D.S. Ullery’s The Blog With No Name

New Flash Fiction:

Game Play

by D. S. Ullery

Author’s note: Due to the subject matter, this story – short though it is- may trigger some readers.  I want everyone to know up front this isn’t meant as exploitation. Like every writer worth their salt, I have my own views on a variety of social issues and this is one that strikes a deep chord. This is the natural way for me to write about it.  If I did my job as the author of this piece at all well, hopefully the larger point I’m attempting here  will come across .

I expect someone somewhere to dislike this, if only because its about this topic at all. Either way,  I stand by my work. My take on horror is that it should – at times – be uncompromising and disturbing.   Those who are already  familiar with my short fiction  will likely not be at all surprised I wrote this. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I leave to the individual to decide. 

 So there it is, my early warning. To those of you who elect to turn away now, I completely understand. Thank you for even clicking on this blog in the first place.  For those of you who have decided to push on- thank you as well. I hope the story works for you. 

 

Game Play

Tyler had waited a long time to play a game like this one. Years.

As he mentally prepared to begin, he reflected on his decades of game play. He’d been gifted his first console back when he was ten. He’d been hooked ever since. Every time a new release was available, he was the first to purchase it. He read all of the gaming magazines and followed industry news religiously, keeping an eye peeled for new games offering next level graphics and user interface. Over time, he’d mastered them all. On occasion, he’d even been selected to beta test a few prior to their release.

He took a moment, cradling the firearm he’d selected from the armory for this initial round. Eyes closed, he expelled a deep, satisfied breath, allowing the excitement to wash over him. With a smile, he opened his eyes and entered the first level.

Tyler drank in his surroundings, gripping the weapon. He enjoyed the feel of the trigger beneath his index finger as he lifted the gun and aimed. Across the street, one of the in-game characters immediately reacted, throwing her hands up as he spun on his heels and ran in the other direction.

He’d never seen graphics so detailed. The cracked pavement beneath his feet, the buildings with their dusty bricks and windows caked in residue from the exhaust of passing cars; In all the years he’d been playing, no system – no specific release- had ever boasted this degree of realism. Curious, he fired off a round. The bullet caught the back of the man’s head, producing billows of red mist. Tyler could actually hear the sound of blood splattering against the concrete, followed by the soft thump of his body as he fell.

He was impressed.

He glided forward, walking a city block in real time to a corner where the avenue connected with an alleyway. All around him, background characters screamed as they saw him. He leveled the rifle at one , who in this instance was a morbidly obese man. Tyler watched in awe as its mouth dropped open, its eyes red and watery as tears streamed down its cheeks. Tyler had to admit, the artificial intelligence programmed into this world was astonishing. These figures were a perfect simulation.

He fired a bullet into the rotund image, watching in fascination as it plopped onto the asphalt face first.

Tyler thought back to all of those other first person shooter games he’d played over the years. Within those, he’d been a soldier on the front lines in a foreign jungle, a Marine in a future science lab facing the armies of Hell, even a criminal on a spree, beating up prostitutes and shooting drug dealers. As vivid as they were, not one of those games had come anywhere close to this.

He cut right into the alley and used it to cross to the next street over. Emerging on the other side, Tyler was surprised to find himself on a large boulevard. Pedestrians populated the sidewalks on either side of a road heavy with traffic. All along the street, patrons of various restaurants enjoyed their lunches beneath large sun deck umbrellas.

This game had all of the mundane details of everyday life down pat.

He cocked his gun, raising the barrel and centering on an elderly woman being led by a small, white poodle on a pink and turquoise leash. Smiling, he steadied the cross hairs, keeping them level. Around him, random characters began to scream and shout, having finally become aware of his presence.

The old woman unwittingly stepped into the cross hairs, the sounds of alarm catching her attention, prompting her to turn her head in his direction to see what was going on. This left Tyler with a direct shot right between her eyes.

Before he could pull the trigger, a loudspeaker crackled, an authoritative voice bellowing “Drop the gun! Get on your knees with your arms extended, palms out!”

Astonished by the richness and clarity of the voice , Tyler turned , greeted by the sight of two police vehicles blocking passage through the street. The officer who had addressed him was standing behind the driver’s side door of his car, the microphone still clenched in his hand. Directly to the policeman’s left, another uniformed officer had a powerful looking assault rifle raised and pointed at him.

Tyler couldn’t resist- he had to see how the A.I. would respond if he attacked under these circumstances. Smiling at the two officers, he raised his gun.

The response was instantaneous. Fire scorched his belly , arms and legs even as the echo of multiple gunshots rang out. His muscles surrendered beneath the onslaught, sending him crumpling to the ground.

Tyler wheezed, the breath knocked out of him. He rolled over onto his back, marveling at the hot, sticky sensation of his life drizzling out of the wounds. He barely managed to lift his head, catching a brief glimpse of his body before the effort became too much. Everything below his chest was bathed in a sea of deep crimson, spreading out from his body in strange, oblong patterns from the ruin of his stomach.

They were the best graphics he’d ever seen. Even the pain felt real.

A deep coldness penetrated his flesh and Tyler suddenly felt very, very tired. Despite this level being set during a sunny, cloudless day, the world was beginning to dim. It was as if the colors were bleaching out of reality.

The sound of people rushing to and fro surrounded him. The noise began to fade, as if he were suddenly moving a great distance from the street. The two officers and some other bystanders crowded in, hovering over him. They were losing all resolution, now no more than silhouettes without detail.

Faint voices cried out, demanding to know who he was and why he had done it. Another – the same he’d heard speaking over the microphone – explained to someone he could not see there was no need for an ambulance. A van from the morgue would suffice.

Game over, Tyler thought as the shadows swallowed him and he drifted away.

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D. S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name 3/9/19

Free Fiction: The New Meat

Continuing my recent trend towards sharing older stories I have long since had published , here’s a twisted tale I originally sold to Alban Lake, who included it in an issue of their terrific publication Disturbed Digest about four years ago. It’s currently available as part of my first collection.

With “The New Meat”, I was attempting to turn the tables of the standard zombie cliches’. By the time I began working on this piece, zombies were flooding both the literary and cinematic markets. Things had reached a saturation point, with it becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate one story from the next. Not that many of those stories and movies weren’t well crafted – they were – but you can only see/read the same plot points so many times before craving something different.

With that in mind, I set out to turn things on their head. I think it came out fairly well (well enough for the good folks at Alban Lake to pay me for it, at least) , and in the process I was able to incorporate a bit of fun, B-movie level Sci-Fi.

So here for your reading pleasure is my one and only foray into the world of zombies.

Enjoy!

Catch you on the flip side.

-D. S.

 

The New Meat

At first glance, Benning thought the shack might just be a mirage.

That certainly would have been in keeping with their recent run of bad luck. Benning and his companions were being pursued through the heart of the Northwest forest (after being forced to hide for several hours in a tiny, aluminum tool shed not designed to house four bodies) , on the run from a horde of the Hungry who had picked up their scent.

Additionally, there was Jacobs misfortune with a hidden bear trap, said device having snapped onto his forearm while they’d been crawling through some brush earlier that day. The group had managed to free Jacobs and evade capture, only to discover they’d lost their bearings and had no idea how to get out of the woods.

After spending an unknown amount of time desperately looking for some sort of path out of the forest, the group had hidden themselves among the massive roots of an ancient Banyan , perched atop a gently sloping hill. On the other side of the tree, the ground dropped into a sharp incline.

With all they had been through, it was too easy for Benning to assume the tiny structure he had noticed at the bottom of the drop was the product of wishful thinking, not good fortune.

He raised his head over one of the thick roots and peered down. The sharp slope on the other side culminated in a hollow at the bottom. Years of summer rain had mixed dead leaves, pine needles and fallen branches into an organic soup, transforming the ground down there into a soggy bog of mulch.

The muddy quagmire stretched for about a dozen yards before being divided by a small, cloudy stream running east to west through the heart of the forest.

On the other side of the stream, the floor of the forest solidified into a dusty mat of sandy topsoil, broken only by the occasional weed. In the center of this open stretch, several yards from where the trees again converged, stood the small, wooden hovel.

Benning fixed his good eye on the dilapidated shack, reassuring himself that it was real.

The structure was in bad shape: The walls were composed of rotting planks that had been hastily nailed together, the roof was little more than two pieces of aluminum siding some industrious soul had bound with several rolls of duct tape and mounted atop the structure. Given the way it was listing slightly to one side, it seemed a foregone conclusion the next storm to blow through the area would tear the hovel apart.

As far as Benning was concerned, it might as well have been the penthouse of a four star hotel.

He lowered his head and looked at Jacobs. His companion was clutching the stump were his arm had been up until an hour ago. Benning nodded toward the ragged, empty sleeve. “That hurt?” he asked.

Jacobs shook his head. “No,” he said. “Damned bear trap.”

“They’re getting better at this.”

Benning and Jacobs glanced over at the source of the comment.

Sitting directly across from them, resting with his back against the trunk of the tree, was Daniels. His face was frozen in a permanent grin, yellowing molars visible above blackened gums in through a cheek torn open by the sharp end of an errant branch earlier that day.

“You think?” Benning asked.

“Yes.” Daniels answered. “Remember when it all began, in the first weeks after the solar flare soaked the planet with that unknown radiation? When we all started to come to?

“That’s about all I do remember,” Jacobs muttered sullenly.

“So?” Benning said, sounding unintentionally sour. Daniels had a tendency to come off as fairly pompous. That, combined with an itch that had begun to develop around Benning’s empty eye socket and was intensifying, put him in a foul mood.

So,” Daniels replied, “when people first became aware of what was happening, there was the requisite panic. It was like something out of the movies, with all of those PSA’s admonishing the public to destroy to the brain by means of bullets or blunt objects. None of it worked of course, but it was what it was.

“Then that incident involving those two drunken assholes and the transient in Jersey happened and suddenly there was a whole new variable added to the mix that no one had counted on.”

“What’s your point?” Jacobs demanded, more than a little testy. Benning suspected Jacobs wasn’t particularly keen on Daniels either.

Daniels issued an exasperated sigh. He shook his head and, in that moment, Benning (who had begun to scratch at his vacated eye socket vigorously) would gladly have knocked his head off. His only saving grace was that -of the four who remained- Daniels’ brain was the most functionally intact, allowing him thought processes more complex than basic communication and motor skills.

Put simply, he was the one whose ability to reason skewed closest to that of a normal human being. When he spoke, the others tended to listen.

“The point, Jacobs,” Daniels answered testily, “is that since it was discovered that the radiation alters the genetic structure of decaying human tissue, giving it nutritional value, the attacks on our kind have grown more sophisticated.”

Daniels leaned forward, jerking his head in the direction from which they had come. “In the early days of this debacle, that bunch out there would have been stomping through the woods, randomly spread out and following us armed with guns, knives and even torches. Scary, but limited and erratic in execution, ” he said, his eyes locking onto Jacobs. “Now they’re intelligent enough to know to lay traps for us as a precaution. They’re adapting to the effects, retaining more of their cognizant skills as the hunger overcomes them.”

“Bullshit,” Benning retorted. “What happened to Jacobs was just bad luck and you know it, Daniels. That trap had probably been lying there for weeks, months even, forgotten by the hunter who set it. Jacobs was just unlucky.”

There’s a term with a rapidly broadening meaning,” Jacobs snorted. “We’ve been unlucky since the moment our eyes opened and we realized we were somehow conscious again. Why don’t you ask Patti there what his take on luck is?”

Both Benning and Daniels exchanged a guilty look before staring down at the pitiful creature nestled in the crook between two of the larger roots.

Frightened eyes stared back at them from above a gaping cavity where his lower mandible had been. His tongue, purple with rot, spilled haphazardly from the exposed depth of his throat. Incomprehensible gurgling sounds drifted to their ears as Patti attempted in vain to articulate a thought.

He had no limbs, having been reduced to four stumps by the time they found him lying in a ditch while on the run. From the look of it, those arms and legs had been forcibly torn off at some point.

None of them knew his real name, but some anonymous wit had plastered a temporary name tag (the type one might see worn by a college student taking their first tour of a campus) to the breast pocket of his moldy, blue button-up shirt. The faded rectangle of sticky paper had been there so long it had melded with the decaying fabric. Written in washed out marker across the paper (in barely legible cursive) was the word “Patti”, the “i” adorned with petals so it looked like a flower. In the absence of a proper name, it had stuck.

“I’ve been meaning to address that,” Daniels answered, the usual degree of pomp in his voice replaced by uncertainty. “I think we need to consider leaving him behind.”

Patti lurched forward, pushing away from the tree with his back and toppling forward onto his chest. He wriggled toward Benning, attempting to push himself forward, but the four ragged stumps wouldn’t catch the ground and he flopped around.

Benning watched with pity, reminded of a hooked fish convulsing in a desperate struggle to breath. Patti’s yellowing eyes bulged in terror as he shook his head violently to and fro, the quick motion causing his tongue to whip back and forth.

“No way,” Benning snarled. “We don’t leave anyone behind.”

The itch in his eye had reached infuriating proportions and Benning, his patience spent, reached into the empty socket and began to scratch vigorously. He was surprised to feel something squirming around, fine hairs brushing against his fingertips.

Benning clasped his fingers around the mystery object and drew his hand away from his face. It took him a full second to realize he was holding a large, brown spider, one with a body the size of a quarter.

He grimaced, tossing the arachnid to the floor of the forest. The spider quickly found its bearings and scurried into the brush.

Jacobs moaned, staring after the spider with horrified fascination. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said softly. He lifted his eyes to Benning. “Daniels is right, Benning. The trap that took my arm looked new. It didn’t even have any bait in it. What would hunters think they could catch in a trap with no bait?”

“Maybe some…some…uh…some.. thing…took the bait….” Benning allowed the sentence to trail off, as he struggled to think of the word. He looked at Daniels and Jacobs and saw that they were staring back at him expectantly. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember. A flutter of panic shot through him.

“Just give me a second. I’ll get it,” Benning told them, but he didn’t think he would. These blank spots had been happening at random since that terrible morning he had come to inside an autopsy room. He was fairly certain they were the result of tissue damage caused by the brain cancer which had originally killed him. Basic concepts such as certain common nouns would arbitrarily slip beyond his grasp, at times leaving him less mentally capable than an infant.

“God, you’re having another one of your blank outs again, aren’t you?” Jacobs asked. “Jesus, this gets worse every minute!”

“It isn’t important, just a forgotten word,” Benning snapped. Then his eyes brightened. “Animals!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers excitedly. “Maybe some animals took the bait out of the trap without triggering it.”

“Animals?” Daniels sneered. “You had trouble remembering the word animals?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Benning shot back, scowling. “I know your brain works better than mine, Daniels, but I still say you’re reading too much into this. That trap was probably left by a hunter who forgot to look in on it. It wasn’t left for us.” He pointed into the woods. “And in any case, we are not leaving Patti behind to be served up as dinner by those nut jobs out there!”

“Okay,” Daniels answered, his voice calm. “Who gets to continue carrying him? Because, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Jacobs is down an arm.”

“What about you?” Jacobs asked, leveling Daniels with a look that was pure contempt. “Why don’t you step up and do something other than acting like a holier-than-thou ass for change?”

“Because I refuse to be a part of this travesty.” Daniels turned, pointing at Patti, who was now cowering behind Benning. “This is a creature with no reason to continue existing. Not only is he back from the dead, not only is he without limbs or even a lower jaw, but he’s also been transformed. Haven’t you noticed it yet? Look at his skin.”

Benning leaned down and took a closer look. A combination of regret and horror surged through him when he realized that Daniels was correct. Patti’s flesh had taken on the light olive shade and toughened texture which signaled the transformation.

He was fit for human consumption.

Jacobs, who had managed to get on his feet, walked over, sniffing the air. “I can smell it,” he informed them. He offered Patti a sympathetic smile. “Sorry Patti. Not trying to be rude, but the aroma is pretty pungent.” He glanced over at Benning. “I’m surprised we didn’t pick it up earlier.”

“We were being pursued through the forest and not all of us have the use of our senses. At least, not the way we did before,” Daniels pointed out. “Besides, I think he only recently finished changing over.”

Benning swore under his breath, never taking his eyes off Patti. He didn’t want the others, particularly Daniels, to know just how exhausted and out of ideas he was.

It had been Benning’s idea to flee town and head into the surrounding forest when those people had sighted them hiding in the shed. Since then, all he had been able to think of by way of a plan was to keep running from the mob currently scouring the woods.

Now there was this. Benning hated to admit it, but Daniels was right. Patti’s body was clearly in its post-transformation state. That meant it was emitting a scent which, when picked up by living human beings, would send them into a frenzy.

Discovery of this of this bizarre fact had come earlier in the year, when two drunken college students in Tom’s River, New Jersey had decided it would be the height of humor to make sport of a homeless man they had happened upon in an alley.

By the time this encounter took place, the solar flare (now known to be the source of the crisis) had already saturated the Earth with its radiation, causing the dead to rise.

Unlike the zombies of horror fiction, however, none of these walking corpses demonstrated a desire to feed on the flesh of the living. Neither did damaging the brain -so often the solution in zombie cinema- have the slightest effect.

With the theories of Hollywood now debunked, the recently resurrected became a nuisance, an inconvenience that had yet to be dealt with.

According to the story (as Benning had heard it), the homeless man had begged the fraternity brothers for something to eat. As it happened, one of the dead had been stumbling around at the opposite end of the same alley. By way of response to the man’s pleas, the students had managed to subdue the zombie.

As a sick joke, the college kids had set the walking corpse on fire. To their astonishment, immolation had proven successful in killing the reanimated dead man. Realizing the zombie wasn’t going to rise again, they’d offered the cooked remains to the transient as food.

By now the whole planet knew the story. Not merely because it was so hideous, but because of what had happened next.

Rather than shrinking away in disgust, the homeless man had grown ravenous, literally drooling as he ripped at the seared corpse. Even more incredible was the effect consuming the twice dead body had on the man. He seemed to grow stronger and healthier with each bite, as if devouring the body was curing any ailments he might have been suffering.

As it turned out, that’s precisely what had been happening. The two college students had reported the incident to the police, who had taken the man into custody. Eventually he was turned over to a team of biologists , funded by the government to study reanimated bodies.

Benning remembered clearly (one of the few things he could still recall with much clarity) the sinking feeling he had felt in the pit of his stomach when the scientists announced their discovery. They had discovered the mysterious radiation had not only raised the dead, it affected genetic change in their tissue, causing it to transform into a protein which promoted cellular reconstruction and vitamin production in living human bodies. It also boosted the human immune system.

In short, as long as the zombie in question had transformed, cooking and eating the dead healed the living and could add years to the average lifespan.

“Benning!”

Hearing Jacobs shout his name shook Benning out of his thoughts. He offered the others an apologetic look. “Sorry,” he offered sheepishly. “I was just thinking about John Lowe.”

“The homeless guy they call Diner Zero?” Jacobs asked. “Why?”

“Just thinking that if those stupid college kids hadn’t gotten drunk and found him that night….” Benning trailed off as a wave of despair overcame him. Maybe what Daniels had said regarding Patti applied to them all.

“Get over it,” Daniels snapped. “This is no time for daydreaming. We need to decide what we’re doing and I mean ten seconds ago.” He pointed toward the forest. “Listen.”

Benning listened carefully and a shiver ran down his spine as the sound of several bodies charging through the brush floated back to him, followed by voices calling out their positions to one another. The Hungry were almost upon them.

Without saying a word, Benning knelt down and wrapped his arms around Patti’s chest. Daniels stared at him incredulously, the remaining side of his face turned down in a tight frown.

“What the hell are you doing!?” Daniels cried. “We don’t have time for this, Benning!”

“You do what you want,” Benning spat back. “I’m dragging Patti down to that shack with me and locking us in until those people are gone. And hey, shout a little louder next time. In fact, just walk over and tell those guys where we are. It’ll be quicker.”

Daniels looked to Jacobs for support and was mortified to see Jacobs preparing to follow Benning’s lead. “Jacobs,” he seethed, “you can’t be thinking of going with them. That’s insane!”

“I guess you made your point a little too well, Daniels,” Jacobs said, the contempt returning to his eyes. “If trying to carry on is a dumb move for Patti, then it isn’t much smarter for any of us, is it?” He pushed his fresh stump toward Daniels to embellish the point. “I’m almost where Patti is now. If I’m going to end up as food anyway, then I’d like to spend the rest of this second, shittier life with people I at least like.”

They were interrupted by loud snaps as branches cracked and heavy footsteps stomped along the forest to the west. The predators were very close now. Soon they would be able to spot the foursome. Although bullets would not take the dead down, the men tracking them could still disable any one of their group by taking out a kneecap or hip with the rifles they carried.

Daniels took a step back, throwing his hands up in disgust. “Fine,” he snarled. “If you two idiots want to take the future buffet item and lock yourselves in that shithole, be my guest. I’ll pass.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Benning chided. “Just hide in there with us until they leave, then you go wherever you want. You’re dead. You can’t afford pride, Daniels.”

“It’s not pride, Benning,” Daniels said, his tone acidic. “Just common sense. They’re laying traps for us and they knew enough to follow us in this direction. Not to mention they can almost certainly smell Patti by now. That shack is a one way ticket to their gullet, nothing more.”

The sound of the hunters moving through the forest was closer now. Benning shot an alarmed look towards the trees , then back at Daniels. “Time to stop talking and start moving,” he said flatly. “Go on alone if you want, but we’ve got to move right now.”

Daniels stared at Benning and Jacobs silently for a moment, then sprang forward, the stiff muscles in his legs popping as he launched himself over the roots and down the embankment on the other side.

Benning watched Daniels tumble down the slope like a blonde rag doll, landing in the mud on their side of the stream. For a moment, it appeared that he wouldn’t be able to make it back onto his feet. Eventually he did, the aging sweater he wore now covered with thick, watery earth and rotting leaves.

Daniels stumbled across the stream and past the shack without even slowing down. Within moments he had disappeared into the flora on the other side of the hollow. That was the last they ever saw of him.

“Son of a bitch really left,” Jacobs muttered as Daniels was swallowed by the forest. He offered Benning a tight smile. “Ah well. Fuck him, right?” he said, then threw himself down the hill.

Benning tightened his hold on Patti’s waist then backed up to the root he had been taking cover behind, dragging the limbless creature with him. He had to turn his upper body slightly to the right to peer over his shoulder and down the hill with his remaining eye.

He saw Jacobs lying close to the spot where Daniels had landed, flailing about in the mud. Benning initially thought Jacobs was having difficulty getting to his feet because the ground was soft and he only had one arm. A sick feeling came over him as he realized that Jacobs was sinking.

Quicksand!

Fighting a surge of panic, Benning hugged Patti close to him and launched them both backwards. The world turned end over end, first trees, then Patti, then the ground filling his vision as the two of them plummeted down.

Propelled by Patti’s extra weight, both of them hit the base of the slope, the force of the impact launching them in opposite directions. Patti landed in the stream, rolling side over side until he came to a stop on the more solid topsoil, closer to the shack.

Benning spilled onto his back in roughly the same spot where Daniels had landed, mere yards way from where Jacobs was now chest deep in the quicksand pit. He flipped onto his stomach, feeling his ribs shift beneath his skin as he moved, realizing that at least half of them had broken in the fall. He crawled toward Jacobs, who by now was only visible from the neck up.

“Grab my hand!” Benning called, stretching out his arm.

Jacobs shook his head, his face the picture of calm as it hovered mere inches above the surface. “Forget it,” he said, the passive tone of his voice sending chills down Benning’s spine. “You tried, man. I appreciate it, but I think I’m just gonna let this happen.”

“That’s crazy, ” Benning said weakly, surprised to hear himself sob.

“Is it?” Jacobs returned. “It’s been one misery after another since I woke up, beginning with having to claw my way out of my own coffin. I never wanted to live again. I’d rather just stay down here and decompose under the ground like I was supposed to. Besides, this sure as hell beats going the only other way we can be destroyed, by fire. At least this is quiet.”

Jacobs sank a few more inches, until all but his eyes, nose and mouth were covered. Those eyes shifted in Benning ’s direction, the colorless dead lips crinkling in a small smile. Jacobs winked.

With a soft gurgling sound, he was gone.

Benning stared at the surface of the pit for a long moment, until the sound of the hunting party reaching the Banyan tree captured his full attention.

He staggered to his feet, hopped the stream and picked up Patti, lunging toward the shack.

As he cleared the distance to the ramshackle door of the structure, Benning could hear one of the Hungry shouting he could see something moving down in the hollow. That settled any doubts about holing up inside.

With only him left to carry Patti, the best he could hope for was to barricade the door and buy them some time to come up with an escape route. There was no way he could evade the men at the top of the incline if he continued to drag Patti through the forest.

Benning backed through the door of the shack, relieved to discover that it wasn’t locked. He scrambled inside, laying Patti on the ground, then turned and slammed the door shut.

There was no lock, but he noticed a large, metal gas can -the rusted lip stuffed with an oily cloth- resting in the corner to his left.

Benning leaned over, intending to grab the can and prop it against the door, when the smell hit him full on. Only one substance had that specific stench. Gasoline. Given the intensity of the odor, there had to be a lot of it.

Benning lifted the can off of the ground. Whatever hope he had been holding onto was extinguished when he felt how light it was.

A soft whine drifted to him and he turned around. Patti stared back at him with eyes that had taken on a haunting quality of resignation. The hapless creature jerked his head toward one of the walls.

Benning took a step closer, peering closely at the ragtag assemblage of boards. He could tell almost immediately the planks had recently been saturated with fuel.

As he realized this, Benning heard through the door the sounds of men closing in on the shack. A coarse voice shouted “They did it! They went for the shack! Shoot a flare in there and light it up!”

Benning knew it was all over. He locked his gaze with Patti’s and mouthed an apology. As the quick rush of air and accompanying whistle of the flare echoed through the forest, Benning saw in those eyes calm acceptance, but no more fear. Nor did he see accusation. Only gratitude. For that, at least, he was grateful.

Their world became fire.

~~~

By the time the shack had been reduced to glowing embers, day had given way to night and a crescent moon hung like a silver dagger in the clear night sky. Nearby, a pit fire blazed, casting an eerie glow over the faces of the hunters as they greedily devoured their servings.

Stationed at his makeshift serving post, the company cook turned the hand crank, slowly rotating the spit so as to evenly roast the mounted body. He paused, catching motion among the shadows beyond the reach of the flames. Moments later, two figures emerged from the outer perimeter of the camp. It was a man he recognized as one of the hunters, accompanied by his young son.

As the new arrivals approached the serving post, the father prompted his son to step forward. The boy did so, holding his plate out. He trembled as he stood before the cook, who eyed him warily for a moment before breaking into an inviting grin.

“Ready for some new meat, boy?” the cook asked, adopting a tone which suggested this was a matter of utmost gravity. He offered a sidelong wink at the father, who covered his smile.

“Answer the man, son.”

“Yes sir,” the boy told the cook, nodding.  The grizzled old man’s smile widened as he picked up a large serving fork and a fillet knife from the station.

The cook jabbed the tines of the fork into the side of the body, puncturing the roasted muscle running along the ribs , slicing through it with the thin, razor-edged blade. He made quick work of it, carefully dropping a slab of meat onto the boy’s plate. This was accompanied by a high-pitched sizzling as drops of juice fell from the cut into the flames.

“Thank the man, son,” the hunter instructed. The boy mumbled a solemn “Thank you”, staring at his father and then the cook with questioning eyes. The two men exchanged an amused glance.

“What’s wrong, son?” the cook asked. “You never tasted the new meat before?”

“No sir, I haven’t,” the boy answered softly. The cook let out a belly laugh at this. Several of the men encamped around the fire joined in, raising their beers in his direction.

The boy looked up at his father timidly. “Is it safe, Papa?”

The man smiled, clasping his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was proud of him. This had been his son’s first hunt using live ammunition and the boy had acquitted himself wonderfully. “Not only is it safe,” he explained, “it’s your right, son.”

“Why, Papa?”

“Well, you helped to track the new meat down, so you have an equal right to it.” He glanced over at the cook, who was nodding in agreement.

“He’s speaking the truth, son,” the cook added. “You did a damned fine job out there today. Any party would be lucky to have you help ‘em track game. You earned that meat. Now eat up.”

The boy stared at his plate for a long time, lost in thought. Then he looked to his father again. “Is it true what they say, Papa? T hat it tastes like chicken?”

The entire company laughed uproariously at this and the boy’s face brightened. “It surely does, son,” he was assured. “It surely does.”

The boy shrugged. If Papa said it was okay, then he believed it. Papa was smart about this sort of stuff. Besides, his stomach was growling, he hadn’t eaten all day and chasing the game through the woods had been hard work. The food smelled delicious.

Smiling, he picked up his portion of the new meat, taking a bite.

D.S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name 3/1/2019

Fiction Flashback: The Basement

Spring is just about here again and with it comes a time of renewal and re-birth. It’s also a time when even creepy crawlies give birth to a new generation. In that spirit, I’m sharing a story that originally appeared in the anthology Creature Stew some years back and currently exists as part of my first published collection, Beyond Where the Sky Ends.

So enjoy this nasty little creature feature, designed to give you the willies and have you pulling your feet up off the floor.

Catch you on the flip side.

 

The Basement

by D.S. Ullery

 

 

“It’s about damned time.”

Crawford scowled at Jenkins as he slid the pack from his back, setting it on the ground between them, targeting the pudgy little man with an annoyed glare. “Couldn’t be helped,” the elderly custodian muttered.

Crawford opened the pack and rummaged through it. Jenkins watched in silence, shivering miserably. It was unseasonably cold that morning and the interior of the machine shop was retaining the chill. It served to exacerbate his anger.

He was only here because a shop employee had been bitten by something the day before while down in the basement to retrieve a case of machine oil. The entire crew had been startled when the man had emerged mere minutes after going down, clenching his arm and screaming something had bitten him.

The injured employee hadn’t seen what had attacked him. Jenkins had no idea what the offending creature might be. Judging by the way that hand had swollen up like a purple grapefruit, he didn’t care to find out. He’d been content to just order the men to stay away from the basement until further notice.

Contrarily, Mr. Molgaard – the site manager –  had been unequivocal in his opinion Jenkins should handle the task of cleaning out the basement personally. He was the floor supervisor, after all, and maintaining a safe work environment was really his responsibility. He’d need to attend to his duties outside of operating hours, of course. That was part of being on salary.

“Hell of a way to spend a Saturday, huh?” Crawford asked.

“Just come on,” Jenkins grumbled. Crawford shrugged and grabbed the pack, following across the room to a large, metal plate set into the floor.

“Well,” Jenkins snapped, “don’t just stand there. Open it.”

Crawford knelt down and gripped a small handle at the edge of the plate. He pulled, lifting the metal slab out of its groove and dropping it on the floor, a loud clatter echoing across the cold pavement . Underneath, an exposed opening revealed a flight of narrow, metal stairs.

“Let’s go,” Jenkins said. Crawford nodded. He withdrew two small, plastic flashlights from the pack, handing one to the other man. They turned the lights on and, with Jenkins in the lead, headed down.

As they descended, the shadows took over and the beams from their lights became more distinct in the surrounding darkness. Jenkins paused on the last step. He hadn’t been down here in years, but thought he remembered where the light switch was. He moved the light in that direction, relieved to see the old plastic panel on the other side of the room.

They crossed the space and Jenkins hit the switch. Nothing happened. He tried it again, but knew with a sinking feeling the lights weren’t working. He was grateful, at least, for the combination of their flashlights and the glare of the shop lamps shining down on the exposed stairway through the portal above. They could see well enough to move around safely. More importantly, they could plant the pesticide bombs Crawford had in his pack and get out of there quickly, without stumbling around.

“Look,” Crawford said, pointing towards something large and bulky on the floor. Whatever the object was, it was cloaked by shadow in one of the corners. Both men trained their beams on it as they approached. It was revealed to be a large cardboard storage box. The box had been dropped onto its side. Several rusted cans marked “oil” lay strewn about the mouth, one of them having shattered open and spilled its long degraded contents onto the concrete.

“This must be the box Garcia was handling when he was bitten,” Jenkins said.

“Don’t know why anyone came down here anyway,” Crawford chided. “No one’s been down here in years. Should tent the building and kill everything in here.”

“He came down because we ran out of oil and thought there might be some left down here we could use,” Jenkins said testily. He was about to add something sarcastic when he was interrupted by a loud skittering, coming from behind the mess. Something was moving around back there.

Jenkins kicked the box to one side, shining his light on the newly exposed section of wall. “Crawford, move your light over here!” he ordered. Crawford did as he was told.

Something large and misshapen was fastened to a baseboard. The surface of the thing throbbed and pulsed beneath a translucent substance which appeared to be some type of silky, organic adhesive. The men exchanged looks of burning curiosity and peered closer, bringing their flashlights right up on it. Jenkins reflexively issued a disgusted gasp. Beside him, Crawford’s face transformed into a mask of revulsion .

Dozens of large, hairy spiders were swarming across the surface, scurrying onto the walls and floors. One or two – each easily measuring three to four inches – charged across the concrete directly toward Jenkins. He frantically stomped them to pieces, shuddering as their bodies exploded in a sickly expulsion of fluid beneath his heel.

“Wait a minute”, Crawford spoke. There was an alarmed edge to his voice Jenkins didn’t like at all. “Good god, Mr, Jenkins… those bugs are coming out of that thing.”

Steeling himself despite his flesh actively trying to crawl off of his bones, Jenkins stepped closer and had another look. The custodian was correct.. The spiders were breaking out from beneath the webbed surface. Crawford met Jenkins’ gaze and whispered in a thick voice “It’s an egg sac.”

“But they’re so big!” Jenkins cried, pointing. “That can’t be an egg sac! Look at how huge those spiders are!” When Crawford didn’t answer, Jenkins turned on him. “Did you hear what I-”

Jenkins lapsed into silence the moment he laid eyes on Crawford. The older man had frozen. He was staring past his employer, his eyes locked onto the ceiling. His face had contorted into a visage of terror and disbelief so extreme as to border on caricature. With a sense of mounting dread, Jenkins followed his companion’s gaze. He immediately found himself wishing with every fiber of his being they hadn’t left the pack with the bug bombs upstairs.

Something enormous crawled down the wall, the sheer size of it sending vibrations running through the entire room, causing the metal stairs to rattle. The hairy expanse of the massive body momentarily blocked the light cast from the shop above as it scurried toward them. It dropped onto the stairs, finding purchase for a brief second before lunging at them.

Crawford was right, Jenkins had just enough time to think. It is an egg sac.

And now it was time for Mother to feed.

D.S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name

New Flash fiction: “Byron”

Hello, one and all, and welcome to the latest entry in my blog. This week, I participated in another writing prompt, courtesy of Stitched Smile Publications. The following story is a brand new piece of flash fiction which emerged from that challenge.

So here for your reading pleasure is my all new horror tale, “Byron”.

Enjoy the story!

 

Catch you on the flip side.

 

Byron

by D. S. Ullery

“Okay Byron. You have a good night.”

Mother planted a soft kiss on her son’s forehead as she lay him down. Byron cooed, his infant mouth curling in a smile. He was in a warm bed and his mother was watching over him. All was well in his world.

She regarded the boy for a moment longer, then glided to the bedroom door. With the flip of a light switch, the warm, amber glow of the night light installed near the baseboards lit the room. Though the shine didn’t completely dispel the shadows, it allowed her to see the crib from the doorway should the need arise.

Satisfied he would be secure with or without her presence in the nursery, Mother stepped out into the adjacent hall. Closing the door quietly behind her, she considered drawing a bath. It had been a long day and a good, hot soak would be welcome.

The sound of Father moving about in the den downstairs changed her mind. It had been forever since the two of them had enjoyed some quality alone time. She’d instead go down and join him in a nightcap.

Smiling, she headed down the stairs.

* * *

It watched from its hiding place, perched high in the corner of the room, talons gripping the walls as an anchor. It had caught the scent of the human child several miles out, while in flight above the desert to the south. Past experience had taught it to wait until the more mature creature was gone. The species were a potent source of nutrition at any age, but the adults fought . They used tools. Their young put up no struggle. Plus, the meat was sweeter.

It had slipped into the nursery earlier that evening, having tracked the scent of the infant through a then-open window. It had watched in silence, keeping perfectly still as the adult entered and placed its pup in what appeared to be a human nest below. It had done this many, may times across a span of years of which it kept no account.

The night was the only world it knew. Daylight rendered the thing practically blind. Once the sun went down, it could perceive the movement of even the tiniest insect from over a mile away.

It’s other senses were equally keen- its olfactory and aural capabilities were unrivaled in the fossil record, as was its speed and strength. It was a perfect predator, able to soar on huge, leathery flaps. The razor sharp claws topping its feet more than compensated for the limited range of the crooked digits protruding from the tips of those wings.

A natural dexterity allowed the thing to contort itself into as tight a ball as necessary, a gift beneficial for both defense and feeding. With a snout full of needle-like teeth, it was a lethal beast, able to grip its still writhing prey while tearing chunks of hot, bloody flesh from the bones. Better still was its physical similarity to the primates on which it fed. Graced with a humanoid frame, its prey would often mistake it for another of their kind cloaked in the dark , not realizing their error until it was too late.

Now alone with the human child, it felt its hunger rise. The smell of this one was particularly sweet, the aroma of succulent meat more enticing than on any previous occasion. Being this close – less than a meter above the crib- the desire to feed had increased to a white hot intensity, overriding all other instincts.

Salivating, it spread its wings and released its grip on the wall, plummeting on top of the baby. It spread its feet as it fell, not wishing to pulverize the meal by landing directly on it. Steadying itself on the soft material of the mattress, it rose to its full height, wings completely spread. It’s mouth stretched, now a chasm lined with ivory daggers.

An unearthly hiss issued from its throat as it went in for the kill.

There was a flash of motion. It abruptly found itself frozen, unable to breathe. Something impossibly strong had wound itself around its neck and was throttling it.

Panicked, it made a furious attempt to flap its wings. It was to no avail. They were pinned to its sides. The beast pulled with its considerable strength, thrashing to and fro, but found itself unable to escape.

Save for a single morning eons ago when it had evaded the torment of daytime by mere minutes, the thing had never known fear. It was becoming intimately familiar with it now, the scarlet orbs of its eyes bulging in terror as it was held fast.

It stared down , unable to comprehend what was happening.

The child was gone. In his place lay a squirming, foul demon. Colorless black eyes sunken in reptilian, slime-slicked flesh glared back. Wriggling tentacles stretched from the creature’s body, winding around the flying beast’s neck and torso, holding it suspended in air above the bed.

Beneath those soulless eyes , the putrid flesh split apart, revealing a pointed beak. This protrusion clacked repeatedly, snapping at air as it slowly pulled its captive ever closer.

It took a bite. Then another. Then another. It happened so quickly, the beast had no time to scream.

One bloody piece at a time, it sliced up the bat-like intruder, until only tattered remnants of its wings and a single, broken talon remained. Noting this, it slid its slithering appendages across the gore-soaked pile, absorbing the blood through its suckers and shoving the last pieces into that deadly beak.

It fell still, sitting quietly in the crib, stomach bloated as it digested the meal.

The feast was appreciated. What seemed like ages had elapsed since it had sensed another night creature in such close proximity. It hadn’t wanted to miss the opportunity for a fresh meal. The demon noted – with some regret – this would be the last kill it would make using this boy. As the host it had entered matured, so did the young mind within begin to challenge the demon’s presence for control. Eventually, the natural consciousness would win out. It knew it would have to leave, to find another.

After a time, the low growl of expelled gas drifted out of it as it finished with the food. This was followed by a high pitched giggle. The ebony marbles it used for eyes rolled back, revealing the bright blue Mother held so dear. The slimy green skin peeled away, rolling over and wrapping his bones with the traditional soft pink as Byron’s human appearance reasserted itself. Tentacles dwindled into chubby arms, culminating in five tiny digits.

From behind the boy’s eyes, it assessed the body one last time. Even the beige pajamas he was clothed in had been restored.

Not a hair out of place, it thought wistfully. Despite being a thing of the pit, the demon felt a twinge of regret. It had grown to like Byron. Ah, well. Such was the fate of the damned.

It slipped out, for now content as it fled into the night, searching for the next vessel.

Back in his crib, Byron curled up on his pillow and fell into a deep, contented sleep.

Later that night, when Mother looked in on him, she saw her son sleeping peacefully in the comforting glow of the night light.

Such a happy baby.

D. S Ullery’s Blog With No Name

Book Review: Reaper by Briana Robertson.

 

In my inaugural blog last week, I mentioned that – from time to time- reviews of both written and visual media would be part of the content readers will find here. I also pointed out that horror would be a fairly persistent thread winding through this blog.

In that spirit, I’ve written a review of a book I finished earlier this week. So without further adieu, here we go:

The Target: Reaper

The Creative: Briana Robertson

The collective responsible for anyone being able to read this: Stitched Smile Publications

The year it was unleashed upon the populace: 2017

Briana Robertson’s single author collection Reaper gathers five dark tales offering a variety of perspectives on humanity’s greatest fear – death- from a distinctly feminine perspective.

Powered by the author’s remarkable gift for prose, the stories are engaging and the book was a breeze to devour.  One of the very real pleasures in reading this tome was witnessing how Robertson uses her technical skills, painting a vivid emotional portrait of what’s happening on the page as well as a physical one. The stories are populated with characters possessed of immediately recognizable human weaknesses – and strengths- making them easy to relate to.

However, not all narratives are created equal and , as is usually the case with collections, not every story worked to the same degree for me. I’ll be touching on that in more detail below.

 

So here’s my  breakdown by story, in order of their sequence in the book:

 

Reaper: The titular tale and the one definitively supernatural selection of the bunch. The cliff notes version is this is a look at a day in the life of the Grim Reaper, here presented as a woman who isn’t particularly fond of her job. I thought this got off to a somewhat rocky start, but quickly found its bearings and delivered a fascinating  take on how workplace sexual politics might manifest on the other side of death. This one produces some unexpectedly heart-wrenching moments , leading to  a starkly effecting conclusion. It’s a good note on which to begin the collection.

Capitulation: Both chilling and sad, this is a devastating story, told from the perspective of a woman who has given up hope.  The writing here is so rich and descriptive, it really puts the reader inside her head. Robertson consistently demonstrates an uncanny knack for making us feel what her characters are experiencing throughout the entire collection and that gift is on full display in this story. This is a tale that’s meant to leave bruises. Mission accomplished.

Prey: A woman is violated and then seeks revenge on her tormentor. That’s about all the plot I can give, because Robertson does some interesting things here . The story – which I believe is the longest in the collection- is extremely well written. The subject matter is uncomfortable and the author dives headlong into it , never holding back nor apologizing as she masterfully exposes the physical and psychological horrors of rape, as well as the often callous response to such crimes by men. What makes this tale terrifying – and all the more effective- is the plausibility of the plot for the majority of the work.

And that’s also why this was the only selection I ultimately had criticisms of. In the latter part of “Prey” , the plot swerves into the matter of  revenge .  I don’t want to divulge spoilers, but what the protagonist comes up with requires the human monster who’s the focus of her rage to believe her on a level I wasn’t able to accept. In the earlier part of the story, he’s definitely fleshed out as a psychopath, but how he goes about committing his crimes in these early passages suggests someone too intelligent to just accept what she says to him on face value later on. This in turn sets up the ending, which I also had issues with. Again, avoiding spoilers, there is a decision made by a character that closes out the tale, indicating a dark, new direction for their life. I was uncertain if readers were supposed to accept this individual as an avenger or a lunatic. If I’m being completely honest,  while I really wanted to think the first, it felt more like the latter.  Consequently, I walked away from this story unsatisfied with how it concluded.

Now, having made those points, it’s a distinct possibility other readers will be a lot more taken with “Prey” than I was. It is powerful stuff and the prose is top notch.   This isn’t by any stretch a bad story. I just didn’t think it came together as well as the others. Particularly the next in line…..

Lucy.

 Holy shit. This is a fucking masterpiece. With “Lucy”, Briana Robertson has accomplished something no author has been able to do in roughly a decade. For the first time in years, I actually cried while reading a story.

I absolutely refuse to divulge any substantial details; Going in as blind as possible is the best way to experience this one. All you’ll get from me is that it’s about a mother who faces a parent’s worst nightmare. Robertson pulls you in , holds you at rapt attention, rips your heart out of your chest and then hits you with a grand slam whammy of a conclusion that had this reader’s jaw scraping the floor. This was such an exquisitely crafted piece, I would favorably compare it to the best works of Shirley Jackson. Not only does this stand as the high watermark  of the collection, this is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, period. End of discussion. “Lucy” absolutely blindsided me.

 

 Phobia: I had a huge, twisted grin stretched across my face by the time I finished this final tale. For the closing story, Robertson delivers a shocker designed to terrify readers and send goose-flesh rippling across every inch of skin on their bones. About two thirds of the way through this, I recognized this as a clear instance of an author having an absolute blast in creeping out her audience. Easily the most frightening story in the book and guaranteed to make even the most stoic readers squirm, I won’t soon forget this nasty little gem.

 

The Bottom Line: Crafted in gorgeous prose by an artist exceptionally skilled at populating her stories with three dimensional  characters, Reaper was an intense, incredibly entertaining read. My comments regarding the latter part of “Prey” aside,  I highly recommend this one to fans of dark fiction. Briana Robertson is an author you should be reading.

****1/2 out of ***** stars. A must read.

Thanks for reading!

Catch you on the flip side.

D.S. Ullery  2/9/19

 

 

 

D.S. Ullery’s Blog With No Name.

Let the show begin!

Hello and welcome to the first ever installment of my first ever blog in my first ever attempt to do something on social media that doesn’t involve posting memes about fuck you claps, leaving diatribes about car horn abuse as a status update or ranting on Twitter about people who spend all day ranting on Twitter.

You’ll notice the title of this blog. That isn’t me trying to be clever, but rather an acknowledgment of what to expect from what will be – for now – a weekly endeavor. The content will change as I write. Some weeks, I’ll have a pieces of flash fiction on here. Others I’ll post a rant. On different occasions, I’ll write a review of a book or a film I’ve enjoyed or hated.

There may also be times when I discuss more personal matters or address something tragic that’s made the news. Perhaps I’ll just be in a playful mood and start making fun of hamsters, because why the hell not?

The point is, there’s no reason to come up with a terrifically clever title for this blog because A) all  the really clever names have been taken and B) there’s never going to be one specific theme here.

Save for one. The horror genre. I absolutely love it. Horror is, in all its twisted glory, the grand summary of all the other genres. It has action, drama, sometimes comedy, often romance  and it can scare the hell out of you while making you think. There’s no greater genre. There’s also no better creative community to be a part of.

And part of it I am. I write horror. I’m a published author of horror fiction, a member in good standing of the Horror Writer’s Association and – although I hold a day job to pay my bills  – writing dark, creepy tales is where my head and heart are at ( unlike the little thug who egged my apartment last Halloween, whose head and heart have since been dipped in bronze and mounted on my mantle as a reminder that sometimes life has its victories. I’m kidding of course. The little bastard was way too fast that night, even with the bola. Now I have nets installed. But that’s another blog post).

I’m also a film buff of the highest order. So Horror is a theme you’ll likely see winding through here on a fairly consistent basis.

To confirm this (And to wrap up: It’s getting late and I have to be up for work early in the morning), I’ve decided to kick this new adventure off with a short piece I recently wrote as part of a writing challenge over on the Stitched Smile Publications Groupies Facebook page.

The prompt on this occasion had been a striking image of a woman who was , apparently, part lizard demon. As you’ve likely guessed, the idea was to write  an orignal piece  (no longer than 2,000 words) based on the picture.

The version presented here has been edited and fleshed out a bit. It is not the original edition, which clocked in at a little over 1,700 words. I wasn’t happy with my final edit on that one and, as this was never written for profit, I thought it’d be fun to tweak it and post it as my first blog.

So here we go, horror fans.  If you’ve made it this far without furiously clicking away and blocking this page (or falling asleep), I invite you to partake of the dark delights found within my tale  “A Welcome Sound”.

Oh and check out my book , Beyond Where the Sky Ends , available at Amazon. That’s my shameless plug for the day.

Catch you on the flip side. Enjoy the story!

D. S. Ullery

2/6/19

 

 A Welcome Sound

 by D. S. Ullery

“I think this is the same guy. The eyes are burned out of the sockets, just like on the ones we found at the last couple of places.”

Officer Douglas agreed, though the wave of nausea currently washing over him prevented him from replying to the man in the room above. He clapped a clammy palm over his mouth, a desperate attempt to keep out the taste of rot poisoning the air in the basement

It was dank and dark, the sort of subterranean space people usually only entered if they wanted to store worthless belongings somewhere they’d never be seen. Only it seemed it wasn’t old board games or outdated furniture this particular homeowner was keeping below. An evil smell, emanating from the recesses to the policeman’s left, suggested something far worse

Douglas was standing on the bottom step of a narrow flight of stairs. The steps lead back to an open trap door above. The two officers had discovered the concealed passage quite by accident. Upon entering the premises minutes earlier, they’d discovered a corpse laid out in the living room. It appeared to be a teenage boy. He’d been dumped at the base of an entertainment center, sticky pools of congealed blood pooling underneath him on the hardwood floor. Someone had taken a blade to the body and melted this eyeballs in their sockets.

While walking about the room searching for any evidence of who might have committed the murder, his partner had unintentionally scuffed the corner of a throw rug with the toe of his shoe, flipping up one of the corners. Both men had immediately noticed the perfectly angled crack where the horizontal door separated from the rest of the floor.

Looking at the hidden space now, Douglas saw a solidly packed dirt floor to his right. This area represented the majority of the basement space and resembled a large, black square of flat, packed soil. It was populated by three evenly spaced holes, running north to south. Douglas shuddered when he saw these individual pits.

They looked like freshly dug graves. It appeared someone was planning a mass burial.

To his left, three cubicles of equal width and height lined the opposite wall. All three spaces had been designed without doors. A thick, concrete foundation was divided by four cement walls of equal height, width and length. Each space looked to be at least six feet wide.

Stepping off the stairs , Douglas withdrew the magnesium flashlight dangling from a metal loop on his belt, bringing it blazing to life with a quick punch of his thumb. He aimed the powerful beam toward the closest cubicle, stepping slowly in that direction.

He reached the space and peered inside cautiously, scanning the interior. His gag reflex was tested as the decomposed remains of a badly mutilated woman flashed briefly in the bright circle of light. He flinched, taking a reflexive step back.

Taking a deep breath, Douglas composed himself. It wasn’t easy: The stench was much worse this close (the body was clearly the source of the terrible odor) and the environment as a whole gave him the creeps. When he felt he had steadied himself, he entered the cubicle.

Keeping the light centered, he examined the corpse. She was upright, back pressed against a load bearing wall. Her arms were elevated, suspended at the wrists by thick, iron manacles, connected to the wall behind her by steel chains. Duct tape had been wrapped around her head, covering her mouth, several times over. From the state of the body, he guessed she’d been dead for weeks . Despite the deterioration of the woman’s flesh, it was apparent she’d suffered deep lacerations all over her body. Someone had cut her limbs, stomach and face with a knife , then left her here to bleed out.

Her eyes were ruined, having been reduced to scorched blobs.

A deep anger surged within Douglas as he mentally cataloged this last detail. That was the clincher. The whole ballgame, as his father used to say. His partner had been correct: This was the work of the same sick individual. The same man who had left similar death depositories beneath several homes across the city. Almost certainly the person responsible for the corpse upstairs.

Law enforcement believed the suspect to be a local land owner. Records showed the man had purchased this property, as well as several others where victims had been found, all in the same grisly state. Douglas and his partner had responded to a complaint called in by a neighbor earlier that day. The woman had reported screams issuing from underneath this house.

 When the address showed registered on the list of properties owned by the prime suspect in what had been officially declared serial killings, the officers had entered prepared to make an arrest.

But, so far, the man was nowhere to be found. Only more victims.

Douglas found himself hoping the bastard was crouched down here, quaking in his shoes. He prayed the man would try to attack him if that were the case. Shooting the miserable prick would be one of the most rewarding moments of his entire life.

He moved to the next cubicle. Here he discovered a similarly grim scene. Another body, manacled as well, also bearing deep cuts and with the eyes burned out. The only noticeable difference was the degree of decomposition. From the look of it, Douglas estimated this unfortunate soul had been dead maybe a week.

So their killer had murdered the first girl, then kept this captive down in this hellhole while her unfortunate neighbor had rotted away. He tried to process what it must have been like for her to have to live with that smell, knowing what it represented was her fate as well. he couldn’t. It was more than cruel, it was unholy. The rush of hate powering through Douglas at that moment was so strong, he felt his face begin to burn.

They were dealing with a real life monster. It was that simple. That horrifying.

He decided to head back upstairs and collect his partner before checking the final cubicle. It was likely to contain another body and he didn’t want to face that alone. This was too much, even after having spent a decade on the force.

A sound caught his attention. It originated from the other side of the wall separating him from last cubicle. It was the noise of someone moving. It was a welcome sound, indicating to him one of two possibilities: There was a survivor, or he was about to have his desire satisfied and capture ( or kill) the lunatic responsible for this atrocity.

Douglas slid his hand toward his service revolver, popping the strap on the holster. He held the flashlight up, level with his shoulder, keeping the beam trained directly in front of him as he walked.

He turned the corner quickly, facing down whoever might be on the other side

A lithe figure was crouched against the far wall. Naked, pulsating flesh glistened beneath the light. Above the shape , a single wrist hung trapped inside a single shackle. Next to it, the other empty manacle hung empty.

Dark lines wove along the limbs of the creature, spiraling along its sleek form, culminating in a row of spiny, pointed protrusions which cascaded down its spine. These tapered to a black spike of a tail, which wound on itself like that of some impossible lizard. The thing had the unmistakable form of a human being. It exuded a distinctly feminine quality, yet in the same moment seemed overwhelmingly reptilian in nature.

It initially took no notice of the policeman staring at it. It was concentrating on the fresh meat into was shoving into its gullet, swallowing with quick, dips of its head. Douglas followed its movements, swerving the beam down and exposing the tattered remnants of a human body at her feet.

He stepped closer, staring at the remains. Whoever it was had been thoroughly savaged. One arm had been torn from its socket and the stomach rent asunder, emptied of the vital organs. There, under the glow of the light, he watched as the creature dipped one claw-like hand into the wound, tearing away something brown and bloody. It plopped the tissue into its mouth with a sickening slurp, its head again making that quick dip as the meat slid down.

Aghast, Douglas began to draw his pistol, when he noticed something telling about the remains.

There, dangling from what was left of a belt strap circling the mid-section. It was a large key ring, hooked to a belt loop on the opposite side of the body from where the creature crouched. The keys were just far enough from the captive to be out of its reach. Douglas noted they were large and made of metal.

The very type of keys one would likely use to open shackles.

This was their man. He could feel it in his gut.

A surprised grunt floated to him from the darkness above the gruesome scene and he shifted the light back up. He was startled to discover a young girl (no more than eighteen, he suspected) staring at him. She hopped back, gripping the chain connecting the manacle to the concrete as if her life depended on it.

Gone were the bizarre markings. The protrusions he’d seen emerging from her back had also disappeared. The only remaining indications what he had witnessed had been real were her nakedness – her clothes were torn to pieces, scattered across the floor of the cubicle- and the blood staining her mouth from where she’d swallowed pieces of the body.

The reptilian quality she’d possessed had been replaced by a terrified innocence, silently conveyed through emerald green eyes that now pleaded for help.

Douglas slowly moved his hand away from his gun. He drew closer, signaling for her to stay still. He unzipped a small satchel connected to his belt and withdrew a pair of latex gloves stored inside. Quickly donning these, he reached out and unhooked the keys from the dead man’s belt.

It took several tries, but he finally found the correct one, managing to undo the shackle with a satisfying click. As he released the girl, Douglas could only imagine what had happened. In his mind’s eye, the recently deceased maniac had captured the wrong victim, unaware of what she really was. He must have unlocked one of the manacles in an attempt to have his way with her, only to find himself confronted by her true nature, unleashed in all its fury. He’d likely been reduced from tormentor to food in the blink of a eye.

At least, that’s what Douglas hoped. It gave him no small measure of  satisfaction to think this man would end the day being something she’d eventually shit out.

The sound of his partner calling to him broke him out of his reverie. Alarmed, he began to scan the area for any possible places the girl could hide. He had no desire to take her into custody, nor did he particularly believe he’d be able to if he tried.

The girl tapped his shoulder, frantically pointing across the basement, beyond the three graves. She waved for Douglas to follow her, leading him out of the cubicle. They crossed the dirt floor, arriving at a small, square door located at the base of the opposite wall. The passage was cloaked in shadow and he’d missed it upon entering earlier.

The girl pushed at the door, causing it to swing inward. She scurried through, beckoning for him to have a look. He shone the light inside, greeted by the sight of a narrow, vertical tunnel, equipped with a small ladder. The ladder ascended to an opening, through which dim afternoon light now shone. An escape route, likely put in place by the murderer in the event he faced being captured.

She moved to the ladder, then paused, turning back to Douglas. The fear in her eyes was gone. What shone back was gratitude- and a question, one he understood without effort.

Why?

“I have a daughter, about your age,” he answered softly, smiling at her. He nodded toward the ladder. “Go. My partner will be down here shortly. You’d better be gone by then.”

She returned his smile, then disappeared up the ladder, a wraith vanishing as if she’d never been. She moved fast.

Faster than a human being, he thought with absolute certainty.

Douglas stared after her for a moment, wondering what she was and where she’d come from. It was a fleeting bout of inquisitiveness. It didn’t matter. The girl could be a demon from the depths of Hell itself. After what she’d been through today, she deserved to be free. Besides, he was of the opinion she’d done the world a service.

Behind him, the sound of his partner’s footsteps grew louder on the stairs, echoing as the he descended into the basement.

Closing the door of the passage, Douglas began to think up a cover story.