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A goat's head staring back at Detective Cole Bryant from within the bowels of his latest victim sets forth a string of unnatural deaths among the teenagers that live in the shadow of the cursed North Mountain. Trying to solve the case only brings Cole closer to dark side where temptation, sex and sinful ways lure him into the world of a family whose backwoods morals aren't simply a symptom of a forgotten age in time but the consequence of a centuries old pact made with the devil himself.
I knew when I heard my name echo over the radio, the recent call to North Mountain had turned bad. Robert’s voice cracked as he tried to relay what they had found. I knew before he could finish his sentence a dead body was waiting – waiting for me.
At first I was almost excited, like a kid being picked to be on the team because it was seldom as a detective for the Alleghany Sheriff’s Department to be called to the scene of a dead body – let alone a murder. A murder, I was learning in bits and pieces, to be one of the worst this county had ever seen.
Jackson and Roberts were the first two officers to the scene, and I truly hoped they hadn’t botched anything up. They were good fellows, but not real keen on murders seeing as how they saw so few up here. It was evident when Jackson tried to relay the details; this one was a big one. Hell, he could barely talk.
Figuring the more assistance the better, I grabbed Samuels and we headed over to North Mountain. I couldn’t help but get a kick out of watching Samuels as I waited for him to get into the car. He was a short little fellow with a pudgy beer gut and walked with an awkward waddle. He kept his hair combed over like a little boy, even at the age of twenty-nine, and it was evident he hadn’t shaved his moustache since the first hair sprouted over his thin lips. He left much to be desired as a police officer, but I suppose with his father being on the force and his grandfather before him, they must have felt obligated to hire him.
By the time we arrived, every cop from Clifton and Alleghany were there on the scene. I suppose it was a good thing nothing was going on anywhere else, because not one cop would have been around to witness it. Most times only one or the other of the closest officers would have shown up, but with so few murders, I suppose curiosity got the best of them more than anything.
Alleghany was the county in which the town of Clifton Forge was snuggled in, a small town folks referred to in short as Clifton. The Alleghany Sheriff’s Department covered a great deal of territory and only called in Clifton officers in the event they needed assistance. With Clifton being a town of its own, they only really had jurisdiction within the town’s boundaries.
As I got out of the car, I shook my head and laughed while I made my way over, “Damn, y’all, what’s so interesting that all of Alleghany and Clifton are here on the scene?”
Jackson was the first to come over. He was about six feet two, 250 pounds, a thick boned man. He reminded me of a fellow who should have been a linebacker for the Washington Redskins in spite of his age. His hair was a bright silver color and his wide face still showed the scars of the acne he fought as a teen. His wide forehead overshadowed bushy black eyebrows that were always drawn making him appear as though the thoughts never ceased in his mind. It was apparent he had suffered a few too many knocks to the head over his lifetime as the bridge of his nose was crooked, and for the most part his face remained a bright hue of pink. I wasn’t sure if it was the effects of high blood pressure or too many years of drinking, but even with his towering size you could see the soft-hearted, gentle mountain boy he was. He always a kind smile, a warm twinkle in the eye and the joyful greeting with a handshake or a pat on the upper body.
“Hell Cole, it’s the damnedest thing you ever saw. It’s the Hicks girl. She was murdered and left here in the holler.”
Samuels remained beside me as we walked over toward the body and the other men who were already scoping out the perimeter. He was too queasy for his own good so I deemed it best for all of us that he remained back at the car for fear we would have two scenes to clean up. I motioned for him to stand back until I investigated further. His hands went straight into his pockets and he took on the appearance of an eight-year-old pouting, but I knew it was for the good of us all.
I walked over and shook Jackson’s, then Robert’s hands as they both came forward to meet me. Both were with the Clifton Forge Police Department, so it was sometimes weeks before we would bump into each other.
Wanting Jackson to get on with it, I asked him, “So how did they kill her?” I walked over toward where the body was with his voice continuing behind me.
“Don’t rightly know the cause of death. Seems like she was tortured pretty good. Damn goat’s head in her stomach - it was looking right at us when we found her.”
“A goat’s head?” I had to ask to make certain I heard him correctly.
He stood there leaning back on his heels with his hands in his pockets, his stout shoulders erect. I wasn’t sure if he was bull shitting me and having fun with it or if he was genuinely serious.
“That’s right, a goat’s head, horns and all. I kid you not.”
“Jesus - what the hell?” I stopped there in my tracks, and sure enough, there was a damn goat’s head staring right at me from within the girl’s stomach. You would have sworn the damn thing was still alive.
Its eyes glared at you, following every step, every movement you made. I kept waiting for it to shock us all backward with a wretched-sounding bleat – hell, I believe it could have taken a breath and we all would have hauled ass. It wasn’t something fake; it was real, as real as the screaming face that stared back at us. The girl’s stomach had been sliced from her left to right side and there, protruding outward from her bowels, was the head of that goat.
Beyond the creature that stared back at us all that could be discerned was that the victim was female.
“Oh, damn, she’s been here awhile.” I had to walk away for a minute to catch a whiff of fresh air. Parts of her body were decomposing, even though it looked like portions of it had been lying there for centuries and had petrified like driftwood. I guessed the areas that weren’t petrified, which were few, were victims of the cool nights and warm days that were a common weather pattern up on the mountain in the spring.
Her wounds were still fresh and couldn’t have been but a few days old, still she lay there like a stone statue staring out into the face of eternity.
The blood still crusted around her open wounds and even the smell of rotting blood was fresh. She had been killed within days instead of hundreds of years ago as the rest of her body suggested. We could tell by the way her face was contorted she had gone out of this world in grave pain. Her eyes told a tale of torture and cruelty I hadn’t believed existed in real life until that very moment of seeing her body lying there staring back at us.
“Well, guys, she’s either been here a week or two or a century or two-you pick.” I said taking my hat off and scratching the top of my head with the edge of the brim.
From what we could tell, the youth that showed on her face indicated she had to be a teenager, but with her body being in such a state, one would believe she was as ancient as one of the great pharaohs of Egypt. Carved, rolling ripples of aging masked the skin below her face, and her joints were frozen in a time long since forgotten.
She lay there on a bed of unturned leaves beneath the twigs and branches of a fallen tree, and shoots of briers clung to what remained of a shredded white poet’s blouse now stained the burgundy brown of dried blood. She wore bell-bottomed jeans and a studded belt. It was apparent she would be considered a Goth or an Emo kid by today’s standards.
We all shook our head in disbelief, not even knowing where to begin our investigation. The only conclusion any of us could come to right off was it had to be some cult or demonic killing, but damn, here in this county, how could that be? Finding the occult in this part of the world was about as likely as finding gold here, but stranger things have come to be just in the short time I’ve lived here.
After I had caught my breath I asked, “How do you figure this is the Hicks girl Jackson? Hell, we can’t really tell who she is in this state, and there was no ID on her.”
Jackson stepped closer to the body, pushing the young girl’s choppily cut, blood-matted hair to the side with his nightstick. Her hair was long and black with dyed streaks of pink. Whatever or whoever did this to her left her hair entangled and knotted in the leaves and debris. At first glance I would have believed she had been drug down here, but the evidence surrounding her proved different. The ground around us hadn’t been stirred; no paths had been formed – hell, by the looks of the area she could have floated to the ravine’s floor as lightly as a leaf from the tops of the great trees that surrounded her.
My thoughts were racing; questions were forming at the speed of light, but all ready I was sensing a pattern – nothing was making sense.
Jackson interrupted my thoughts. “See that there?” he asked, his voice muffled behind his handkerchief as he pointed to the back of her neck.
“Yeah, what is it?” I bent over, trying to look at what he was pointing out.
“I believe it’s a tattoo. I saw the Hicks girl with old Jesse, her father, down at that tattoo parlor over in Covington the other day. See it there?”
Covington was the closest thing to a big town nearby and was my home away from home. The Alleghany Sheriff’s Department, and my office are located there. The town of Covington is the designated county seat for Alleghany, it had been this way since the early 1900s; however, Covington itself became its own city in the early 1950s.
Covington is where everyone goes to visit the great Wal-mart Store, gather their groceries and if they wished there were a few specialty shops they could enjoy. It was the main industrial area of the region as well, but even being considered that, the biggest industry was the paper mill.
“How can you tell if it’s a tattoo or not Jackson? Her body’s a mess,” I proclaimed. “And it’s not like she’s the only one around here who’s went to get a tattoo recently. There could be a bunch of kids running around with a tattoo on their neck.”
“Well, if it ain’t the tattoo I saw the Hicks girl eyeing while she was there, I’ll eat my hat.” He pointed toward the tattoo again as though I hadn’t paid close enough attention to what he was saying. “Look here – see it, its almost like its rising up out of the skin. And guess what, there’s a larger version of the same on the front of her.”
It took me a moment to figure out exactly what Jackson had just said. Once I did, my mouth dropped and I looked at the protruding goat that seemingly came forth from the center of a pentagram. Upon closer examination of the cuts around her stomach we found the sign of a pentagram formed in lesser cuts.
“Holy shit, you’re right. Well, maybe not all right but some of the way for sure. Really though, we can’t tell who she is for certain until the medical examiner looks at her or someone identifies her body.”
“Well I’ll bet my bottom dollar I’m right, Cole.” He was already walking back toward the car as he waived his hand in the air at me.
Robert’s spoke for the first time, which wasn’t abnormal for him as he was the quiet type, “Sam Jones found her, he was hunting rattlers and came across her.” He spoke methodically as he remained there, staring dumbfounded at the victim, with his hands on his hips. He was off in one of those trancelike stares.
Roberts, like many of the men on the Clifton force, was a short dumpy little guy; he probably topped out about five foot five inches and weighed about as much as Jackson. Where I’m from you wouldn’t be on the squad in that kind of shape, but I don’t need to keep repeating myself. It’s just different up here. You heard every breath he took on the way in and on the way out - it never ceased to screw up my own breathing pattern every time I was around him.
It wasn’t hard to fathom why he stood there dumbfounded as he did; this was the most horrible scene I had ever come across. Blood stained the girl’s face where white should have been. Her mouth was twisted into a scream that only a contortionist could achieve. Cuts and bruises were everywhere, but what was most despicable and unexplainable was that damn goat’s head. I’d swear the son of a bitch seemed to revel in our bewilderment as it seemingly watched every move we made, awaiting our next look of puzzlement or our next question.
No one in a million years would have believed one morning they would wake up and head out to a crime scene like this one, especially not anyone from around here.
Jackson, Robertson, Samuels and I started to poke around along with two other officers who had been plotting off what they believed to be the scene’s perimeter. Like blind men we wandered around the area, seeing nothing – nothing that would help us discern what horrible thing had taken place here. Nothing that would tell us how she had gotten here and possibly why.
When we couldn’t really make heads or tales of it, we called the county’s forensic technicians. I wasn’t sure how successful they would be as there were no signs of her being drug in and hell; there really wasn’t anything at all to go on. It was almost like the angels had laid her here, but what kind of angels was the question. I decided maybe I should go see Sam Jones.
Before going I asked Jackson, who is also a detective, if he would be willing to assist me on this case. One of our detectives was working on an embezzlement case and another was out on vacation. I felt two heads would be better than my one and would keep the case moving quickly. The first forty-eight hours were the most vital, and I didn’t want to be slowed down. Besides, Jackson knew just about everybody in the county by their first name and this would help me out tremendously as I had only been living up here for about eight months now.
Jackson agreed as though he had been asked to accompany me on some grand adventure. I’m certain it wasn’t often he had the opportunity to work murders. To my knowledge there had only been eight to ten in the last ten years in the entire region.
I left with Jackson, leaving the other four guys to scout the area more and meet the forensic techs. I could only hope Sam would be able to provide some help but instinctively I knew – this case wasn’t going to be that cut and dry. This was the worst case of murder I had ever seen and something told me the details of it were only going to get worse.