Alan Wright and his two sons were lounging beside their rusting Chevy pickup as Chief Dan Reynolds pulled into the "top of the world." It was a little after 5:00 Friday night. The lookout was a half acre of packed dirt and gravel serving as a turnaround for the fire road that dead-ended there. Thick third growth alder and live oak edged three sides. Several hundred feet below the western edge lay the town of Placerville and beyond that the Pacific stretched to the horizon.
At night it made for a dramatic and romantic view and generations of local teens had adopted it as their lover's lane, naming it the "top of the world." However, it was too early for lovers now and only discarded beer bottles, condoms, and burnt-out campfires pointed to its more popular function.
Now Dan stopped his patrol car beside the rusted pickup. Each of the Wrights was wearing the same dirty jeans and work shirt they'd worn the day before when he'd taken them to the sight of Mrs. Collins' killing. Tommy was smoking a thin cigar.
Dan smiled and stepped from his car.
"Evening, Chief." Alan Sr. touched the bill of his stained cap. "Ready to shoot this bastard?"
Dan smiled and shook Alan's hand. Actually, I was thinking more of being an observer."
"No way, man." Tommy blew a noxious cloud of smoke into the air and flicked the cigar butt away. "We don’t do sight seeing. If you're out here, you're gonna help kill this mother."
Dan stared pointedly at the remains of the cigar, smoldering on the packed dirt. Discarding burning material in the woods was a felony in Oregon. Tommy seemed to be challenging him to do something about it.
Alan Sr. crushed the cigar under the heel of his boot. "Even dumbshits are right sometimes." He glared at his son, then opened the door to the truck and pulled a rifle off the rack in the cab's rear window. "I brought this beauty along for you."
He handed it to Dan.
The rifle was short and light with open sights, obviously designed to be used in heavy brush. The barrel and receiver gleamed with oil and the walnut stock had been polished to almost mirror brightness.
Dan looked from the immaculate rifle to the three men in their filthy clothes and their rusty, battered pickup. It was hard to believe they all belonged together.
"It's chambered for .44 magnum, with a seven shot clip." Alan Sr. said. "I use it for going into the bush after bear. Sometimes you got to shoot fast."
Alan Jr. nodded. "It'll stop a goddamned elephant."
A plaintive bleat drew Dan's attention to the bed of the pickup. A lamb poked its snout over the side and bleated again. A rope had been tied around its neck and anchored somewhere out of sight.
"That's the bait." Tommy said and scratched the lamb's head. "Yeah, honey. Life sucks, don't it?"
A gust of wind whipped through the lookout, blowing stinging sand against the four men, who turned their heads to protect their eyes. The wind had been steadily increasing all day. The high overcast had also thickened and lowered and now formed a bruised, churning layer that seemed to float only a few feet overhead. The sun was merely a bright spot behind the clouds low on the horizon.
"We'd better get a move on." Alan Sr. said. "There's only about thirty minutes of light left."
Dan climbed into the passenger side of the pickup's cab. Alan Sr. got behind the wheel and his sons climbed into the bed with the lamb and a dozen empty beer bottles. Alan cranked the old engine to life and started down the fire road into the forest.
Only then did Dan notice the furred pouch of an elk scrotum dangling from the passenger side mirror.
Twenty minutes later, Dan eased down to sit beside Alan on a moss covered log. About a hundred fifty feet ahead and downhill from them, he could see the lamb through the growing twilight as a spot of white against the greens and browns of the forest at the other end of the clear cut. The Wright boys had tied the lamb's rope lead to a metal pin, then driven the pin into a stump.
Alan Jr. had used his hunting knife to hamstring the lamb. It screamed.
"If that bastard’s still around," the young man smiled, "It's on its way."
Alan Jr. was now perched on the side of the hill somewhere to Dan's right. Tommy was hidden off to the left. Each had a hunting rifle, a sidearm, and a knife. They also had three powerful, battery operated spotlights, set up to bathe the lamb in light at a moment's notice.
Now, as they settled down to wait, the forest began to slowly return to normal. After its initial screams of pain, the lamb had quieted. It laid still most of the time, only occasionally bleating and thrashing as it tried to get up on its useless legs.
Dan checked one more time that he had a round chambered in the rifle and that the safety was on, then did the same with his sidearm.
He was ready. He just wasn't sure what they were waiting for.
Alan Sr. poured two cups of coffee from a thermos, then produced a pint flask and wordlessly offered it to Dan.
Dan shook his head and sipped his coffee. From his experience, alcohol and firearms didn't mix.
Alan shrugged, poured a dollop into his own coffee and slipped the flask into his hip pocket.
The forest grew darkness like a fungus. It came from between the trunks of the fir and from under the canopy. It moved up the hill until it swallowed the white spot of the wounded lamb and crept up toward the hunters where they hid just below the road. Soon only the clouds remained bright.
Then the clouds too darkened to black.
Dan didn't know how much time had passed. He did know his butt was sore from sitting on the log and that he was getting sleepy. One could only remain fully alert for so long. You haven't really experienced darkness until you've been in the woods on an overcast night. He couldn't see anything other than vague shapes; there was nothing to concentrate on. So his mind wandered.
The day before yesterday, an elderly woman named Alberta Collins had been killed while walking her dog along Eleventh Street. The dog had also been killed. Everyone around town assumed it had been the work of a rogue animal. In a rural town like Placerville, it was not unheard of for a bear or cougar to wander into town looking for an easy meal. But Dan had seen the woman's body and he wasn't so sure a rogue cougar or bear had been the culprit.
Off to the left, someone coughed. It was muffled, but as unnatural as a bugle call.
“Goddamn kids.” Alan muttered. “I might just shoot him myself.”
Dan smiled. When you had to cough, you had to cough. There wasn’t much you could do about it.
Too many things about Mrs. Collins’ death had been inconsistent with a wild animal attack. She hadn't been mauled; there were no scratches, or defensive wounds on her arms or torso; the sole injury was a massive chunk of flesh taken from her throat. Her dog had basically been crushed and nothing had fed on either of them. It didn't look like an animal attack, but it didn't really look like a homicide either. He didn't know what to think.
The mayor, however, had been sure. He'd ordered the Wrights be hired to track down and kill it; they would work a lot cheaper than paying overtime for a team of officers to track it down.
They also knew the woods as well--or better--than anyone in the county.
Dan had decided to come along just to see what they turned up.
Alan Sr.'s safety clicked off.
Dan sat up straight and switched off his own safety.
The lamb had stopped struggling. It was holding perfectly still.
"Down and to the right." Alan whispered. "Something's moving."
Dan concentrated on listening. There had been noise the entire time they'd been waiting. Small animals scurried along the ground, scrounging dinner, birds rustled in their night roosts, owls hooted. What he was listening to now was silence. All activity had stopped. The lamb was not the only creature keeping still; the entire forest might have been holding its breath.
Then a branch snapped . . . and another . . .
"I hear it," he whispered to the hunter.
"Let it take the bait."
Dan nodded, though he doubted Alan could see the gesture in the darkness.
The animal moved slowly. Dan could follow it by sound. Each twig snap, each rustle of brush was like a map marker, plotting its course up and across the hill.
He wondered if the Wright boys had heard it also.
It stopped immediately below them.
Dan held his breath.
For a moment there was only silence.
The lamb screamed.
"Now!" Alan Sr. switched on his spotlight and shouldered his rifle.
Two other spots lit up on either side of them.
"What the--?" Alan said, then began to fire.
Dan saw an image centered in the combined light of the three spots. It was large and covered with long bronze hair, much like a bear. But its head was too large and strangely misshapen. The head and bloody front legs of the lamb hung from its mouth.
Alan continued to fire and now shots rang out on either side of them as Alan's sons joined in. Dan could see the animal's odd bronze hair twitching and jerking as bullet after bullet hit it.
Then it was gone.
The others stopped firing. Echoes of gunfire drifted away through the night.
"Did you see it go down?" Alan asked.
"No, I didn't," Dan shook his head. It was there. Then it wasn't."
Alan shoved cartridges into his rifle's magazine. "I know I hit it. At least three times."
"Dad!" Alan Jr. called over. "Can you see the bastard?"
"I hit it!" Tommy yelled from the other side. "A head shot! That fucker’s dead."
Dan was keenly aware of how quiet the forest was around them.
"Boys, keep an eye peeled. Me and the Chief are going to have a look around."
The younger men agreed to watch their backs.
Alan turned to Dan. "Ready?"
Dan took a deep breath and nodded. "But I think I'll leave this behind." He leaned the rifle against their former seat and pulled his Beretta from its holster and switched the safety off. "I'm better with a handgun."
"Suit yourself." Alan shrugged and led the way down the slope.
They went slowly. Even with the light from the three spots, the landscape was a patchwork of shadows and they had to check each carefully before entering or passing it. If the animal was now wounded, not dead. It would be extremely dangerous. They were counting on their senses, and the watchful eyes of the boys uphill, to prevent an ambush.
Dan felt like he was on a combat patrol.
"Here we go," Alan said.
They stepped out onto the small, flat clearing they'd used to stake out the lamb. The metal pin was where they'd left it, still trailing a frayed length of rope. Nearby, they found a spattering of fresh blood. It could have been from the creature, or from the lamb; they couldn't tell which.
There was nothing else.
Dan turned to look back up the hill. All he could see were the three spots of light burning holes in the darkness. And his night vision.
Alan pointed toward the tree line on the downhill side of the clear cut. "Cover me. I'm gonna look around."
Dan nodded, swallowed hard, and took up a flexible stance facing the woods and started sweeping. He concentrated on spotting movement, rather than any specific object. In the darkness beyond the first row of trees, anything could be hiding and he wouldn't have a chance of seeing it--until it moved.
Alan Sr. crouched to his right, checking the grass and brush for sign.
Dan licked his lips and kept scanning. He was very much aware that the forest around them was absolutely silent.
"Anything?" he asked.
"Not a damn thing. I don't get it. I know we hit the damned thing."
"What was that thing anyway?"
Alan glanced at him. "Looked like a bear to me."
Dan had never seen a bear like that. He had never seen anything like that.
Alan sighed and stood up beside him. "Relax. It's long gone. I don’t get it, but it’s not around here anymore."
Someone screamed above them and a rifle went off, then again and a third time.
Dan hit the ground, rolled, and looked back up in time to see a second spotlight explode into a fountain of sparks.
Another strangled scream filled the night before being abruptly cut off.
"Tommy! Junior!" Alan’s voice edged toward panic. "Answer me, damn it! Tommy! Junior!"
No one answered. Two of the spotlights were gone.
"It must have circled around behind us," Alan said.
Dan thought that seemed a reasonable guess.
The third light exploded.
They were in pitch darkness again. Until his eyes could adjust, Dan literally couldn't see his hand in front of his face. He was effectively blind.
"Junior!" Alan called again. "Tommy!"
There was no answer.
Now that it had knocked out the lights, they were at its mercy. They had more firepower, but it had better senses and was working on its own turf. Their only chance lay in somehow getting back to the truck and out of here.
"It killed my boys. My boys . . . Junior! Tommy!"
"Alan," Dan insisted, "We've got to get out of here and we've got to move now."
Something stirred in the darkness above them and to their left. It was circling back.
Dan looked over toward the hunter. His night vision had recovered enough that Alan's body was an irregular shape in the darkness. Dan assumed he was in shock over his sons' deaths. But what to do about it? Time was running out.
The thing in the darkness made a sound--the first one Dan had heard it make--and it sent chills down his back.
He pushed himself to his feet, scrambled over to Alan and jerked him up by the shoulder. "Are you coming, or am I going to have to carry you?"
Dan started up the hill and Alan fell in behind him. It was too steep and too rough to run. In the darkness, running would invite a broken leg or a head on with a tree trunk. He went as fast as he safely could, pulling himself up on saplings and whatever else he could grab with his left hand. In his right, he still clutched his pistol.
He glanced back once to be sure Alan was still behind him. Satisfied, he concentrated on climbing.
He had no idea where the animal was; it could be anywhere. Yet it would know exactly where they were; they were making as much noise as a cattle stampede. Again, it had the advantage.
Dan emerged onto the road so suddenly he lost his balance. He went down hard, landing on his right elbow and shoulder. Searing pain ripped down the length of his right arm. He sucked air through clenched teeth, tried not to cry out, and cradled his injured shoulder with his good hand.
Alan stumbled onto the road behind him.
Dan had lost his pistol. In the dark, he couldn't see where it had fallen.
"You all right?" Alan crouched down beside him. His breath came in great rasping gasps.
He stifled a moan. "I think I broke something."
"Can you make it to the truck?"
Dan nodded. He could just make out the pickup parked less than a hundred feet to his left.
But he couldn't leave without his pistol. He would be completely defenseless.
"My Beretta," he said, "I dropped it when I fell."
Something moved in the brush at the edge of the road.
Alan spun around and raised his rifle.
Dan frantically searched for his pistol. If that thing was coming after them, Alan would need all the additional firepower he could get. Even a few left handed shots would be better than nothing.
He managed to stand, despite the pain the effort caused, and quickly scanned the shadowy gray of the gravel road for his pistol. It couldn't have gone far.
"Head for the truck," Alan said, "I'll cover you."
The animal--whatever it was--was clearly toying with them. It remained in the woods, but continued to make so much noise it had to be on purpose. It seemed to be daring the two men to do something about it. Did bears taunt their prey?
Dan stepped on something near the far edge of the road. It was his Beretta. He managed to squat down and pick it up with his left hand. Near as he could tell, the fall had not damaged it. He straightened back up and had to take a step against sudden light-headedness.
"Did you hear me?" Alan asked.
"We're going together. I've got my gun."
Alan was about to argue when something stepped from the edge of the woods onto the road.
"Tommy?" Alan lowered his rifle.
Dan stared at the figure of the younger Wright. Something was wrong. He was having trouble focusing, like his vision was blurred. He would have assumed it was the effects of shock, but he wasn't having any trouble focusing on the young man's father.
The figure took a step toward Alan Sr.
"Tommy? You okay?"
"How's it feel to be the hunted instead of the hunter?" The voice was wrong. It looked like Tommy, but it wasn't him.
Alan knew it too. He started to raise his rifle.
The young man lifted a hand and, with a single blow, took Alan Sr.'s head off at the neck.
Dan could only watch in numb fascination as the body of the hunter teetered under a fountain of blood, then tipped and fell like a tree.
The thing that looked like Tommy tipped its head back and roared.
Dan backed away.
The truck was no longer an option. He could see it just a few yards down the road, but the creature stood between it and him. The pickup could have been on the moon for the good it did him. Even worse, his patrol car was parked another mile or so farther down the road.
The creature turned its attention to Dan. Its shape dissolved before his eyes, becoming less an object than a dense dark cloud, then solidified again. Now it looked like Alan Sr.
"You're hurt," it said.
Dan took a step back, away from it. He still held the Beretta in his left hand, but had no illusions about its effectiveness against this enemy. It was not designed for this.
The creature's image dissolved again and reformed. Now it had assumed the form of his mother, but not as she'd looked when she'd died. It looked like his mother as he remembered her from his childhood, a beautiful, young woman.
"What are you going to do, Danny?" It took a step toward him. "Are you going to try and shoot me too?"
Dan did the only thing he could think of. He turned and ran for his life.
But he was injured and the jarring of running on the dark gravel road seemed to open something in his shoulder. It felt wet and burning hot.
Still, he ran.
Something came between him and the clouds, something big and dark and moving very fast. He sensed a great, burdening sorrow and a terrible rage.
Then he tripped and went down and the blackness swallowed him whole . . .
. . . Something dark and horrible chased him through the woods. Though he somehow knew the creature did not intend to kill him, he also knew he could not get away. He could only run.
Without warning, he burst from the woods and found himself standing on a dark stretch of blacktop road. Panting and tired, he tried to figure out where he was. Houses lined both sides of the dark street, yellow windows glowing against the night. He thought he could hear the muffled sounds of a television.
He was on Eleventh Street. How did he get here?
A voice sounded to his left. He turned and saw a small figure approaching along the shoulder of the road. It was a woman. A dog walked a short distance in front of her, then stopped short and began to growl. It had picked up his scent.
"Sic him, Bobby," the woman urged. "Get the son-of-a-bitch."
It was Mrs. Collins.
The dog didn't growl or bark. It charged straight at him and leapt for his throat. He turned at the last second and took the force of the dog's attack on his shoulder. Pain arced down the length of his right arm. He screamed.
"He's awake," someone said.
Dan tried to sit up. His right arm and shoulder seemed to burst into flame. He cried out and fell back onto the table.
"That wasn't very smart now, was it?"
Dan turned his head toward the voice and recognized Dr. Wilson, physician, and Placerville's part time coroner.
"Oh God," he groaned, "I'm dead."
Dr. Wilson chuckled. "No, not yet. But you do have one hell of a broken clavicle and if you insist on thrashing around its not going to stay set long enough to heal."
He knew where he was now. He was in the emergency room at the small community hospital. Dr. Wilson must have been the lucky doctor on call.
"How did you find me?"
"You called us, boss," Ritchie Parks said.
Dan turned his head the other direction and spotted his senior officer standing against the wall, out of the way. "I called you?"
Parks nodded. "You radioed the dispatcher with an 'officer down' call. You were unconscious in your car when I got there."
Dan had no memory of doing any such thing. The last thing he remembered was trying to run away from that thing in the woods. And he had been running away from his car.
"I was in my car?"
"One hell of a hike, in your condition," the doctor said. "You're a strong man."
"What about the Wrights?"
Ritchie just shook his head. "We're going to have to get a statement from you about that."
"Not tonight, you're not." Dr. Wilson and a nurse eased Dan into a sitting position and began binding his right arm to his chest with a thick roll of elastic bandage. "Tonight, he rests. You can get your statement in the morning."
Later, Dan lay half-reclined in a private room at the end of the hospital's west wing. The television was on, but he had turned the sound off, so just the colored, flickering light filled his darkened room. He'd been given a pain killer and a sleeping pill. Now he let the chemicals cut through the pain so he could sleep.
Meanwhile, there was that thing in the woods. He did not know what it was, where it had come from, or how long it had been there. He did know that when it decided to kill, nothing seemed to stop it. Yet it had not killed him. Not only had it not killed him, it had somehow moved him over a mile to his patrol car and called for help. Why?
His eyes were suddenly closed; he forced them open again. It took every bit of will and energy he had. He needed to sleep, needed to let his body heal, but not just yet. Something had occurred to him and he needed to work it out.
Just before it killed him, the creature had asked Alan how it felt to be hunted instead of hunting. Was that the reason behind the killings? The creature had been acting in self-defense the whole time? If his dream was to be believed, even old Mrs. Collins had ordered her dog to attack it; she had used her dog just as Alan had used his rifle. She had attacked it.
“You going to try and shoot me too?” It had asked him.
His answer had been “No.” Dan had not shot at the creature; in its eyes, perhaps he was not a hunter, and therefore, not a threat. Because Dan had not attacked it, the creature had not attacked him. If that were truly the case, then it could be years before the thing in the woods felt the need to kill to defend itself again. It could be decades. Or it could be hours.
But four people were dead now, three of them armed men. By midday tomorrow, every man with a firearm would be out in those woods, trying to bag the killer.
He had about six hours to rest.