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In the Light of Darkness: The Seed of All Evil, #1

In the Light of Darkness: The Seed of All Evil, #1

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In the Light of Darkness: The Seed of All Evil, #1

Length:
449 pages
6 hours
Released:
Oct 21, 2016
ISBN:
9781536552591
Format:
Book

Description

State FBI Agent Angela Warder tries to hold her alcoholic partner Stephen Myles together after they are yanked off the trail of a highly publicized serial killer and placed on a seemingly lackluster case.  But when a tiny town's entire population is verified missing, only a local prison doctor holds the answer to the infamous inmate isolated in the basement, and an ancient order linked to the world's first murderer.  Contending with demons from their past, their feelings about each other, and a little town's dark secret, Stephen and Angela return to the fabled site of the bloodiest mass murder in American history and come face to face with the one born to walk - IN THE LIGHT OF DARKNESS.

Released:
Oct 21, 2016
ISBN:
9781536552591
Format:
Book

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In the Light of Darkness - A.X. Rhodes

Author

PART I

CHAPTER 1

The damp earth trembled with constant heavy footsteps. Woodland animals scurried away to the cover and cool of the immense trees, hiding from the strangers, as stars overhead shined a hazy illumination against a layer of smoke and ash that nearly obscured the night lights. A slow breeze wrestled with the defiant cloud, but failed to break its relentless grip on the skies above. Leaves and branches rustled as the wind made an almost silent retreat through the trees.

But there was something else. Another faint sound increased in strength with each repetition. It grinded faster as the moments passed, progressing through the veiled tranquility of the forest.

Thump... thump... thump. Thump... thump... thump. A small rabbit’s ears pricked up in alarm as the intruders rushed by its home beneath the ground. But the rodent only heard the footsteps. The other sound escaped all, except a trailing shadow. Thump... thump. Thump… thump.

Fear was pushing a rapidly beating heart too far. Only this distressed heart was not alone. Nine others followed, stampeding at a maniacal rhythm. Heartbeats overlapped with a resounding reverb of internal urgency. The group formed a scraggly, single-file formation to traverse the forest. They fled without thinking. Instinct seized control.

They dove into the forest like frightened sailors fleeing the hull of a sinking ship for the unknown peril of the surrounding sea. Terror drove the survivors perilously along. Sometimes it seemed their hearts were almost bursting through their rib cages. Other times they only felt an intense fear numbing them to the pounding in their chests. Their minds were worn and heightened emotions ran rampant from the constant flow of adrenalin. Fatigue beckoned their tattered and bedraggled bodies to cease their resistance to rest.

Still, they pressed on, driven by the dread of some ominous, nameless presence lurking in the shadows behind them. It remained stealthy, but they knew it was there. They had to move. They had to get away. They had to run faster and faster still. Inches became feet. Feet stretched into yards. And yards woefully grew into miles.

A yellow Labrador retriever galloped along with them. Its aluminum I.D. tag jingled against the metal buckle of its collar like a metronome setting the pace. The poor dog’s tongue hung pitiably to its left side. Thick saliva dripped from its mouth trying to quench its desperate thirst. And yet it just kept running, panting in the grasp of its own exhaustion. One of the men collapsed, falling forward on his belly, and the retriever barked in alarm. The others stopped and helped him to his feet. With a few words of encouragement, they started off again. Several moments later in a state of panic, the same man cried out in pain and tumbled to the ground.

Stop. I can’t go on! Can’t go on.... The old man’s voice trailed off into silence. He put his hand to his chest and with a few short gasps his life left him. But they could not stop! They had to leave their friend behind, gasping for air as they ran.

They rushed over fallen trees, through heavy underbrush, and trampled twigs, leaves and pinecones beneath their feet. Thick foliage and prickly briars tore, scraped, and clawed at the exposed flesh on their necks, arms, and faces. They stumbled and tripped over rocks, limbs, and old tree stumps. Spider-webs blocked their path and clasped hold as they ran through them. Some shed the webbing instantly, while a few endured an unknown parasite that continued to shoot tiny strands of irritating, silken thread.

The humidity felt thick and unbearable. Sweat clung to their bodies, failing to cool them from the strenuous, ongoing marathon. The mosquitoes ravaged them in frenzy, homing in on the foul fragrance of perspiration. Most of them had no idea where they were or where they were going. The group just kept running, pushing their bodies beyond the perils of lassitude.

The last man in this line of sprinters twisted his ankle on a large tree root and fell down on the retriever. The helpless dog yelped twice as Sean’s weight slammed them both to the forest floor. The guy in front of them, Mark, looked back while keeping his pace.

Come on, Sean! Mark yelled. As he turned back around, Mark Slaton found himself straying from his companions’ trail and just a few inches from a large outstretched limb. It knocked him off his feet; his body sailed through the air in a partial back flip. Mark landed awkwardly on the back of his head, his neck snapped, and his body toppled lifeless to its sudden grave beneath the twisted arms of an old tree.

The retriever got up and quickly regained its stride, dashing after the others, but Sean was not so lucky. He shifted up to his knees and put his hand to his forehead. A warm trickle of blood flowed through his fingers, down his nose, and onto his cheeks. The young man felt around on the ground with his other hand and discovered a jagged rock sprinkled with a warm liquid. Blood dripped onto his lips and into his mouth. Sean wiped the blood away with his other hand, which was covered in dirt and decaying leaves.

Spuh, Sean said, spitting the filth from his mouth. Sean collected his bearings and eased back to his feet. He took a step and staggered down to one knee feeling very faint. As a former high school athlete and physical trainer, Sean wasn’t accustomed to physical impairment. It daunted him.

Hey guys, wait a minute, Sean said in an attempted yell. But he only had the strength to mutter a mere whisper. He raised his hand in a pitiful gesture to draw the attention of the others, but they were long gone. Sean’s head rocked back and forth a few times, his vision blurred, and he fell flat on his back, surrendering to unconsciousness.

Far ahead, the front-runner of the pack stopped as his legs pushed into thick grass and his foot splashed into shallow water.

Whoa! Deputy Russell yelled. Everyone came to a halt.

What? Why did we stop? a heavy girl named Lisa asked.

It’s the creek, Deputy Russell answered.

What? Are you afraid of water or something? a man named Ty asked.

No! Alligators! Haven’t you ever heard about the gators in this creek? A man hooked a fifteen-footer last year. Nearly pulled him out of the boat!

We can’t just stand here! Lisa pleaded.

Wait a minute. Is everybody still with us? a guy named Jack Lambert asked. I recognize Ty and Deputy Russell's voice. Billy…? Sean? Billy, a timid, blonde busboy dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and barely twenty, announced his presence as the group fell silent waiting for Sean’s response.

My name isn’t Sean. It’s Sam. But I’m still here too, the Hispanic reporter Sam Hoover said, breaking the silence. Sam brushed off his torn khaki pants and red, rayon shirt, irritated by his predicament. I think originally there were nine of us. I am never journeying this far out into the sticks again.

Where’s the dog? Ty asked. Jack whistled for her.

I think we lost her, Lisa said. He whistled again.

Old Collins went down earlier, Jack Lambert said. That leaves Billy, Ty, Deputy Russell, Lisa, Sam, me and uh... Mark. Mark was bringing up the tail end with Sean. What happened to Mark?"

College boy? Ty asked, and Jack replied, Yeah.

They waited for a response.

So we’re missing one Sean Flannery and one Mark Slaton, Russell said.

Did you figure that out all by yourself? Ty said. Must’ve been your detective’s intuition.

What? Shut up!

So what happened to those guys? Sam asked.

I don’t want to think about it, Jack replied.

Maybe they got lost, Billy said.

I hope that’s what it was, Lisa said, scratching her bare, thick legs.

And what exactly are we running from? Sam Hoover asked.

Long story, Jack replied.

I don’t need the whole story, just an adequate explanation.

Long explanation! Ty said. Sam remained silent after that, deciding the large Seminole was already weary of his interrogation.

But we can’t just stand here, Billy whined.

It’s no worse than being eaten by an alligator, Russell argued.

How do we know that? Ty said, stepping up toe-to-toe with the deputy. Gator bait may be the best way to go. All of this running doesn’t seem to be the answer since we’ve lost the ones bringing up the rear. Ty brushed his long hair out of his face with an impatient swipe. "Maybe you’d like to watch our backside, huh? What do you say, Mr. Po-lice Man? How ‘bout it?" Ty paused, but Russell kept silent.

The young deputy glared at Ty in the dim light. Ty and Deputy Russell had exchanged heated words on a number of occasions. Russell had made a habit of harassing Ty and openly despised him, mostly because of his height. At almost six and a half feet, the Native American towered over the deputy, making his small frame look even punier.

Rusty, give me your flashlight, Jack Lambert said, presenting the deputy with an open hand. Russell started to protest, citing that all police issued equipment was for police use only, but decided against it. He removed it from his belt and handed it toward Jack’s voice. Passing clouds filtered out most of the moonlight temporarily.

Here, Russell said. After a few swipes in the open air, Jack located it in the darkness. Jack shined the light across the creek and over the banks on both sides. Mourning Creek was fairly wide, over thirty feet at its widest point.

What are you doing? Sam Hoover asked.

Gators’ eyes shine orange in the light, Jack explained. If one is out there, I’ll spot her. For years, Jack Lambert had developed skills as a hunter and survivalist with an exceptional ability to live off the land in the wilds of central Florida where bears, bobcats, alligators, and rattlesnakes were often prevalent. To continually add to his abilities, every winter he and Ty journeyed to Alaska to rough it for several weeks like mountain men in the Alaskan wilderness. A friend with a plane dropped them off at one spot and picked them up at a designated rendezvous point afterward. Unlike most people, Jack welcomed nature’s challenges. Jack moved the light back and forth a couple of times and then stopped. There she blows!

It’s not the size of a whale, is it? Ty asked.

No. The eye is only the size of a dime, so it’s probably only three or four feet. Then Jack caught sight of another gleaming amber the size of a quarter in the reeds on the opposite bank. Bad news. There’s another one, Jack went on, and she’s a big mother too, at least twelve feet, maybe longer. And she’s got some company. The flashlight paused on yet another larger crocodilian upstream. Big company. The large orange eye disappeared beneath the dark water.

Well, that settles it, Russell decided. There ain’t no way I’m crossing that creek. I’m staying right here. And I would advise all of you to do the same. The words flowed from his mouth with a prissy, know it all conceit to them. Russell was pleased a gator was preventing them from crossing the creek, because it proved his speculations about the situation correct. The deputy smiled with arrogant satisfaction, tipping his sharp nose skyward, daring them to cross.

A couple hundred yards behind them, Sean awoke. He stared at the silhouette of the trees against the sky. Sean’s mind filled with wonderment. He had completely forgotten where he was, so he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. It hurt.

Sean wanted to get up, but lacked the mental fortitude, feeling swimmy-headed. He blinked his eyes several times, trying to dispel the flurry of dark splotches plaguing his vision. The grayish night sky above him was filling with heavy black blotches, massing together above him like a swarm of angry bees. But they were much too large to be insects. The night air was turning colder, fanning across him like a thousand flapping wings swirling around him. The outline of the trees disappeared. The incessant sounds of the deep forest were silenced. A sudden onslaught of darkness swallowed him, as if suddenly Sean were lying at the bottom of a deep well.

Something amassed around him, growing with intensity as the moments passed. Sean sensed cold, unbearable cold. Faintly audible voices floated around him. It sounded like a strange moaning or hopeless sighing. Sean couldn’t decide what it was, but the sounds were growing louder as it drew closer. Sean attempted to move, but his body was paralyzed. His means of palpation ceased to exist. Something was holding him down, but he couldn’t place its origin. An internal emptiness overwhelmed him. Sean reached out with everything inside him just to feel something—anything.

And yet, there was nothing, but cold layered on even more cold. Sean felt a choking suffocation coming over him. He couldn’t breathe. The air felt almost icy. Sean panicked, grasping for answers.

I’m freezing. I’ll get hypothermia and die, Sean thought. No. You can’t be freezing, you dolt. It’s spring, and you’re in Florida…. Then what is happening to me? Why can’t I move? Why is it so cold? And the others! Where are the others? Did they leave me behind? Is that why I feel so alone?

Sean tried to scream, but only a feeble whimper resonated through his lips. The surrounding chorus raised the volume of their wretched cries, mocking him. Hundreds of voices moved around him, growing louder then softer, as if tortured souls were moving from miles to inches away in a giant, bottomless chasm of timeless suffering. Sean reached a horrifying conclusion.

I’m dying! he told himself, or am I already dead?

Then Sean felt the presence of something or someone standing over him. A putrid breath filtered down to his face through the frigid temperatures. Sean turned his head, trying to bury his nose in the earth below, seeking to get away from the disgusting smell. The dank odor grew more sickening, intensifying as a mouth emitting an unholy breath came closer.

Ashes to ashes, a voice whispered, and dust to dust.

CHAPTER 2

Lightning flashed in the storm swept skies, attempting to bring a brief moment of clarity to the veil of darkness. The Saint Johns River began expanding in preparation to overthrow the weak boundaries of its aging floodplain. Small waves began to build across the top as the wind blew mists of water over the surface. The white crests tossed and turned, fighting each other for prominence and dominance to seize the first swell to pound against the banks. The agitated waters churned with unsettled vigor until a deep swell rose from the depths like a hidden marine monster summoned to the surface by pagan rites. It smashed against the shoreline. Rioting water spewed high up into the air from the tremendous impact, celebrating the first in a long series of powerful blows until the great river finally peaked, steamrolling over its ancient taskmaster and gushing into forgotten freedoms lying beyond.

Miles away the heavenly spigots opened wider, gushing gallons below like a tremendous waterfall. Wildlife looked for any sign of shelter to escape the relentless beating from the clouds above. Dogs howled in the distance, longing for their masters’ calm and comfort, until the harsh weather jolted them to a faint whimper. A second boom of thunder answered their cries with a decree of silence as a lightning arc tore open the night and bolted down a tree trunk just behind a lonesome dwelling place.

This house seemed similar to the others in the neighborhood, but was no longer a real home. It was condemned to a life of isolation, crouching low beneath the twisting and swaying trees that bowed to the demands of the circling gales, unable to escape the belligerent downpour. The property had at one time only months prior displayed the beauty, diligence, and craftsmanship of a naturally gifted caretaker, but those postcard pictures had long since dissipated. Every pink streaking flash revealed the decrepit circumstance of a dying estate.

The earthen landscape was abandoned and given over to the strangling flora of suffocating vegetation. Weeds, thorns and underbrush consumed the ground’s former inhabitants with the cunning of hungry wolves. They ravaged the pure plant life until their blossoming flowers and green foliage faded from the neighborhood's memory.

As the showers continued to fall, they began to transform the grains of dirt and sand into a thick chowder of mud and rock. The sediment had already consumed all the moisture it could hold in the confines of its finite network of cracks and crevices. Tiny pools formed in the clefts of decaying leaves and over waterlogged topsoil. They stretched out their arms across the surface for their virgin brothers. The growing puddles deepened and joined hands with others, wearing away at the earth beneath.

Small finger-lakes formed and turned into little streams following the casual slope of the terrain. Puddles became ponds. The waterways united with the conspiracy of erosion and changed the slope of the terrain, creeping over the mud between the bevies of snoring, drunken undergrowth.

The downpour maneuvered its way through the protective screens on the windows and splashed onto the windowsills. Soft light emanated from a solitary window at the front on the left side. Sounds of music broke through the panes, barely audible above the patter of large droplets seeking an avenue into the interior. Tree leaves waved at their owner’s presence inside, the rain jostling their limbs in almost humorous repetition. But the sole occupant never waved back. He seemed oblivious to the raging storm outside, but the interior concerned him greatly.

On the other side of the glass, a console stereo system reverberated the entrancing rhythms of The Police with the song inspired by the psychiatrist Carl Jung and his theories of synchronicity. It stalled as the needle hit a scratch in the vinyl, jarring it back to the previous lyrics.

Dark shades of bourbon backwashed into a glass bottle. A thirsty tongue mopped up the remnants of whiskey from cracked lips before dirty, yellow teeth clenched together. Anger and impatience colluded and began to swell like a gluttonous water balloon as the drunken man turned to face his menace.

"Another industrial ugly ma—. Another industrial ugly ma—. Another industrial ugly ma—. Another industrial ugly ma—."

Morning, you moron. Morning! Stephen Myles yelled at the old stereo system. Another industrial ugly morning! He rushed over to the stereo, tossed the arm of the record player to the side, and ripped the black disc off the stem. Stephen held the record up to the light, angling it for the best view of the dark vinyl to search for the problem. He spotted the scratch and then sailed the 45 across the room like a Frisbee. It banged into the wall, putting a slight dent in the plaster, and dropped to the floor.

Thank God for CDs! Myles’s prize collection of albums caught his eye and pulled him over to it. Every...single...one of these...things, Stephen said, tossing a record across the room with every pause, "is going...in the...trash." Practically exhausted, Stephen ceased his tantrum and leaned on the wooden console breathing heavily. Records were scattered about the room. One lodged in the limbs of an artificial tree in the corner by the window.

Stephen Myles returned to his recliner, retrieving his bottle. He picked up the remote and turned on the television as he took another swig of whiskey. The TV picture flipped from channel to channel in a recurring rehearsal of unrest and discontentment until the phone rang and shocked him out of his drunken daze. Few people called him anymore.

Hello.

Stevie, my boy! It’s good to hear your voice! the jolly old man said. His father’s voice always resounded with the smiling merriment of the imagined vocal tones of Santa Claus. Mr. Myles always seemed contagiously happy and upbeat. Usually Stephen found it annoying. I was beginning to think you worked all the time. Glad to know you get a night off once in a while. Your mother was just saying that we should have you over for dinner.

Kind of busy right now, Dad. Maybe when I get this one wrapped up.

Fine. We’ll look forward to it. Your mother was just telling me how odd it’s been for us living down here in the South. I think we’ve seen less of you since we retired and moved to Florida than we did when we lived in Baltimore. Stephen covered the phone’s mouthpiece and sighed with aggravation.

I know. Things will slow down when this one’s over. All the press….

Sure. I understand. I know the extra publicity isn’t making it easy on you. Have you heard anything from Linda? Stephen sighed deeper.

Why does he always bring her up? No, Dad. Nothing.

Well, don’t let it get you down, Son. Women are a little impulsive when they’re young and just getting used to married life.

She’s thirty-two, and we’ve been married nine years, Myles wanted to say.

When I first married your mother I think she spent more time with her folks than she did with me. I’d say the wrong thing, and then off she’d go. The least little thing can set them off, but they always come back. May take some time, but she’ll come to her senses. Mark my words.

Yes sir.

But if you get lonely, you can always call your old man. And maybe we can get away for a few days when you’ve got some free time and go fishing?

Sure, I’d like that, Stephen replied with little excitability. He eyed his whiskey bottle. Thunder blared again. Phone calls during a big thunder storm were dangerous, but electrocution was a welcome alternative to an extended conversation with his dad.

A friend of mine was just telling me about a few of the rivers down here. Let’s see now, what were their names? Stephen flipped through more TV channels as his father fell silent. Uh… oh yeah, the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers, over around Dunnellon, I think. That Rainbow River is supposed to be crystal clear. Ever hear of it?

No. Stephen had heard of it.

"Supposedly the two rivers join at one point, and you’d think the other river would contaminate the clear one. But it doesn’t. He said it’s like the good Lord drew an invisible line of separation between them. Amazing."

Sounds like it.

They say you can get some huge bream down there and some great bass too. Some of them are so big they break the scale! What? Mr. Myles asked the soft voice in the background. Stephen could barely hear his mother through the receiver. I am not exaggerating. Well, how do you know? Sorry, Stevie. Your mother is accusing me of telling more of my tall tales. What? He likes my fish stories. Don’t you, Stevie?

Yes sir.

See there, Stephen’s father retorted his mother. Been eating well?

Not really.

Now you can’t get anything done without proper nutrition. As your mother always says, food fuels the mind and the body.

Yes sir.

You sound a little down.

I’ve just got a lot on my mind.

You can’t fool me, Son.

What? Stephen said, sitting up straight. He was afraid his dad would discover his drinking problem via his thick tongue. But he had yet to mention it. It was impossible for Stephen to recognize instances when he spoke with slurred speech.

You can’t fool your old man.

What do you mean?

You’re working too hard.

Oh. Relief washed over him like a much needed shower.

I know you love your job, so I’m not going to try to talk you into doing something different. You’re good at what you do, and I’ve always admired you for wanting to make the world a better place. But don’t kill yourself, Boy. There’s more to life than work.

Yes sir.

I guess I’ll let you go now that I’m done with my lecture, Mr. Myles said laughing. Take care and let’s get together real soon.

I’d like that.

"Good. We’ll be in touch."

Stephen hung up the phone, took a long drink, and exhaled, as if he were completely spent. He looked about the room and listened to the sounds of his home. It was quiet, too quiet.

His house had lost its homely feel about a year ago and become more of a personal isolation chamber. Myles rarely had guests nowadays. His friends, other than his partner Angela, stopped coming around or even calling after his wife Linda left. They all blamed him for the overdue break-up and deservedly so. Stephen’s drinking habit made him unfit for the respectable labels of father and husband. Sometimes he felt lonely enough to reach out to one of them with a phone call, but they never gave him an incentive to repeat the action.

The television recaptured his attention as the starting music for the nightly news filled the room. The first report delved deep into his supposed inability to perform his job at the optimal level expected by the media and his contemporaries. The anchor reiterated the details as Stephen downed more liquor, ignoring the news of his unremitting failures.

As a member of the FBI, the Florida Bureau of Investigation, Stephen and his partner Angela were investigating an especially terrifying serial killer in central Florida whom the press had labeled as The Entrailer. His methodology involved gutting his victims with a strange weapon still unidentified by forensic experts. Adding to the horror of the sadistic crimes, the killer arranged the victim’s intestines in a precise presentation near the body, a repulsive picture that perhaps contained a meaning or message that no one understood yet. Having already murdered five people in as many months, The Entrailer also left no clues, and his choice of victims seemed random. Stephen and Angela were baffled. A skilled profiler from the federal FBI had offered assistance on the case, but she had also failed to generate anything more than educated guesses. Although Agent Myles’s drinking presented its own issues, Stephen was still considered the bureau’s best detective with or without alcohol.

Irritated by the coverage and feeling restless, Myles shifted in his seat as the eyes of his wife and daughter stared at him from a picture resting on the recliner table. Family pictures gave Stephen a brief burst of happiness, but those feelings inevitably turned downward, spiraling Myles into a terrible melancholy.

Stephen paused in remembrance of an enchanted moment from Thanksgiving a couple of years ago. His daughter Melissa giggled at one of his goofy jokes as he noticed Linda smiling at him from across his parents’ living room. Linda’s alabaster skin, black dress, slender build, and radiant auburn hair seemed accented by the glass of iced tea in her hand. The cool, burnt orange liquid washed past her moist lips. Linda winked at him, flirting. Boomerang-shaped eyebrows and subtle make-up accented her natural beauty, penetrating eyes, and sharp facial features. Linda still loved him then, but not anymore.

Other much less picturesque memories of angry shouting matches jumped into focus in rapid succession. Stephen wallowed in Linda and Melissa’s absence until an emotional eruption ensued. Tears flowed down his cheeks. He wept like a toddler skinning his knee for the first time. His eyes swelled into puffy red pillows that contorted his face into an awful sight of morose hopelessness. Attempting to ward off an onset of depression, Myles turned the picture face down and took another drink of forgetfulness.

As the thunder boomed again, the lights in the room flickered. Stephen leaned back in his recliner wanting a break from his memory and the television. The lights dimmed and brightened a few times, and the thunder rolled with more clarity than it had previously, as if Stephen were out in the storm or a window were open in the room. Before Stephen could glance in the direction of the two windows, one of which was nearly behind him, the lights went out.

Not a power outage, Stephen thought. What am I going to do the rest of the night? Wait a second. The TV is still on. As Stephen started to sit up, more lightning lit up the room, and he spied the far window agape. How did—?

Something shuffled behind him. A hand pressed down on his forehead and yanked him back into a lying position in the recliner. When the lightning lit up the room again, he looked into the dirty face of a figure standing over him with water dripping from his long, matted hair. As Stephen looked into the intruder’s eyes, he somehow recognized him. The dark stranger raised something over his head. With the light from the TV brightening up due to a commercial, Stephen saw it resembled a policeman’s nightstick with a strangely shaped, glistening blade protruding from the end of it.

It can’t be!

What’s uh matter? The Entrailer said with a gruff, mocking voice. Got no guts left in you? The blade cut through the air and down toward Stephen’s abdomen too fast for him to react in his drunken state.

CHAPTER 3

A horrific shockwave jolted Jack and the others at the creek’s edge as a blood-curdling shriek quaked in their bones. A blunt sting pierced Sean through the middle, and he hollered so loud it echoed through the forest, but his screams for mercy were silenced momentarily by icy hands.

Jack and his companions wasted no time and plunged into the creek with complete abandon. Billy tripped on a submerged tree limb and fell face first into the murky water. The rest of them hurried across, forgetting about the threat of an alligator attack. The water felt warm and was much too deep to cross without having to swim for it. Jack, Russell, Ty, Lisa, and Sam swam anxiously for the opposite bank.

Billy recovered quickly, but hesitated to continue. He peered into the blackness of the water for the predatory reptiles, extremely frightened of the fabled man-eaters of Mourning Creek, a product of colonial crossbreeding of saltwater crocs and the American alligator. Unable to see beneath the surface, Billy was consumed with petrifying indecision as the clouds lifted and the light of a full moon danced across the shadowy waters.

Jack reached the other side first and clawed his way up the bank. Big Ty was next in line, arriving just before Deputy Russell. Lisa and Sam closed in on the shoreline, swimming manically. The current was strong, reminding Sam Hoover of the slight undertow usually present at South Beach.

Creek? Sam thought. This is a river.

Come on now, come on! We’ve gotta move! Jack encouraged them. Jack paused at the top of the steep bank to help his companions up the slippery incline. The constant rain from the previous week and earlier that morning left the sides of the creek a muddy,

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