“There’s no organs … What’s happened to all the organs?”
When Morgan caught sight of the buzzard rising above the crest of the hill, he broke into a run.
“Got it!” he barked into his phone.
The bird had its eye fixed on something below. It’s the red, he thought with a grim nod. It sees it. Or smells it. Probably both.
The buzzard dipped, and at the same time Morgan’s boot slipped on a rock, his legs flew out from under him and he sat with a painful jolt in the icy creek.
“Damn it!” he cursed, rolling onto his knees.
Pulling his phone out of the stream, he shook off the water and placed it against his ear. “You still there?”
A voice crackled, “Yessir.”
Morgan pushed himself to his feet, grunting in pain as his bad knee buckled under the weight of his body. Sam Morgan, Director of Strategic Capability at the National Security Office, was only forty-three years old, but on days like this, with the weather cold and damp and his war wounds playing up, he felt sixty.
“I’ll be there in five,” he barked. “Secure the site till I get there. No one gets close. Is that clear?” He brushed mud first off one leg, then the other. There was no reply. “I said is that clear?” Pulling the phone from his ear, he moved it close to his mouth. “If anyone gets within twenty feet of that thing, I will make him disappear. Is that clear?”
He listened again. Nothing. Not even a crackle. Grunting in frustration, shoving the phone in his pocket, he squinted up at the clouds, searching again for the buzzard. It floated into sight on an updraft, its eyes fixed on the same spot below.
With a grin of acknowledgement, Morgan took off in that direction.
“Hold on! Sam!”
Morgan glanced over his shoulder. Splashing through the water was Grieves. He stopped and waited for her to catch up.
Cleopatra Grieves was a few years younger than Morgan, tall and heavy-set, dressed in the same dark blue NSO suit and black boots. A Principal Investigation Officer, Grieves had worked with Morgan for six years and there was no one he trusted more. In her younger days she’d been a Jamaican national amateur bodybuilder, but after giving up competitive bodybuilding her body had given up too. She was still the strongest person Morgan knew, but her stamina left a lot to be desired.
“Took your time,” he smiled as she stopped and bent forward with hands on knees. He watched as she caught her breath. “You should get that bladder looked at.”
“Looks like you stopped for a swim,” Grieves shot back, straightening. “How’s the water?”
He clapped his hands on his friend’s shoulders. “If we didn’t have a bloodbath to get to, I’d show you,” he said with a playful shove towards the creek.
Grieves’ face lit up. “So that’s what they found, was it? A body?”
Morgan’s face revealed nothing.
“Amongst other things,” he said, walking off.
He felt bad for keeping their mission secret from his colleague, but he’d been under strict orders not to reveal anything to anyone. Yesterday he’d been ordered to the NSO laboratories, where senior officials stood around a table gawking at something dead and deformed. It was human, but only remotely so. The brief said it was found by the side of a disused road in the Six Hills. Approaching the table, Morgan felt the gorge rise in his throat. He’d read sealed files about doomsday cults and secret societies, witness statements about sightings of ghosts, goblins, aliens and other nasties, but this was the first time he’d come face-to-face with something so obviously not of this world.
Grieves walked alongside him. “This isn’t about no terrorist training camps, is it Sam?”
“Did I say it was?”
“From the look on your face, I’m starting to think invaders from outer space.”
Morgan opened his hands. “I don’t know what they found, to be honest, Cleo. I just know two civilians are down and the thing that massacred them has been contained.”
“The thing? Don’t tell me it’s a werewolf! It’s a werewolf, isn’t it? I always knew they were real.”
“We’ll see. Soon enough. Have you had breakfast yet?”
“Ah … yeah. What’s that got to do with the price of bacon and eggs?”
“Is that what you had?”
“Mmm. With French toast, fried mushies and a quickie on the side.”
Morgan shook his head. “Cooked breakfast. On a week day. My wives complained if I asked them to pass me the box of Coco Pops.”
“Next time find an ugly one; that’s my advice. You always go for the lookers. You need one’s gonna work to keep you happy, not the other way round.”
Morgan laughed. “I’m telling Liv what you said. Come on, let’s speed this up.” He made a play-punch at Grieves’ bulging stomach. “Too bad about the greasy breakfast. I hope it tastes as good on the way up!”
The two officers strode into the clearing. A half dozen soldiers were standing at attention, each fitted out in a dark blue uniform, black helmet and black boots. They were holding assault rifles against their bodies, their faces taut with excitement. The soldier at the far end was doing his best to control a German Shepherd, which barked and growled and strained at its leash to get at whatever was on the other side of a campers’ tent further along the clearing.
“Shut that dog up,” ordered Morgan.
The soldier knew better than to talk back, but the look on his face showed Morgan he was helpless to control it.
He approached the animal and put the back of his hand close to its nose, trying to calm it down. The trick never failed – Morgan’s parents were breeders and trainers of Dobermans, and from the time he was in nappies he’d been surrounded by them. But this time the dog was unaffected. Morgan stared at it as it continued barking and snarling at something unseen and unheard. Like the buzzard, the dog sensed something no human could sense and it wasn’t about to be distracted by trivial human gimmicks like the hand-in-front-of-the-nose trick.
Vaguely insulted by the dog’s disobedience, Morgan moved up the line, shouting, “Who found it?”
Two men, standing shoulder to shoulder, raised their hands.
Morgan stepped towards them. Their boots and uniforms were muddy and one had dirt smeared across his face.
Morgan turned to one, then the other. They looked terrified. His heart thumped against his chest. Even after six years as a senior officer in special ops, he still got a rush from the power he held over some of the country’s most elite soldiers.
“No you didn’t,” he said calmly.
The hands dropped.
“What are we doing here?” Morgan asked one of them, moving his nose close to the soldier’s face.
“Searching out suspected terrorist training camps, sir.”
“Did we find them?”
The man was in his thirties and had a short neck and muscular face. A long scar ran from his temple to the corner of his mouth. He looked the type to get into bar fights because he knew he would win. But now he just blinked. Morgan could read his thoughts: his brain was scrambling to figure out what it was his superior wanted him to say. “Negative, sir.”
He turned his attention to the other man. “And you, soldier.” Without turning his head, he pointed towards the green polyester camping tent. “What’s that?”
The soldier glanced at the cabin-shaped tent, then down at the red mess on the ground around it. He gulped. “Nothing, sir.”
“What do you mean, ‘Nothing, sir’? How can you see nothing?”
“No … terrorists, sir.”
“If you didn’t see terrorists, what did you see?”
The man was now in a cold sweat. “The marsh. A bird. A … dead rabbit?”
Morgan stared into the man’s face. He had close-set eyes, a runny nose and a weak chin. He seemed to have the start or the end of a cold.
“Fall back to the trail,” he ordered. He stepped back. “All of you!”
The men hurried away with a collective murmur of relief.
“Come on, Cleo.”
Morgan went to inspect the tent, which was flapping in the wind. There was no other sign of life. The opening was turned away from the clearing, and as Morgan approached it he spied a bloodied head. It was a brown-haired, red-bearded man, lying flat on his back, surrounded by more blood than Morgan had ever seen in one place. The ground was disturbed all around him; there’d been one helluva fight. The rotten, rusty smell of death went up Morgan’s nose and into his throat.
Grieves joined him. “Christ in heaven!” she cried. “What on earth did that?”
Morgan crouched next to the man, who was dressed in beige trousers and a two-toned grey-and-green fishing jacket. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, pudgy body, pockmarked face, crooked teeth, dirty fingernails – a pretty typical male for this area. But what had been done to him was far from typical. It looked like his head had been bashed against a rock, which was now lodged in the back of his cranium. Whatever had killed him had torn away his clothes so it could mutilate him – judging from the volume and spread of the blood, in a demented frenzy of violence.
“There’s no organs,” observed Grieves, a hand over her mouth and nose. She peered inside the empty cavity. “What’s happened to all the organs?”
Morgan stroked his chin. The mutilation reminded him of bodies he’d seen in Afghanistan: in destroyed houses, in shallow graves, in ditches by the side of the road. He thought he’d seen the last of that kind of thing.
“Still thinking werewolves,” muttered Grieves, stepping away.
Turning to the tent, Morgan pulled aside the door flap. The walls of the tent, the ground, the bedding – it seemed even the air itself – were red with blood. In a corner of the tent lay a blond boy in a blue-striped shirt and black jeans. As Morgan approached, he could see the the boy’s head was also bashed in. A bloodied rock lay next to the body.
“Dear Lord,” breathed Grieves at the door. “Same as the old man.”
Morgan looked at her. “What’s your assessment, Cleo?”
At first she shrugged helplessly. But she quickly gathered her wits and pulled back her shoulders. “Right. Daddy hears a noise, goes to investigate, is attacked. Fight ensues. Boy told to stay in the tent, or else runs inside for safety when he sees what’s happening to his old man.” She glanced back at the man, and her eyes followed the trail of blood that led across the grass towards a bank of bushes. “Either one large assailant who killed quick then mutilated, or multiple attackers killing simultaneously. The latter would be my guess.”
Morgan edged past her. “Come on, Cleo, there’s more to see.”
He followed the blood trail to the bushes, where what looked like a strand of small intestine was hanging off a branch. He saw now why the dog was ignoring its training. This carnage was something no training could prepare it for. Something savage and inhuman had entered this lonely clearing and committed an unspeakable crime, and it evoked the dog’s primal instincts. The wolf in it had sensed the hunt and the kill, and it either feared it or longed to join it.
The bushes ran along a bank of mud, which sloped down to a creek. The soil of the embankment was disturbed where the two soldiers had clambered down earlier. Morgan spied footsteps close to the water, but there were so many of them it was hard to tell if they belonged to the soldiers, the campers or the assailants. Some of the footsteps led towards a tumble of boulders that formed the start of a cove, where the creek dog-legged abruptly before heading towards the sea.
After taking a few deep breaths to expel the smell of death from his lungs, Morgan half walked, half slipped down the bank. Grieves was close behind. They reached the water together, held onto each other to steady themselves, saw the foot at the same time.
Sticking out from behind a boulder, it looked like a normal man’s foot: hairy toes, yellowed nails, the skin wrinkled and white from too much time in the water.
The toes curled. Morgan almost jumped out of his skin.
“He’s alive,” breathed Grieves.
“Something they neglected to tell me.”
Morgan felt queasy. He’d always hated feet.
“Is it another one of them campers?” Grieves asked.
Morgan had already been warned it wasn’t a camper. He moved towards the boulders, and as his eyes locked on the body lying in the bloody water, his muscles tensed. Despite the chill in the morning air, he felt a rise of wet heat within his body. Sweat squeezed through the pores in his arms and his face and he could also feel it in the wetness of his underarms and crotch. The thing in the lab had been dead, and he knew from long experience that death can do strange things to bodies. But this one was different. It looked like a person turned inside-out, then squeezed and pulled and shaped into something from a nightmare. It was wearing grey pants and had a metal ring locked around its neck. The blood of the campers had stained its face and body and trousers, and the water around it was the colour of rust.
Grieves peered over his shoulder. “Jesus Christ Almighty! What the hell is that?” She craned her neck forward. “How can that be –”
Morgan stepped closer to the monstrosity, trying to make sense of its misshapen proportions. “How can it be what?”
Grieves was breathing heavily. “Alive.”
He glanced at her. “You okay, Cleo?”
When she continued gaping, he turned his attention back to the thing. It stared up at them, its head jerking with involuntary spasms. It seemed to be pleading with its bloodshot eyes, which bulged from hollowed-out sockets in its bulbous skull. It had no hair, no ears, no eyelids, and its nose was a sunken, cancerous scab.
Morgan blew the disgust from his head. They had a job to do and he couldn’t let questions or emotions get in the way of their mission. There would be plenty of time for questions once they bagged it, got it back to the lab and found out more about what the hell it was.
“Doesn’t look like our single large assailant, does it?”
Grieves shook her head.
“We need to find whatever else was working with it. I don’t think this one is going anywhere in a hurry.”
As if on cue, a noise began on the other side of the rocks. Morgan placed a hand on Grieves’ arm. “Do you hear that?”
It was a squelching sound, like the noise a child might make when sucking on a popsicle. A dread crept up Morgan’s spine. It must be the campers’ dog, he told himself – though this was unlike any noise he’d ever heard a dog make.
The thing in the water could hear it too. “Goo, gwoo, ooo,” it gurgled, turning its red eyes to the rocks. Its rubbery lips opened and closed with a horrible pucking sound. One skeletal arm waved in the air, while the other arm, thick and twisted like the trunk of a tree, splashed in the bloody water.
Morgan drew his pistol. Holding it in both hands, he crept around the rocks to the sheltered cove. Here, the creek degenerated into a swamp. The water was brown and stagnant, and everything in it was dead and dank with rot. The buzzard was circling overhead, and he saw now it wasn’t the campers the bird had its eyes fixed on.
Standing ankle-deep in mud, its back to him, was what looked like a gargantuan woman. She had shoulder-length hair, colourless, wet and matted. There were pink patches on her scalp where it appeared clumps of hair had been wrenched out. Her naked body was green and bloated, her skin scarred by boils and welts. Some of the wounds had split open and the exposed flesh oozed with yellow pus.
As Morgan stared in shock, the woman stiffened. She seemed to have sensed someone was behind her. With an animal snarl, she turned her head, then shuffled in a circle to face him. Morgan almost dropped his gun. The thing – which wasn’t a woman – not really, not any more – leered at him through puffy eyes as it strained to see who or what was there.
But the thing’s hideous appearance wasn’t the worst of it. That wasn’t what turned Morgan’s stomach and made his legs buckle. That wasn’t what made the world as he knew it go spinning away, leaving him stranded in a place where horrific nightmares had crawled out of the safety of sleep. What he couldn’t pull his eyes away from was the red, dripping ball in the thing’s hands, the ball the thing had been sucking on: a ball that had ponytails that ended in pink polka dot ribbons.
Read Chapter 2. You came