Authors: Christopher Golden
Prowlers: Wild Things
by Christopher Golden
Copyright 2002 by Christopher Golden.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters, events, dialog, and situations in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the author.
Cover art copyright 2013 by Lynne Hansen
Cover by Lynne Hansen Design
For more information about this book, contact:
For Rick Hautala
Thanks, as always, to Connie and my boys, to Lori Perkins, Lisa Clancy, Micol Ostow, Tom Sniegoski and Peter Donaldson.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Alone in the dark.
Chet Douglas lay on a bedroll in the cab of his rig and stared up at the ceiling in the dark. Whenever he was on a long haul like this one — the trailer filled with electronics parts on their way from Alabama to Albany, New York — he split the drive up with two and three hour catnaps. It had taken some getting used to, but it got the load there faster, got the pay in the bank sooner.
He was young, after all. There would be time to sleep later.
In his mind, all those excuses seemed completely reasonable. But there was another reason Chet tried not to sleep too much on a long haul. Sometimes the rest areas along America's midnight highways were full of truckers trading beers and stories, and some of the diners had their share of lot lizards — the sad-eyed women who so often hooked up with men who were just passing through. And that was okay, that camaraderie and companionship.
But sometimes . . . sometimes the rest areas were empty, the lot abandoned, even the highway quiet. Chet prided himself on his safety record, held his head up high whenever the subject came up. He was not going to be a statistic, another one of those long-haul boys who fell asleep at the wheel and took out some grandmother or a couple from Iowa with three kids in the car. So when he was tired, he stopped. He rested. But he never liked those darkened spots, bereft of any life save for whatever rustled in the trees beyond the pavement.
Chet Douglas hated to be alone in the dark.
Of course he never would have admitted that his wife Sally or anyone else. It made him feel foolish. He was a grown man, after all. But whenever he was alone on the roadside, Chet made absolutely certain that the curtain was drawn tight to separate the rear of the cab from the front so that he could not see the night-blacked windows. At home, in his own bed, he slept soundly and peacefully enough. But now, there in the truck, he felt like a child again. If the curtains were open he might be able to peer out through the windshield at the gathering dark, at the trees that swayed with the wind, at the shadows.
And he knew, absolutely, that if he dared to look, he would see things moving there in the dark, shifting in the shadows, just as he always had as a little boy. Faces at the window, talons scratching the glass.
Ridiculous, but inescapably true.
Sometimes Chet didn't get any sleep at all on those long hauls. At least, not until dawn. But now dawn was hours off and he had to lie there and force himself to close his eyes, try to keep his mind from turning again to the dark. He hummed to himself, soft and low, one of the old Bonnie Raitt tunes he and Sally had sung to the kids every night until the boys announced they were too big for lullabies.
As though he had been drinking, he felt the world slipping away from him, a haze falling over his consciousness. Exhaustion finally catching up with him, and Chet gave himself over to it willingly. The sweet melody still in his head, he drifted toward oblivion, his chest rising and falling in a soothing rhythm, his breath slowing. Outside, the muffled sound of the wind.
The wind, soothing, gently rocking . . .
Chet opened his eyes, suddenly awake. For a moment he was confused, lost in that realm between sleep and consciousness. Something had roused him, had reached in from the night and touched him. A loud engine passing by on the highway?
Then it came again, distant and muffled as the wind, a shriek of terror and anguish, a desperate cry that made him freeze, eyes wide. His heart began to hammer in his chest and his breathing became ragged.
"Jesus," Chet whispered, there in the dark.
Get up. Get in the driver's seat, fire the big bitch up and haul ass out of here,
he commanded himself.
A third time the voice cried out, somewhere in the night beyond the metal cradle of the cab of his semi. This time it was closer and there were smaller sounds accompanying it, little squeals of fear that sounded more than a little like surrender.
A woman. Maybe a girl.
But where had she come from? As he lay there unmoving — as though somehow whatever peril lurked out there in the shadows might not notice him if he remained completely still — that was the one question that rose up in Chet's mind. If a truck had pulled in he would have heard the rumble of the engine, the hiss of hydraulic brakes. Even a car engine coming up that close would have woken him.
From the woods
, Chet thought.
She came from the woods.
It was ridiculous, of course. Chances were the woman had run out of gas along the highway somewhere and had started walking. But that did not explain her frightened screams.
Now there was only the wind and the low hum of a few cars passing down on the highway. Chet swallowed and found his throat was dry. A voice screamed within him, telling him to keep his head down, to stay out of it. You never knew what was going to be out there in the dark, in the woods.
Get out of here!
Suddenly he was in motion. He sat up, threw the curtain back, and climbed into his seat. Chet scrambled to get the keys out of his pocket, fumbling to force his hand in at that angle because his beer belly got in the way and the denim was frayed and faded and shrunken. The keys jangled as he pulled them out, listening hard for any sound outside the truck that should not have been there.
But he would not look out the window. He dared not peer out through the glass into the shifting shadows until he had turned the key, worked the clutch, and fired the engine up. It roared thunderously, bellowing like some great beast. Chet knew it ought to have comforted him, the power of the machine. And perhaps it would have if not for the noises he had heard just before the engine caught, the sound of footfalls on pavement and of a soft voice crying out for God or anyone to help.
The engine roared and at last Chet looked out the window to his left, where the sounds had come from. Out there in the darkened lot, by the trees. He saw her then, a dark-haired woman stumbling toward the truck, dark streaks on her face that might have been mascara or dirt or blood, one arm hanging limply at her side.
In that moment, Chet Douglas hated himself.
, he thought.
Here was this woman, maybe barely old enough for him to call her that, injured and in trouble. If she came from the woods, she had likely been camping and gotten lost. He had no idea how she came by her injuries, maybe an angry boyfriend or a pissed-off bear, or possibly just a bad step and a fall down some ravine.
No. Not that last one
. Not with the way she whimpered now, and the way her huge eyes gleamed with starlight and terror. She was running away from something, that much was obvious.
And you were gonna take off on her. Coward. What a child,
he scolded himself.
Afraid of the dark
. There would be more recriminations later, more guilt, of that he was sure. But that was for later.
Chet killed the engine and reached behind the seat to grab an aluminum baseball bat he kept back there for when things got a little too rowdy on the road. A lot of guys he knew carried guns, but that was dicey business when you traveled interstate nearly every day of your life.
The paint on the bat was faded and the metal scarred, not from parking lot scraps but from playing ball with his boys. The metal was cold against his skin and its weight felt good. He hefted the bat, popped the lock on the door and stepped down out of the truck. Chet sucked in a breath of cold October night air and lifted his chin, stood a bit straighter.
The girl — he could see now that she was no more than sixteen or seventeen — ran right at him, staggering the last few feet.
"Oh God, oh Jesus, thank you," she whispered, breath coming in ragged gasps.
Chet could practically smell the blood on her face and clothes. Her eyes were wild with terror, half-blind with it as her gaze darted around at the truck, the darkness, at Chet himself, trying to focus, maybe just to make sense of it all.
"What happened to you, honey?" he asked, voice a tired rasp.
She ran to him, threw her arms around him, and buried her face in his shirt. But the girl did not cry. Her shoulders heaved and her breath came hard and fast and she twitched there in his arms, but she did not cry. Chet held her away from him and stepped by her, brandishing the aluminum bat. He stared out across the darkened lot, into the nighttime shadows of the forest.
"Where is the son of a bitch?" Chet asked, feeling the adrenaline pumping through him now, feeling brave.
Brave, because he wasn't alone in the dark now. It wasn't his own safety that concerned him, but the girl's. And he could be brave for her, if not for himself.
The girl continued to breathe hard, to mutter under her breath, and he wondered if she was in shock or something.
"Come on out!" Chet shouted into the dark, sure now that it must be her husband or boyfriend. "I'll give you a taste of what you did to her!"
The terrified girl began to laugh softly, madly
. Poor thing really has snapped,
Chet thought. He squinted his eyes and thought he saw someone else moving in the trees, in the woods, and he was surprised that the guy had the guts to come out now and face him. Chet might have a few extra pounds on him, but he was a big man, and he had the bat.
"Come on," he muttered to the figure in the woods. "I'll give you a taste."
Then, as Chet watched, the man stepped out of the woods. No, that wasn't right. The man stumbled out. Even in the dark, with only a sliver moon and the stars above, Chet could see that he had been hurt, that his face was ravaged and his clothes hung in strips from his body.
"What the —" Chet began.
The man collapsed in a heap on the tar and did not move.
Beside him, the girl laughed again, a bit louder now, a sharp edge to it. Chet turned to look at her . . . and the girl began to change. As though it had consumed her from within, a monster tore its way out of her skin, a sleek, slavering thing with sable fur and glistening needle teeth. As if the darkness itself had claws, it reached for him.
Alone again, alone in the dark, Chet had time only to think that all along he had been right about the night and the shadows and the faces at the window.
Then it was upon him.
The bat clanged to the ground, leaving only the whispers of the wind and the low, contented growling of the darkness.
Red and gold neon lights gleamed off puddles left behind in the road by rain showers that had passed through Boston on and off all day long. But it was night, now, and the rain had passed. A chill wind swept in off the ocean and weaved its way through the streets, even far away from the harbor. Jack Dwyer could taste the tang of salt on the air, the influence of the sea reaching deep into the city to touch him where he walked side by side with Bill Cantwell on a narrow Chinatown street.
Jack shivered and zipped his scuffed and battered black leather coat. His burly companion had only a light cotton jacket, but did not seem to be bothered by the chilly night at all. Not that Jack was surprised. Bill was far more than he seemed. The big, bearded man was the bartender at Bridget's Irish Rose Pub, which twenty-year-old Jack and his older sister Courtney owned and managed. Bill was also Courtney's boyfriend.
But he wasn't human.
A delivery truck was parked halfway on the sidewalk up ahead, and they had to walk out into the street to go around it. Jack had no idea what was being delivered to a Chinese corner grocery store at ten o'clock on a Wednesday night, but he figured it was useless trying to figure it out. Though the entire neighborhood was only a few short blocks, walking through Chinatown was a journey through another world.