The man with the greasy hair grinned. “I guess today’s your lucky day.”
I tested the zip ties around my wrists. “Really? You said you were going to kill me.”
He chuckled. “Never said it was good luck.”
Slipping a rough hand between my arm and bruised ribs, he hauled me to my feet.
The burning pain in my side forced me to gasp. I had been trying to be stoic. Thought maybe if he didn’t know how much pain I was in, he wouldn’t be tempted to poke the bruises. I might have been wrong about that, though.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to have some fun first. But not here. Too close to the trail.” He picked up the shoe that had come off my foot when he dragged me into the bushes and tossed it near me. “Put it back on. No clues left behind.”
“How am I supposed to do that with no hands?”
He glowered for a moment. “If you try anything funny, I’ll break your leg.”
I believed him. He was at least double my weight and maybe as much as a foot taller. I scanned the environs for any offshoots or paths while he tied the laces.
The man stood up and grinned. His teeth looked like he ate rocks.
“No one’s ever going to find you.” He chuckled again. “Or me. The Law’s too stuck on technology.” He gestured to the trees. “All you have to do is go off the grid and you may as well not even exist. I can do anything I want, and they can’t do jack about it.”
“I’m guessing you know something about those other three hikers that have gone missing over the last two months, then.”
He snorted. “That’s only the ones you know about.”
This well-maintained trail was popular among hikers, runners, and cyclists, but the surrounding forest thickened to a gloomy wood on either side. Dense shrubs and fallen trees made it almost unnavigable, but the man picked his way through the underbrush as if he knew where he was going.
He probably lives out here in some Unabomber shack.
“I got a promotion at work. More money, and closer to my house. Really lucky to get it.”
The man grunted. “Why you tellin’ me that?”
“Because I was supposed to meet my mom for dinner tonight. I was going to tell her about it, but… well, I felt like I needed to tell someone.”
He grunted again.
“I don’t suppose you know anything about rare coins, do you?”
“What?” He pushed a branch out of the way for us to pass.
“Yeah. It was the weirdest thing. I was really low on cash a couple of weeks ago, so I scraped together all my loose change and went to the grocery store to put it in the coin sorter thing—you know what I’m talking about? The machine that takes your change and gives you a voucher or gift card you can spend at the store?”
“Anyway, there were a couple of coins that got rejected. One of ’em, I’m not sure where it came from. Don’t remember seeing it before. Kinda goldish or coppery circle in the middle, and a silver circle on the outside. Writing on it wasn’t English. Thought I’d find somebody to look at it and tell me if it was worth anything.”
He snorted. “Probably a Mexican peso. Looks like your luck has taken a nosedive.”
“Would you shut up? I don’t care about your life.”
“Don’t you? You’re trying to steal it.”
He stopped and spun me around to face him. “Enough!”
He raised his fist, but only glared at me. I stumbled as he shoved me forward into the thicket. My head throbbed. Not sure how long I’d been out after he hit me over the head from behind, but it was a while. Hadn’t expected that, but probably should have.
It wasn’t easy to tell how much of the gloom was shade from the trees and how much was from the vanishing sun.
A thorny vine stretched its rigid stems like a razor wire spider’s web from a nearby tree. I managed to scratch up my leg as we pushed on through the thicket, and blood trickled down my calf. Enough for a marker? I brushed my leg against as many plants as I could to brush away the clots and keep it flowing.
I wiped my jaw across my shoulder to dislodge some dried mud. “So, you live around here?”
He growled like a grumpy dog.
A stick snapped somewhere to my left. Something large was moving through the underbrush.
The man heard it, too, and frowned at the dusky woods. He muttered to himself, and I thought I caught the words, “feral hogs,” but I couldn’t be sure.
“One of them survived, you know. She dug her way out of that shallow grave you left her in and crawled to the highway. That’s how I knew you were out here. I’m lucky you finally took the bait.”
He squinted at me, working his jaw back and forth, testing words in his head and biting them back. “Lucky?” he spat. “I’ll make sure your luck runs out. Double-damn sure. Then I’m on the wind, and nobody will ever find me. I’ll hunt again wherever I please.”
He took a moment to smirk before he shoved me again, and we resumed shuffling through the woods.
And there it was, maybe fifty yards ahead. As predicted, the Unabomber shack.
“Looks like a fixer-upper.”
“Shut it,” he snapped.
A deer stepped onto the rough path between us and the shack. It was over-sized for a native whitetail and shadows wrapped around it, even in the clearing, scoffing at the dwindling light.
The man waved his arms. “Get out of here! Go on! Git!”
The deer lowered its head and shook its antlers.
“Frickin’ ruttin’ bucks.” He cast about for a weapon. Not much but vines and forest litter presented itself.
The deer took a few steps toward us. It was just wrong. The creature was bone-thin and its limbs didn’t fit its body. Didn’t look strong enough to hold up its heavy rack of antlers. The poor thing’s face was so skeletal it appeared not to have any flesh on it at all and its eyes were sunken deep into their sockets.
The man shook his head. “Don’t worry, dude. I’ll put you out of your misery soon enough.”
“Bet he just needs food. He looks really hungry.”
“Naw. He’s had all summer to fatten up. That there’s chronic wasting disease. Zombie deer sickness.”
Wonder if anyone’s thought of that for Halloween—Zombie deer.
He waved his arms again and ran a few steps toward the deer. “Get out of the way!”
It continued toward us.
The man looked around again. He broke off a small limb from a yaupon bush. Couldn’t have been any thicker than my pinkie finger, but it was long and bushy.
He shoved me and I toppled over. I wriggled around until I could see what was happening.
The man charged, waving the branch. The deer rose onto its hind legs, towering at eight or nine feet tall over the man.
And it kept walking.
The man took a few steps back.
Instead of dainty cloven front hooves, the deer had gnarled, clawed hands. Thick, iron-like talons sprang from its knotty fingers.
And still it came.
The man let out a strangled scream and tried to flee, but he tripped over his own hubris and sprawled in the fallen leaves.
I shook my head. And he thought he was such a predator.
Fading sunlight glistened off strings of slime as the monstrous deer opened its jaws. Its eyes glowed a deep red.
Unable to get up, I watched in morbid fascination as the thing’s nightmarish spikey teeth were fully exposed.
It bent over the fallen man. He screamed and struggled, then went limp. When the beast raised its head again a few minutes later, the lower third of its face was smeared in gore.
It rose and approached me.
The creature stank of rot and decomposition as it leaned over, running a rough hand down my arm. Its wicked talon sliced through the zip tie like hot butter.
“Thank you. I wasn’t sure that vine had drawn enough blood to open the portal for you to come.”
I put my hand over the strange coin in my pocket, to make sure it was still there before I stood up. I had started seeing the monster standing under a tree across the street from my window that night after I returned from the store with my paltry coin-bought groceries.
It had called to me in my dreams.
It knew what I wanted, and it told me what it wanted, so we struck a bargain. One blood sacrifice for one wish. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone—give some monsters to the monster and get something for me in exchange.
As long as I had the coin, it couldn’t hurt me, so why not?
It continued to loom over me.
I got to my feet and dusted pine needles off my butt. “That was a little harder than I expected. I’d been coming out here so much without him showing up that I’d started to think he’d moved on. Hadn’t counted on him bashing me over the head, though. Good to be lucky, I guess. But you got your meal. Now, it’s time for my wish.”
Its voice was like boulders grating against each other. “This will be the second. You have one left, Detective.”