Billy returns to Hayton County and ends up in a dark place with bullet holes in his body. Once again it’s up to Rush to find the young man before the Creepers reach the grave where one of the victim’s relatives is buried.
After a bitter dispute with his father, Billy Riker left town ten years ago with no intentions of returning. His only sorrow was leaving his grandmother behind. Age and maturity crept up on him, so he heads home to HaytonCounty eager to see his grandmother and give his life a do-over. Maybe he should have stayed away. Billy stumbles into a thief’s den and ends up in a dark place with two bullet holes in him—and no one, but the person who put him there, knows where he is.
Rush Bizner is no stranger to pain. As a career soldier he’s seen and felt plenty of it. But now, he also feels the physical pain of victims in serious trouble. This time it’s bullets in the thigh and shoulder. As the Creepers—dark shadows stalking the near dead—drift closer to the grave of a victim’s relative in the cemetery next to his home, Rush once again enlists the help of Brody Rhodes and Helena Page to find the victim before death claims its victory.
Slap. Slap. Slap.
Four. Five. Six.
Jeez, quit counting your steps. You’ll be at Grandma’s before the night's out.
The trip seemed to be taking a long time. Probably because he’d had to hitchhike for most of it. Lost his car at a poker game, apparently too drunk to know he shouldn't have thrown his vehicle title in with the pile of chips. Damn, he’d loved that car—a ’67 Impala black as a Goth’s hair and clothes. Now, out here alone, he talked to himself. "Nothing but the night and the crickets to hear you, buddy boy."
Okay. He needed something to distract himself. He hadn’t been able to hitch a ride since Sunday night a week ago, and the sound of his size nine Nikes smacking the pavement drove him insane. No one picked up hitchhikers these days. Can anyone blame them after Sean Bean in The Hitcher?
He slowed and took stock of his surroundings. He was on the road that ran by his grandmother’s house, but nothing looked familiar. Weeds grew out of cracks in the pavement as if cars no longer traveled the road. Trees loomed in the dark as their branches stretched toward the middle of the highway, and grass grew willy nilly on the shoulder. Had the years changed things that much?
A blacksnake startled out of the weeds and slithered across the road, stopping Billy Riker cold. His heart stuttered then caught. As he fought to breathe, blood rushed to his ears in a roar. Dizziness overwhelmed him as he fought to stay upright.
His father's angry face slipped through Billy's memory.
"Teach you to cry, boy." He dragged him across the yard by the collar of his shirt.
"No." Young Billy stared into the pit paralyzed with fear. “Please no.”
Billy blinked and returned to the present.
Jesus, I hate snakes. He hated the man who fathered him even more. May you rot for eternity in hell, daddy dearest.
A little chilly for snakes, but he sure would keep an eye out for them from now on. Snakebites fell only slightly below being buried alive on his list of things that terrified him beyond all scary thought.
Clouds floated across the sky and uncovered scant patches of light. Nothing like a full moon to spook up the atmosphere. Another cloud skated across the moon and blocked out most of the light again.
Might rain. Should think about finding shelter soon.
With an angry caw, a crow flew from a low branch into the night. Then a murder of them held an eerie jam session high in the trees with a cacophony of caws that sent shivers down Billy’s spine.
Billy continued walking as he dug his lighter out of his jacket pocket and shook a cigarette from a pack of Liggett Select. After a couple of clicks, the lighter lit, and he stuck the end to the flame. Inhaling deeply, he held it, and let the smoke blow out his nose and mouth on a deep sigh.
Better 'n sex. He remembered the night he'd spent in Dallas with that hot little redhead, who had picked him up along some route he couldn't remember, and changed his mind. She'd delayed his trip home a whole night and day and part of another night. But, damn, she'd been worth it.
He grinned in the semi-light, lost in pleasant memories and took another drag off his smoke. He let the redhead fade back into the past and remembered why he was headed home. Time to give life a do over. A Tim McGraw song ghosted through his mind. Maybe he’d do better with his next thirty years, too.
Since he hadn't kept in touch, Grandma was either going to greet him with a bone-crushing hug or a frying pan upside his head. Either way, he’d be lucky to escape with his life. A big woman, Grandma Riker could out pull ten horses and black twenty drunks' eyes before they brought her down. No one busted up her bar and got away with it.
After a huge blow up over his father’s drinking, and his grandmother’s constant excuses for his father’s behavior, Billy hadn’t contacted her, or any of his family, for the past ten years. Too angry and stubborn, he’d left town at the age of twenty and refused to glance back. For all they knew, he’d died long ago. Guilt and maturity had taken its toll. Billy no longer wanted to be the man he'd been for the past ten years—a rebel-rouser out for his own selfish pleasure.
He sure missed his grandmother—the only person who had ever truly loved him on this stinking planet. His father died two days before Billy left town. He hadn’t bothered with the funeral. He hoped Grandma slapped him in a pine box, tossed dirt over him, and left it at that. The man hadn’t deserved a proper burial or a preacher’s sympathetic sermon.
A 1950s Ford blew past him, blared its horn, and belched thick gray smoke from the tailpipe. Billy hopped backwards out of the road and onto the shoulder, nearly landing on his ass in the grass. He extended his hand in the middle-finger salute and yelled, “Where’d you learn to drive that piece of crap? Driver Education for Dummies?”
So much for becoming a changed man. Two minutes into the new Billy, and he’d already insulted someone while making rude hand gestures.
Billy finished his Liggett, dropped the butt on the pavement, and ground it out beneath the toe of his shoe. Shoving his hands in his coat pocket, he continued down the road whistling a jaunty tune he’d picked up in Shreveport, Louisiana a few days ago.
Not much farther now.
Something round, hard and cold bounced off the top of his head and landed on the pavement in front of him. “Ouch, that hurt.” He glanced toward the sky where angry black clouds had replaced a bright moon.
When the hell did that happen?
A subtle wind blew out of the forest, followed by hail the size of mothballs that dive-bombed him as if God decided to punish him for the finger salute thing by chucking huge chunks of frozen rain at his head.
Great. Just freaking great. Thank you, God. I need brain damage added to my list of woes.
The wind moved through the trees like an animal on the hunt. For a split second, Billy got an eerie feeling that the wind stalked him. He looked over his shoulder and the background sound from the movie Twister—the music right before a black funnel spun out of the sky—played in his head.
Jesus. Give yourself the heebie-jeebies, will you.
When a bucket load of hail bounced off his head, Billy yelped and ran for the shelter of the trees. He stumbled through scraggly boxwoods, tripped up a set of crumbling concrete steps, lost his balance, and landed face first on rotten boards, worn gray by time.
He rolled over and cupped his nose. “Jesus Christ in Heaven that hurts like a son of a bitch.” Blood gushed from his nostrils and trickled between his fingers. "Shit."
The porch, partially covered with a tin roof, offered a bit of respite from the weather, so he counted his blessings—more of his grandmother's homespun southern wisdom. It did make him feel somewhat better even though his nose felt as if it had swollen to the size of his head.
“Wait a minute.” He glanced around. This is Grandma’s house.
After a moment, he stood on rubbery legs, wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and plowed through the overgrowth back to the road. No wonder he hadn’t recognize anything. Waist high weeds choked everything, including his grandmother’s honey-suckle bushes, and the boxwoods were badly in need of a prune job.
He returned to the porch and tried the door. Locked. If Grandma doesn’t live here anymore, where the hell am I supposed to find her? Hopefully someone in town would know. A few more miles to go, but not in this hail.
He moved down the porch, stepping around rotted out holes, and peered through a cracked windowpane. He lifted on the frame, but found it nailed shut. He shrugged out of his jacket, folded it up to cushion his elbow, and slammed his arm into the glass. The pane shattered; he reached in, unlocked the window, shoved it upward, and crawled into a musty smelling room.
A crowded, musty smelling room.
TVs, VCRs, DVD players, chain saws, weed eaters, computers and a host of other goods covered the entire surface, except for a narrow trail through the middle. He moved down the aisle and shifted through a box three-quarters full of gold jewelry.
“What the ....”
A sudden surge of hail clattered on the tin roof, and he almost didn't hear the footsteps bounce across the porch. A key jiggled in the lock, and the door swung open.
Billy frantically looked around for a hiding place, prepared to dive behind a pile of empty boxes.
A man, with a scraggly, gray beard, raised a handgun and aimed. “Wrong place to git in out of the rain, mister.”
Too late to hide now.
Gray Beard pulled the trigger.
Billy had time to think, It’s hail not rain, before he staggered backward and slammed through a rotten door into the downstairs bathroom.