your business. I don’t seek to take what you have. I want to contribute my resources to your efforts.” De Luca paused, a Hollywood smirk spreading over his features. “As long as I’m justly compensated, of course.”

“We’ve been doing just fine without you.” The older man said, jabbing a thumb towards the two men at his left. “Why would I let you take a cut of my money?”

“You’ve been doing well, that’s true. Though your success has been limited. I don’t dare accuse you of lacking ambition or drive, but I also won’t lie and agree you’ve achieved everything you can.”

“I’ve got the festival scene cornered, I got dealers at both universities in town running out of stock daily. What do I get out of giving you a cut?” This was the younger man, whose finger tapped on the cell phone less and less.

“That very thing you’re missing out on daily. Supply. I can understand that you mean to boast by outlining your dwindling supply, but a business should always have enough stock. You know what the sharks say: ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying.’ I’m not going to assume my distribution is better than what you’ve established here, but I can guarantee I have your current suppliers beat. Plus, I can augment whatever distribution you’ve already established, as well as helping with any friction you may run into along the way.”

“Is that what your boys are here for? To remind us we shouldn’t cause any friction?” The man in the leather vest said. The way his arms were crossed, the man’s dominant hand rested uncomfortably close to a weapon tucked under his armpit.

De Luca raised his palms. “Of course not. I wouldn’t dare try to intimidate you into doing business with me. They’re here because frankly, I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I could expect.” De Luca’s eyes flicked towards the men in vests standing across the table. “They’re here for my protection, nothing more. If you’d like, however, I can show you what I can offer if you accept my help in easing friction with your real competition.” The man in the leather vest nodded. The younger man with the cell phone shrugged. De Luca smiled and turned towards Rick. “Rick, my friend, could you please recover the crate in the back of my car? I’d send my associates, but I’m sure you could bring it back yourself while I’d need to send at least two of them.”

Rick smiled. De Luca was always appreciative of Rick’s strength. His manager never respected him, even though Rick was the strongest man in the warehouse. Rick gave a quick salute with two fingers, the kind you’d see in a movie, and he turned to leave the warehouse.

He made a quick stop at the break room before heading outside. He’d been thirsty ever since he started standing around, and he was sure no one would mind if it took him a few more minutes to get what De Luca needed. After all, looking through the room’s large window, he could see De Luca was too busy with the meeting to watch him closely. Rick really wanted to try the fancy juice one of the other workers always brought for lunch. He always brought a six-pack at the beginning of the week and bragged about how the “electrolytes” made him better at his job. Rick had asked to try the drink, but the man had refused passionately. Now that it was night, he knew no one would know he was the one who’d grabbed one of the drinks. He opened the fridge and reached in. They were kept in the back, hidden behind a container of greek yogurt. The container had been in the fridge for weeks now and gave off a repulsing smell. The man thought he was clever for hiding his drink there. Rick broke the plastic seal that held the fresh six-pack together and pulled the bottle out of the fridge. The liquid inside was almost completely clear, with just a slight blue tint. It didn’t look like just a cheap bottle of Gatorade; the label was black with big white letters. His hand settled around the twist cap, and he inhaled deliberately before twisting it off. He brought it to his lips quickly and took a long gulp. He exhaled and stood still for a moment. It just tasted like watered down juice. Disappointed, he closed the bottle and put it back in the fridge. He’d expected...more. Regular juice couldn’t make you better at work. Juice just gave you diabetes. He turned away from the fridge, ready to go to De Luca’s car.

The break room went dark; the kind of darkness where you couldn’t see your hand if you put it in front of your face. Had the bulb gone out? He looked out the large window that led to the main warehouse floor. It was dark there too. The warehouse barely had any windows, but a tiny amount of moonlight streaked in where the meeting was happening. All it showed him was the table being flipped over; he assumed De Luca and the men he was meeting all stood up in the dark. The window muffled their voices, so he couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, but they sounded angry. Rick needed to do what De Luca had told him, but he couldn’t see the door. He knew that if the window was in front of him, the door to leave the break room should be on his right. He started to turn until he saw something dart through the light. He wasn’t sure what it was, it had just looked like a black blob, but it was faster than any runner he’d ever seen. Nothing else moved, and the voices in the warehouse got quiet. Rick got closer to the glass, squinting as if his gaze could somehow pierce through the darkness. He first heard one man shout, then another. Then loud cracks that bounced off the walls.

Glass shattered, and he felt something slice into his hands as a reflex brought them up for him. Shards of glass sliced into his cheek and his forehead. He heard an impact behind him and the sound of something large falling to the ground. Rick realized he’d instinctively crouched down, expecting something to fly at him. It was like sacking a quarterback; you burst through the hole in the line before you realized your feet had started moving. He could hear more clearly now, and he knew the cracks he heard came from firearms. He didn’t dare get up, so he started to crawl. Wasn’t the door supposed to be to his right? He headed for that direction as best he could on hands and knees. He’d only gone a few feet when he felt something wet. It made him stop. He hoped it was the fancy electrolyte juice. He needed to make sure. He knew the fridge was close, maybe somewhere to his right? Didn’t it have a light that turned on when the door was opened? Rick crawled to his right, and he was glad he didn’t feel the wet spot anymore. He sped up and banged his head on something ahead. Thankfully it wasn’t a corner. Still, he had to shake his head a bit to push past the throbbing. He placed his hand in front of his face and felt wood. It was the cupboard where workers left their forks and knives. That meant the fridge was just a bit further to his left. His hand found the plastic of the fridge door. It didn’t curve slightly the way it usually did. There was a deep depression in the door, like the one in that car he kicked the night he got drunk with Ben. He reached for the handle and pulled. The light didn’t turn on. Of course it didn’t. The power was out. Rick grunted. Then something started buzzing in the room. It sounded like a cell phone. It couldn’t have been too far: the sound of it was deafening in the stifling silence. It wasn’t Rick’s; De Luca always needed to borrow it when they came to the warehouse. The buzzing of the phone’s vibration continued. Rick realized what had made the sound he’d heard after the glass shattered. He understood why he’d touched a slick puddle as he crawled. He stood and ran, aiming for where he thought the door should be. He hit his thigh on what must have been the coffee table, but it barely slowed him down as it got knocked out of his way. He scrambled to find the doorknob, twisted and pulled. He heard a cracking from behind him, like someone stepping on shattered glass. Rick quickly crossed the door and pulled it shut. From here, he knew all he had to do was turn right and run. The hallway led straight to the fire exit. He broke into a sprint. The door to the break room was smashed to splinters just as he crossed the fire exit.

The alarm didn’t blare like it should have. Rick shut the door. The car was still right where it had been parked an hour before. He could see the driver still seated behind the wheel. Rick ran for the car, jerking on the handle of the passenger door. It wouldn’t open. He banged on the glass, shouting at the driver to open the door. The man didn’t move. Rick rushed for the driver’s door, but it wouldn’t open either. Rick punched the glass to get the driver’s attention. He hit quickly at first. There was no rhythm to his strikes, only desperation. His fist slowed when he peered through the window. The driver still wasn’t moving. He wasn’t asleep or ignoring Rick the way many did. His eyes were open but rolled back, pupils barely visible under the eyelids. His chin was tilted upwards like he’d been hit with a vicious uppercut. That wasn’t what distracted Rick from his pressing need to get inside. Below the chin was a huge, gaping wound; most of the man’s throat was missing. Vertebrae were visible through the blood and sinew, slathered in red. It looked too much like a chicken leg after the first bite. Blood had drenched the man’s clothes and exploded on the windshield. Rick had never seen a dead body before. The blood drained from his face. A metallic clang from Rick’s right tore his gaze from the driver’s corpse. The fire exit. There was a large bump in it, the metal curving outwards. It was about the size of a head. Then another clang, louder this time, forcing the door to bend outwards. Rick hurried around the car, hiding behind the engine, as far from the door as he could. It clanged again, but this time it sounded like something snapped. The heavy door landed right next to him, bent and twisted, kicking up dust. Rick thought about peering around the corner but reconsidered. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, move. He could hear soft steps in the dirt. They didn’t sound heavy, or like they belonged to something that could throw a thick metal door this far. The steps stopped just around the corner where Rick was hidden. He couldn’t look up. He tried bending down, to try and maybe get a good glance under the car. Glass smashed, and he stopped moving. He heard a thump, then nothing. No footsteps, no glass crumpling underfoot. There was only a smell, like a strong chemical, the kind you really shouldn’t drink. Rick had to stifle a cough, like the smell itself was scratching at his throat. It came on strong, like the first puff of air from a powerful fan. Then, it started to clear, like it was being blown away. It took a full minute before Rick even thought about peeking around the car. It took another five before he started moving. He inched his way forward, scuffing his pants at the knee. He now only had to stretch his neck forward to get a good peek. The body of the driver stared up at him, blood trickling from what used to be his throat. Another close look at the injury nearly made Rick wretch. There were glass shards embedded in the wound. Rick had to divert his eyes upwards. The driver’s window had been smashed and the driver’s body pulled through. Rick slowly rose to his feet. There was nothing on top of the car. He looked to the building he’d narrowly escaped. The door smashed off, there was now only the opening, within which the darkness was somehow thicker and more menacing than the night that hung around him. He needed to leave.

Part 2

Rick had never touched a dead body before. Thankfully the keys were already in the ignition. He’d only needed to dislodge a leg that had stayed stuck through the window. He’d ripped strips of cloth from the driver’s pants, wrapping them around his hands. The damage wasn’t severe, but he’d seen enough blood for one night. He’d been driving for several minutes, hands shaking even when clamped tight on the steering wheel. His mind imagined police cars around every corner, though he wasn’t sure if he wanted to find one or not. He didn’t have a plan; he was never the man who came up with the plan. When he’d started the car, its GPS had activated automatically and started giving Rick directions. It made sense to follow them. This was De Luca’s car after all. He needed to tell people what had happened. Maybe they could come back with him and help Mr. De Luca. He probably should have been driving as fast as he could, like those other strong men in the big Hollywood movies, but he already found it hard enough to focus. He’d used a piece of the driver’s jacket to wipe the blood off the windshield, but it had left a pink smudge, a light film that covered everything. He had a hard time peering through. The voice coming from the GPS was rude and usually told him where to turn just as the street was passing him by. Rick had to turn around several times. Luckily, it wasn’t like the big city, where half the streets only went one way. That would have made the trip so much longer. It took him nearly half an hour before the GPS told him he’d finally arrived at his destination, though he could have realized it without the device telling him. He stopped the car at the bottom of a winding driveway, blocked off by wrought iron gates. Beyond, he could spot a house, so big his apartment could have fit in it at least a dozen times. It was all sharp angles and windows, something someone much smarter than him would have called “modern”. To him, it didn’t look too much like a house, more like a trendy grocery store or a museum. He heard a voice buzz to his left. He turned and saw a small speaker set in the stone column that held the gates. “I said, what do you want?” The electronic voice buzzed. What would he say? He didn’t know how to explain what happened. A couple bodies got thrown around? The power went out? He didn’t even know how it happened.

“I have Mr. De Luca’s guns.”

It took a moment before the voice responded.

“Wait at the gate.”

A few minutes had passed when tires squealed and a car stopped on the other side of the gate. It wasn’t the type of car De Luca would drive, but it looked similar, like what a salesman would show to a man much too proud of his middle management salary. Two men stepped out, one on each side, weapons in hand. They looked like the type of guns that men on TV argued about. They weren’t kept aimed at the car, or Rick, but waved around enthusiastically.

“Ok buddy, get the fuck out of the car.” Had he made a mistake? Did they not understand him? Why had the GPS led him here?

“But I have Mr. De Luca’s guns. We have to help him.”

“Get the fuck out.” The words were more deliberate, more insistent. Rick let out a breath. He let go of the steering wheel and slowly opened the car door. The guns ahead of him waved a few times. He stood next to the car.

“Go pat him down.”

“He’s a big dude.”

“Shut up Riley, just do it.”

The two men with guns got a bit closer. The one called Riley was cautious. He held his large weapon in one hand, then reached over from arm’s length. He went under Rick’s armpits, and Rick had to fight the urge to squirm. The man patted Rick’s hips, then down his legs stopping at the knee. He paused, then took a quick step back. He retreated behind his companion. The man Riley hid behind rolled his eyes and spoke.

“Alright big guy. First things first. Why the fuck are you covered in blood?”

Rick looked down. His work overalls were covered with dried, crusty blood. He’d never noticed it get on him. Was it from the break room? Maybe he got too close to the driver.

“It’s...weird and complicated. That’s why I brought the guns.”

“Ok, let’s get into that. You’re not armed, so what do you mean you’ve brought the guns?”

“I can show you!”

Rick started to turn around, headed for the trunk of the car.

“Hey!” The man cocked his weapon. “Don’t fucking move.” The man who wasn’t Riley got closer, jamming the barrel of his weapon into Rick’s back. “You move when I say you move. I won’t hesitate.” Rick slowly nodded his head. “Now. Where were you going so fast?”

“To the trunk. That’s where the guns are.”

“Riley!” Rick heard the man called Riley, his feet shuffling on the dirt path. The shuffling stopped right behind him. “Go check the trunk.”

“Uh...yeah.” More shuffling, then Riley was in view, headed towards the rear of the car. He placed his weapon on the ground, leaning against the car’s rear tire. He glanced around the trunk, looking for the handle. He crouched, out of view, then stood back up. “You uh...wanna pop the trunk?” Then, from behind Rick:

“Pop the trunk.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Figure it out.” The barrel of the gun jabbed him harder. Rick opened the car door. He didn’t have a car of his own, but he’d seen a friend or two pop the trunk on theirs. He knew there was a button or something near the steering wheel. He bent down low and started looking. He’d been in a few dirty cars before. This was something else. Instead of quarters and pennies, his fingers found small, smooth lumps. He didn’t need to look. He knew they were teeth, and the carpet fell rough for a reason he preferred not to think about. Eventually, he saw a small lever under the steering wheel. The drawing of a car on it had an open trunk. Rick glanced over his shoulder. The weapon wasn’t just pointed at him. It was almost right up his ear. He slowly reached for the lever and pulled gently. Too many things broke when he pulled too quick.

“That did it!”

Rick couldn’t tell if Riley was excited or nervous.

“Holy shit.”

“What?” This was the man with the gun at Rick’s head now.

“He’s got a goddamn armory.”

“Wait, really?”

“Dude there’s a fucking rocket launcher in here.” Riley said. Rick had turned slightly and was keeping his eyes on the man with the gun. The man’s pupils twitched back and forth, then focused on Rick.

“How did you get these?”

“I…”

Something at the man’s belt buzzed and popped. He brought a cell phone up to his ear. Looking down to Rick, he stepped back, far enough that he couldn’t be heard. Rick started standing, but Riley came up next to him, holding a weapon to his side. Rick kept his hands up. It didn’t take long for the other man to come back, stuffing the cell phone in his pocket.

“We’re taking him inside.”

“You’ll have to excuse Jack’s enthusiasm. He’s like that with everybody.” The man that wasn’t Riley, Jack, stood near the exit and grunted. Riley was nearby, arms crossed. The man who spoke was dressed in a pinstriped suit, shiny and blue. He looked older, like he had a few kids in high school. He was bald, with just a scruff of facial hair on his chin. He sat in a leather chair that seemed deliberately placed in the center of the opulent room. There was a massive piano in one corner that seemed brand new. Paintings of a variety of styles hung on each wall, artists and techniques clashing with each other. A massive television nearly covered one of the walls, its screen a foreboding, uniform black. Rick’s foot tapped nervously on rich hardwood. “That said, I would very much like to know why you’ve come here today, and why you’re so heavily armed.”

“It’s weird—”

“And complicated, yes, Jack has mentioned this. Still, I’d like you to try and explain it to me.” The man in the suit stood slowly and approached, stopping when he was just a few feet from Rick. “I may not be as enthusiastic as my employee, but please rest assured...“ The lazy smile on the man’s face dropped into a sneer mid-sentence. “I am not to be fucked with.” Rick’s grip tightened on the armrests of the wooden chair he’d been instructed to sit in. The man in the suit wasn’t much taller than him, even when Rick was sitting down. However, Rick had learned years ago that shorter men could be viciously dangerous in their own ways. To him, that meant nearly everyone.

“I’m not trying to fuck with you, sir.”  Rick mumbled. The man’s sneer lifted, and he was all smiles again.

“Good. That’s good to hear. So please, start from the beginning. And call me Mr. Siganti.” Rick’s hands drifted from the armrests to rest on his thighs. He began.

“Mr. De Luca had asked me to open the warehouse for him like he often does.” Rick recounted the night’s events as best he could. It proved difficult, considering he hadn’t seen much of anything. The man in the pinstripe suit paced back and forth, listening intently as Rick finished. “And the GPS in Mr. De Luca’s car led me right to you. I wasn’t sure where to go so I just followed it. I need to get people to help him.” Mr. Siganti halted his pacing. He was half turned like he was between giving an order and smacking Rick across the face. He was rubbing his chin as if the gesture would help conjure a solution, or at least a more solid grasp on just what the fuck had been going on.

“So if I understand correctly, you saw nothing but the power go out and a pair of bodies. You heard nothing save for doors being smashed in and gunshots. That’s when you fled, is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right, but only so I could get more people to go back.”

“I think you’re full of shit.” Mr. Siganti turned fully, staring deeply at Rick. “Actually I know you’re full of shit because your story makes no damn sense. While I know this, I can’t figure out what your angle is. Are you trying to rip De Luca off? Then why come see me? You haven’t made any attempt at selling me the weapons and you’ve cooperated with everything asked of you so far.” Mr. Siganti returned to his seat, slowly and deliberately. He stayed on the edge, refraining from reclining fully in the massive chair. He folded his hands together. “I’d like to know something. I’d also appreciate if you were completely honest, more so than you have been so far.”

“There isn’t time! I’m telling the truth!” Rick protested. A frown from Mr. Siganti as he motioned to the men behind him. They approached until they stood directly behind their boss’ chair. Their weapons were made deliberately visible.

“I do not like being interrupted.” There was an edge to the man’s voice. The atmosphere in the room grew denser and every word hung in the air. “You will tell me why you came here.” Mr. Siganti continued. Rick sighed loudly. Why did people always think there was more to his words than the words themselves?

“Mr. De Luca’s driver was dead, so I didn’t know where to go to get help. As soon as I turned the car on, the GPS told me to come here.”

“And you followed it without question? How could you possibly know the GPS would take you to someone who could help?” Siganti turned to Riley, whispering something. Riley nodded and stepped back, exiting through a heavy oak door. It thudded shut, the thick sound of it seeming to shake the room. Siganti looked up at his remaining man and jerked his chin forward. Jack stomped forward, placing the barrel of a shotgun on Rick’s shoulder. Rick had never had a gun pointed at him before tonight, and now it just kept happening. He felt sweat mingle with his eyebrows. “I will ask my question again, and I hope you will understand the importance of honesty. Why did you come here?” Rick didn’t want to answer. Siganti didn’t believe him when he did. What was the point? The man was obviously too stupid to accept what was placed directly in front of him. What was Rick to do? Maybe the man was looking for some other information? Something Rick had missed, something he hadn’t mentioned. “Jack.” The shotgun clacked loudly, a shell entering the breach. The barrel rose from Rick’s shoulder to his temple. It dug into his skin, and he felt how cold the metal was. Siganti shifted in his chair, and the rich wood creaked loudly. Jack tightened his grip on the shotgun.

“Mr. De Luca was meeting people!” Rick felt the barrel twitch against his temple. His shout had startled the gunman. Siganti, on the other hand, looked as calm as when the conversation had started.

“That might be the most interesting thing you’ve said so far. Jack, please point your weapon somewhere else. I’d like to hear more about this.” The barrel left Rick’s temple, and Jack grunted noticeably. Rick realized he’d been holding his breath and let it out. It had worked. He had to make it keep working.

“He was meeting with two men in the warehouse. They were talking about working with each other. Mr. De Luca said he’d help them with their real competition, I think.” Siganti shifted in his seat. His hands tightened against each other. The heavy oak door opened behind him. Riley had returned.

“Now that is a valuable statement.” Siganti spoke more quietly as Riley stepped up to his chair and leaned down, whispering something into the man’s ears. Siganti’s gaze flicked to Rick and he nodded. Riley straightened, and Siganti stood. “Well Rick, I believe you.”

“Wait, you do?”

“Of course. Riley just confirmed to me that the GPS in the vehicle you brought did indeed have this location programmed as its destination.” He stepped towards Rick, his gait much lighter, his whole body seeming to glide forwards. “Since I believe you, I will send some of my employees with you to check on De Luca and his associates.”

“Really? You’ll help me save him?”

“Gladly! Mr. De Luca wouldn’t be too happy if I just abandoned him in that warehouse, would he?”

“No…”

“I’m glad we understand each other. Guide my men to this warehouse, and please listen to what they tell you. Everything will go much more smoothly if you do.”

It was cramped, riding in the backseat. Rick’s massive frame pushed the two men at his sides towards the doors, despite their attempts at occupying the most space possible. They carried automatic weapons, the kind Rick had seen in movies about Vietnam and Iraq. Jack sat in the passenger seat, comfortable and relaxed. Riley drove, his grip tight on the steering wheel. Another vehicle, a large SUV, followed behind them. Rick had guided them back as best he could, though they’d missed one or two turns. Now a smartphone was held by a stand on the dashboard, the address of the warehouse dialed in. Rick had the address memorized of course, and the phone’s robotic voice was now guiding them. It was nearly drowned out by the music blasting from speakers right behind Rick’s head. Riley was constantly checking the phone’s screen between turns. They’d been driving for about half an hour: Rick had kept track of the time shown on the radio.

The warehouse was in view now. It was the largest building on a largely undeveloped street. Signs from multiple real estate companies were like weeds here, advertising the advantages of purchasing undervalued properties. As the dirt path leading to the warehouse came up on their right, Rick spoke up. “You should go around the back.”

“We’re going in through the front door.” Jack snapped back.

“The door’s locked, but the back door—” Jack wheeled around, as much as one could in the cramped sedan, and pulled out a revolver.

“Don’t fucking argue with me.” Rick didn’t speak up again. They pulled up to the warehouse, Riley parking the car about twenty feet from the door. A trio of motorcycles with raised handlebars were parked on their left, right next to a souped-up sedan. It was the kind of car you saw parked at the mall everyday, only with a custom body kit and expensive looking spoiler. To their right, a pair of black SUV’s were parked in a neat row. Jack made his weapon visible as he spoke. “Everybody out.” The men at Rick’s sides exited the car first, one of them pulling him along. He didn’t resist, letting himself be led out of the car and off to the side. The man was half a foot shorter and about a hundred pounds lighter than Rick, but he carried a mean-looking weapon. He had to look up at Rick to speak.

“You’re staying in front of me.” Rick just nodded. The SUV that had followed them parked and six more men disembarked. They congregated in a small circle with Jack at the center. One of them held the rocket launcher from De Luca’s car. The man next to him looked at the weapon quizzically.

“What? I’ve always wanted to blow something up.” They checked their weapons in sloppy, unpracticed motions. Once the chorus of clicks and clacks was over, Jack pointed to the warehouse.

“Mr. Siganti believes that De Luca, Riggs and that tweaker fuck Andrew Stevens were meeting in this warehouse earlier tonight. As you can see, their rides are still parked here. That means they’re still inside. De Luca thinks he can just come in and take Beauford. Let’s show him it’s already spoken for.” A series of dark laughs came from the men around Rick.

“Wait, we’re here to save Mr. De Luca!” Rick protested. A chuckle escaped Jack’s lips.

“You giant fucking moron. Bryan, stay outside with him, keep him from doing anything stupid. Riley, stay with the car.” Both men mumbled an affirmative. Riley sat in the car, shutting the door. Bryan moved to stand behind Rick. Jack turned and led his gaggle of armed men towards the building. They quickly found the building’s front door, a single metal door. They bunched up on either side of it. Jack shoved a man holding a shotgun forward, an unspoken command. The man grabbed the door handle hesitantly, and after a few seconds, pushed. The door didn’t budge. He pulled. It wouldn’t move. Jack pushed the man aside, then grabbed hold of the handle.

“You need to go through the back.” Rick wouldn’t raise his voice, and he wasn’t sure if Jack had heard him since he started pulling at the door. Bryan stepped in front of Rick.

“The fuck you say?”

“They need to go around the back. The front door is

always locked.”

“And the back door isn’t?”

“It’s not.”

“Jack!” Jack halted his efforts and turned towards Bryan, a mad frustration in his features. “Around back!” Jack looked ready to shout. Thinking better of it, he just gathered his men and led them around the building. Rick lost sight of them when they rounded the corner. Bryan turned back, keeping his weapon trained on the larger man. Rick crossed his arms, eyes on the warehouse as if he could drill through its walls and see what had happened. He thought of Mr. De Luca, wishing he could somehow warn him of the men coming to hurt him. That’s if whatever had smashed through the building’s back door hadn’t killed him first. Rick imagined Mr. De Luca hiding in a crate, waiting for Rick to come save him. Could he even help? He had to find a way. He had to try. A popular song, the kind that played every morning on the radio, started playing from Bryan’s pocket. He quickly looked down, then back up at Rick. Rick uncrossed his arms. “Don’t fucking move.” Bryan took his left hand off of his rifle’s handguard. The gun wobbled slightly, and he had to tuck the stock under his armpit tightly to keep it raised. It was awkward but allowed him to retrieve his phone from his pocket. He brought it up to his ear. “Yeah?” Some words came from the cell phone before Bryan spoke again. “What do you want me to do?” It sounded like a tiny mouse was hiding in Bryan’s phone. “Got it.” Bryan ended the call with his thumb, then brought the phone down to dial another number. His gaze was pointed down, and the weapon in his hand lowered by a few inches. He’d already dialed three digits when Rick sent one of his fists at the weapon, knocking it out of Bryan’s hand. He was barely able to look up when Rick’s other fist crashed into his face, throwing him off his feet. Dust swept up as he landed flat on his back, immobile. His jaw had a weird angle to it and his nose was almost flat. Rick spotted the rifle a few steps away and picked it up. It felt awkward in his hands, but not too heavy. He made his way towards the back of the building, and hoped he wouldn’t be too late.

Part 3

The driver’s body hadn’t moved since Rick had fled. He did his best to avert his eyes; he didn’t need another look at the corpse’s gruesome wound. Numerous footfalls had kicked up dust that stuck to the driver’s clothes and left footprints leading to the door. They weren’t organized, some meeting and stamping over each other. The entrance to the building was still dark, and Rick wished he had something to light his way. It was still dark outside, just a few hours past midnight, but the darkness in the warehouse seemed denser. He thought of Bryan’s phone, but he didn’t have time to go back for it. He had to try and help Mr. De Luca, or at least warn him. Jack could be closing in on him right now! Rick placed his left hand on the door frame, then found the wall as he stepped through the darkness. Each step was taken slowly, deliberately. Rick tested the ground ahead with his foot before advancing, as if the floor would give way. He followed the wall to his left to avoid getting turned around. He knew that this hallway led directly to the warehouse’s main floor, where Mr. De Luca had met with the man in the leather vest and the other one. He hoped finding Mr. De Luca wouldn’t be too difficult from there. His feet didn’t trip over or bump into anything, but then his hand couldn’t feel the wall anymore. He stopped, and waved his hand about, trying to find it again. He stepped forward hesitantly and heard something slide across the floor as he bumped into it. His breath quickened. His hand searched for the wall more frantically. He banged it on something hard and cool. Metal. He barely stopped himself from yelping in pain. Another step forward and he heard something crack under his foot. Rick stopped moving. He crouched down and started feeling around the floor. His hand pulsed with pain as his fingers traced the floor. He touched wood. He’d just stepped on a piece of wood. He was outside the break room; the door had been shattered when he’d fled. He was getting closer.

He thought about cutting through the break room. Earlier, he’d been able to get a good look at Mr. De Luca and the men he was meeting through the window. It might be smart to look through before entering the rest of the warehouse. Rick decided against it; he needed to move quickly, and he didn’t want to deal with the body in the break room again. Thinking about the viscous puddle from before made his stomach churn. He stood back up and took one big step forward, trying to avoid as much unseen debris as possible. He found stable footing, and his hand found the wall again. It stung, so he didn’t put too much pressure on it. He kept moving forward.

He bumped into something ahead, something taller than he was. He placed his left hand forward and felt cold metal. He guessed he’d just found the double doors that led into the warehouse’s main floor. The push bar was just below his waist, and he placed his hand on it. His other hand tightened around the rifle’s grip. His breathing quickened. He wanted to turn back, leave the warehouse, go home and wait for work in the morning. Would there even be work in the morning? What about the night meetings? There wouldn’t be any of those if Mr. De Luca was killed. There wouldn’t be any envelopes. He wouldn’t be useful anymore. He wouldn’t get out of the warehouse. Rick let out a breath and pushed the door open. The push bar activated loudly. The door didn’t clack on the wall as it usually did, nor did it swing open all the way. Something stopped it, something that didn’t make much noise, save for a faint squish. The gap was just large enough for Rick to slip through, though he had to put the rifle through first as he held the door open. As he stepped through, his boot settled in something wet. He didn’t have to think too hard to know what it was. It made him think about the thing that stopped the door. He could see light moving ahead, beams from flashlights flicking back and forth. Siganti’s men weren’t much further than him; he still had time! He finished slipping through the open door and held his rifle tightly with both hands. The door swung shut behind him, the sound of metal and metal too loud in the stillness of the warehouse. A beam of light jerked, pointing at him. It was too far to do more than outline him, but that was enough.

“Over there!”

Rick tried to dash to his right, but his frame didn’t grant him much speed. That, and he collided with a shelving unit. Head first It knocked him to the ground and left his head throbbing. He heard a dark laugh as the beams of light got closer. He tried to bring the rifle up, shoot at the laughter, but his head was spinning. A foot connected with his hand and the rifle flew from his grip. Light nearly blinded him as he tried to sit up.

“You dumb motherfucker! Didn’t we leave you outside?” He could make out the outlines of three men, none of them Jack. One of them held the rocket launcher. A foot hit Rick in the ribs. He grunted loudly and slumped to the ground. Another hit landed, this time right in the thigh. More blows rained down as the men hissed insults.

“Jack! Jaaaack!” It sounded like Riley, but it was muffled, like the sound came from far away. Rick heard a door swing open, then the same squishing sound as before. The thin man stepped through, phone in hand, using it like a flashlight. He’d only taken a few steps inside when three beams of light hit him at once, forcing him to recoil and cover his eyes.

“The fuck are you doing in here?” This was the same man as before, the one who delivered the first kick.

“Bryan got knocked out and the big guy’s fucking missing!” A pause. “Oh. Well, I guess you found him.”

“Yeah, we found him. We’re taking care of it.”

“Where’s Jack?” There was a nervous streak to Riley’s voice.

“Looking for De Luca, the fuck you think he is?”

“You need to get him. We need to get the fuck out of here right now.”

“Why would I do that?” There was an authority to the man’s voice, though Rick couldn’t tell if it was real or imagined.

“Didn’t you see the guy by the door? His throat was ripped out! There was another on the way here, his face looked like it was peeled off!” The other man didn’t answer right away.

“Someone got screwed out of a deal and didn’t like it, so what? Gives us less people to worry about.” There was an acrid smell, like one of those chemicals you’d find under a kitchen sink. The four men noticed it.

“The hell is that?” Riley was the first to speak up. Rick tried to say something, but it came out as a garbled mumble. One of the men with guns placed his foot on Rick’s shoulder, pushing him over.

“The fuck you say now?”

“Need...to leave.” Rick forced out. There was a scream, so loud it seemed to pierce Rick’s ears. Then something metal clattered on cement. The lights left him as the men above him turned on their heels. On the ground, just behind them, lay a rifle and a flashlight that rolled lazily.

“What the fuck?” Riley was shaking. Rick pushed himself up to a knee. The two other men stood back to back instinctively, their light piercing the darkness. They saw nothing but shelving and crates. They started turning in a slow circle, their lights flicking back and forth randomly. Long, ink black fingers grabbed one man’s head. He shouted in surprise and was pulled sharply by the head like a ragdoll through the dark. Riley screamed behind Rick. The rocket launcher thudded as it hit the ground. Rick pushed himself to his feet, trying to leap forward. He ended up performing a lazy tackle, taking the other man down with him. Rick shoved himself off the man and kept going forward, his legs weak and wobbly under him. He felt air woosh over his head. He scooped up the flashlight; no time for the rifle. He needed to find Mr. De Luca. He heard a gunshot behind him, then something cracking.

Rick needed to head for the center of the warehouse, where De Luca had set up his meeting. He’d been running left from the door, so only needed to cross one row of shelving. He could hear weapons belching lead. They echoed through the warehouse, making it difficult to tell where they were coming from. He wasn’t as fast as he usually was. His head felt foggy and his limbs took too long to do what he wanted. His forehead burned, like he’d been hit with a bat. He could see the row of shelving, only a few feet ahead of him. Someone wheeled out from around a corner. He held a gun. He shouted, though it wasn’t clear if it was a command or just surprise. Rick couldn’t stop fast enough and collided with the man. Only his large frame kept him from bouncing off. Rick barrelled through the man, sending him sprawling, but had to catch himself on a shelf to avoid a fall. It wobbled. Rick broke into a run. Rick had never been the fastest sprinter, but his gait was long enough to get a good distance away from the man before he stood. Something ripped through him. He felt it tear its way through the flesh right under his ribcage. It seemed like flames seared their way up his spine, sending him sprawling. It was the most painful thing he’d experienced. As he hit the ground, he felt something shift in his side, and more flames coursed through his system, making him twitch. Rick’s grip was still clamped tight on the flashlight. He’d fallen in a near fetal position. The light he held was pointing back, towards the man that shot him. He moved at a light jog, and even from afar, Rick could see malice in the way he sneered. His back pulsed.

He heard metal flex and bend. The malicious man stopped his jog maybe ten feet away from Rick. He’d heard the sound too. He looked to his left, raising his weapon. Something thin and black smashed through wood and metal, grabbing the man by the shirt. It pulled, disappearing from view, and the man was bent in half as his body was forced to squeeze through with a wet crunch. A rifle spat bullets. Rick started crawling. He heard wet ripping and tearing. He propped himself up on his forearm and used it to pull himself forward. Every pull, every movement, reminded him of the foreign thing that pushed and prodded at his insides when he moved. He was almost there. He knew it. Somewhere far behind him, he heard somebody shout and a crate shattered. He heard a single gunshot. Then only the sound of his arm shuffling forward, and the rest of him being pulled after it. Then a scream. He crawled faster, the pain flared harder. Now, up ahead, he finally saw it. Overturned furniture, the same cheap table Mr. De Luca’s friends had set up. The once beige wood was a dark crimson. Rick kept crawling. A pair of chairs came into view, both on their sides, barely visible behind the table. He was getting closer to it now. He could hear footsteps off to his right. He didn’t care. He had to warn Mr. De Luca. Rick pulled himself to the side of the table. He froze. He found Mr. De Luca looking right at him. His eyes were wide and didn’t blink. His mouth was slightly open, a couple gaps marring a once perfect dentition. Blood specks had splashed his neck, just above a gaping hole where his sternum would have been. The hole was about the width of an arm and had ripped through flesh, bone, and lung. Rick’s eyes started to water. He’d been too late. Someone had killed Mr. De Luca. Rick propped himself up a bit higher, trying to sit. That’s when he noticed the others. The man in the leather vest was right behind De Luca’s body, though he wasn’t much more than a torso and a pair of legs. Rick’s stomach lurched, threatening to escape up his throat. The floor was completely red as if a crew of painters had made it so. The beam of the light he held caught other bodies, some with similar holes as Mr. De Luca, others in pieces. It was like a butcher’s meat shop if the meat had been stripped from the hooks and thrown to the floor. Rick didn’t want to look. He slumped back down to the ground, and let himself cry. He hadn’t cried since he’d been forced to stop playing football. The footsteps were right behind him now. Rick didn’t care to turn around.

“Holy shit.” It was Riley’s voice. His phone’s beam shone directly ahead. He saw it all. He brought a hand up to his mouth. More footsteps. More light.

“The fuck is happening here?” This was Jack, and he had two men with him. One held that stupid rocket launcher. All were wide-eyed and their clothes splattered with blood. Their flashlights jumped around frantically. Jack spotted the bodies and the blood. Rick didn’t care if he could hear him cry. Jack stomped to him, grabbed him by the collar and forcefully flipped him over. His revolver waved inches from Rick’s face. “What the hell did you do? What the fuck did we just walk in on?”

“He’s dead. I just wanted to save him.” Rick blubbered.

“Nevermind him you stupid motherfucker! There’s something else in here with us! What the fuck is it?!” Jack was livid, fear giving a vicious venom to his words.

“Let’s just get out of here Jack! Fuck him, fuck everything else.” Riley was clutching his phone with both hands but kept the beam pointed directly ahead, as if unwilling to let it find new horrors. Jack looked up, keeping his grip on Rick’s collar. Rick’s tears kept flowing. The chemical smell wafted through the air. Loud yelps came from behind Jack. Riley turned and his light followed. Jack’s two last men were on the ground, immobile. Atop them was a corpse dressed in torn clothes, its hand clutching a cell phone. It was missing its head. There was something behind them. Riley’s light was shaking now. It rose. There, past the bodies, stood a black figure, about the size of a man, with a bulbous head. It was a uniform black that sought to meld with the shadows at the edges of the light. In a blur, it was a foot away from Riley. Rick could see it fully. Jack fired at it until his gun was empty. Half his shots went wide. Two hit what would be the shoulder on a man. One hit its head. The figure hissed as the last impact doubled it over, its head just out of view. Jack shouted in victory, and Riley fell backward, away from the thing. The thing turned back. A pair of dark eyes burned with predatory fury through a slit in the thing’s head. No, it wasn’t its head. A helmet. It reached up and ripped the helmet off. Its face was almost human, but it was the color of pale powder. An impossible gauntness tightened the skin of its cheeks to the bone. A mouth of fangs was half open, a low hiss emanating from it. Jack had no quip, no curse, no bravado left. The thing in black seemed to vanish and suddenly stood over Jack and Rick. Seeing it more clearly, it didn’t seem to be black but dressed in black, fully, from head to toe. It was shiny, like leather. A hand wrapped around Jack’s throat and lifted the man like he weighed nothing. Rick’s head started to swim, dots at the edge of his vision. Jack was wheezing, unable to breathe, clawing at the thing’s arm. He planted his feet in the thing’s chest and kicked. He might as well have been kicking a wall. It tightened its grip. The black fingers started to dig into Jack’s throat, light trickles of blood dripping to the cement below. Jack’s eyes were wide with panic. The thing’s other arm punched through his stomach, lightning fast. Jack choked out a strange hacking sound. Something slipped out of the hole in his stomach, and Rick felt something wet and warm slap against his leg.

“Hey!”

The thing turned towards the sound. Riley was crouched a few meters away, hefting the rocket launcher. It trembled slightly and beeped as Riley hit a button. A small explosion went off, and a rocket streaked towards the dark figure with a sharp whine.

It missed.

An explosion shook the warehouse, tipping shelves over and smashing crates. Riley’s mouth fell open, the color draining from his face. The rocket launcher, empty and useless, dropped from his grip. The figure paced towards him. Riley started to cry as he fell to his knees. The figure in black stood over him now. It paused, cocking its head as Riley sobbed. Its hand shot out, grasping Riley’s face, covering his mouth and nose. The man started to suffocate, and his hands slapped at the figure’s arm ineffectively. It raised Riley’s head sharply, exposing the man’s throat. It turned, fierce eyes staring at Rick. They pierced through his mind like searing coals. A simple look gave them an impossible weight. Rick’s eyes started to roll back into their sockets. The thing reared back, then sunk its teeth into Riley’s neck. The man’s muffled screams were stronger than any physical attempt he made at freeing himself. The thing pulled back, taking a chunk out of the man’s throat. Arteries and veins stretched to their limit before snapping, drenching the thing’s face with fresh blood.

Rick passed out.

****

Rick heard a rhythmic beeping, then the sound of something deflating. When he opened his eyes, it wasn’t darkness that greeted him. In fact, he was blinded for a few seconds and had to blink several times before his eyes adjusted to the light. He was staring directly into an overhead light, set in a bland white ceiling. His head dropped lazily to the right. A machine, from which he heard the beeping. It beeped about two or three times a second. There were others as well, though they didn’t make any sound and he had no idea what they were for. Next to them, a bag was suspended by a metal pole. A tube ran from it, down his arm and into his hand. A hand that was bound. He tried moving his other hand. It was also restrained, as were his feet. He was shackled to some kind of bed. Wasn’t he in a hospital? What kind of hospital kept its patient tied up? He tried to shout but his throat was dry, and it croaked unexpectedly. Still, someone answered. “I’m coming! I’m coming!” Rick saw a man in a lab coat hurriedly shuffling towards him. He stopped at the machines to his right. He checked them quickly, then placed his fingers around the IV bag. Satisfied, he turned his attention to Rick. A few seconds passed before Rick realized the man was waiting for him to speak.

“What’s going on?”

“Well, you’re recovering from a surgical procedure. Several bullet fragments that were lodged in your abdomen were removed. You were quite lucky, they almost hit the kidneys or the liver. There was some significant tissue damage, but I’m confident you’ll heal very well.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Dr. Durant. I’m not your surgeon, but I’m in charge of supervising your recovery here.” Rick’s eyes darted around, he noticed there were no other patients. He was about to ask another question but the doctor raised a hand. “You’re in a state penitentiary. While I tend not to judge a man I’m treating, you were the only man found alive at a rather grisly scene. I’m afraid the charges against you will be quite severe. Still, in the meantime, we’ll be treating your injury as best we can until you’re fit to stand trial.”

“I didn’t kill any of those people.”

“I’m sure you didn’t.” The doctor turned and headed for the exit.

“There was a monster! It murdered those people!” The door closed and the lights dimmed, leaving Rick was alone with the beeping machines. In the corner of the room, he thought he saw a figure, shiny and black, but it disappeared when he blinked.

****

Miles away, a dark mist seeped in underneath a closed door. It smelled of chemicals, the kind you weren’t supposed to drink. The mist flowed over the floor, to the center of a spacious room, set in a home that was larger than most. It was one of those houses you drove by in the country with a few acres of land surrounding it. One of those homes that were still close enough to the nearest town that getting a carton of milk wasn’t a hindrance, the way it was for a farmer. It was a home that spoke of wealth. Measured wealth, not the kind that afforded a yacht or a second home in a warmer climate, but enough that you could buy more than one car that turned heads at red lights. It was pitch black in the home, curtains drawn over the windows, not a single lamp on in any of its rooms. It was a complete, thorough clutter. Chairs were on their sides, dishes were smashed, kitchen knives were stuck in walls. A television screen was shattered, a shelf ripped from the wall. Drawers had been yanked from their dressers, shedding clothes, forks, and electronics across the floors. The mist moved through the home, around each obstacle hidden in the dark. Another door cut through the wall opposite the home’s entrance, and the mist slipped under it. Beyond it were simple wooden stairs leading down. At the top of the stairs, the black mist rose, until it was about the size of a man. It became denser, appearing almost like a shadow, before solidifying into a figure. It descended the stairs, shedding a jacket, boots, and gloves as it did.

The basement was cavernous in the way all unfinished basements were. The floor was cold, solid concrete. The ceiling was nothing more than rafters running across the floors of the rooms above, stuffed with insulation. The walls had no plaster, no decorations or paint. The windows were properly insulated and installed but had been covered in black garbage bags. A thick layer of duct tape sealed them perfectly. The basement was completely empty, save for a crooked mattress set in the center. There were no sheets or pillows. The figure approached the mattress then turned on its heels, turning its back to it. It let itself fall backward, but something kept it from falling abruptly. Instead, it lowered gently until it settled on the mattress, as if weightless. Dark eyes shut against a pallid face, and it would sleep undisturbed through another day.