April followed Ian’s stare. There was a large indistinct footprint. The webbed traction grooves on the person’s soles weren’t for hiking. They were simple like a baker’s shoe. April scratched her head.
“Loafers?” she asked.
“Prison crocs. Hank Wadley might be vacationing in the great outdoors after all.”
“They look pretty fresh. We should comb the immediate area while we wait for backup. Looks like our day just got a lot longer.”
“I hate you.”
The pair followed the prints east into thick brush. The forest carpeted the earth with discard leaves. Ian and April tried to follow broken brush but lost the trail after a half-mile. Ian studied a mangled fern slumped at the end of their pursuit. There were raw green lesions. Ian fingered the fractured fern wing.
“Everyone is capable of something horrible,”
“It looks like something hurried down the slope,” Ian deadpanned, “but I can’t be sure. You mind heading back to the falls to call this in? Try to be quiet. I think he’s close.”
“What are you going to?”
“The tiger stalks best alone,” he bobbed his brows. April knew that wasn’t true. Ian had an aching knee and depth perception issues that were only corrected by the glasses he never wore. Every so often though, Ian liked to relive his service days by doing something stupid. April tolerated it. She assumed they’d lost the convicts trail about seventy yards ago, and that Ian would return to the falls letdown and frustrated.
“You have ten minutes tough guy,” April stressed. “Then I’m shouting so loud that dispatch will hear me from HQ.”
“Fine. Call the dogs in.”
April followed the trail back to Bloodstone Falls. She rested on a flat stone, cupped the radio’s speaker and called in Ian’s findings. Her feet ached.
“Patrol to dispatch, come in.”
The radio screeched briefly from interference. “Go for dispatch.”
“This is Red Wolf,” she spoke low, rubbing her ankle. “We have reason to believe that Hank Wadley may be held up near Bloodstone Falls. We found shoe print and broken brush in addition to the thumb.”
“Copy that Red Wolf. Reed and Lietz are already en route. I’m still on the phone with the feds.”
“Dispatch, Callahan and I will continue to secure the area. Give us updates when you have them.”
“Copy that Red Wolf.”
April clipped her radio back on her belt. She unzipped her coat before retrieving the half-empty water bottle from her inside pocket. April sipped conservatively, rationing in case she was trapped up here all shift. For the first time in the day, she took the forest in without fearing it. She scanned the horizon. As her eyes read nature’s written work something stirring in the brush drew her attention. A tan dog with a black saddleback pattern and pointed ears panted near the top of Bloodstone Falls highest peak. The German Shepherd stared back at April, and as she stood back up, so did the canine. April took a ginger step forward, but the animal fled.
“Shit, no. Uh, Roofio,” April whistled. “Come here, boy.”
When the dog failed to return April swore before clambering up the steep incline. April perspired profusely as she clung onto dirt, but once she realized she was only halfway through, she stopped to catch her breath. She tightened her boots, blew her bangs out of her face and cursed the hill’s loose soil before continuing. By the time she’d reached the top, she was exhausted.
The rounded top of Bloodstone Falls was covered in bald cypresses. April put her back on one of the hardy trees and let herself cool down. She skimmed the thicket for Rufus. The emaciated dog had run deep into a distant vale and sat next to a slumped woman’s body. From far away, April could make out khaki shorts an olive shirt and hiking boots painted in red. April raced to the body while removing her radio.
“Ian, come in,” she spat into the receiver.
“This is Ian,” her partner whispered, the transmission crackling with static. “Still on the hunt.”
“Ian, body found at the top of Bloodstone Falls. Need you back here, pronto.”
“Shit,” Ian cursed at full volume. “Copy that.”
April made it to the body. She stared down as Rufus licked the hiker’s face. It must have been the owner, who’d continued the search after reporting it to headquarters. A large abrasion oozed from the woman’s temple and lacerations across her knuckles glistened red. April could hear labored breaths from the hiker as her chest inflated. April placed her fingers on the woman’s wrist between the bone and tendon. Rufus whined then ran off. April ignored the dog and dug in her belt pouch for her first aid kit.
“Who’s that I see walkin’ in these woods,” a gruff voice howled over April’s shoulder. She furrowed her brow, unamused by Ian’s banter. Then it hit her. It was impossible for Ian to make it up so quickly. April reeled around. A brawny man in a grimy orange jumper huffed as he charged from the nearby wood line. He had a wild tangled mane that clung to his receding hairline and a square jaw with a flat head like a warthog. He bared his buttered teeth as he closed the distance. “Why, it’s Little Red Riding Hood.”
April tugged at her revolver, but it was trapped inside its holster. She heard her teeth crack as Hank’s meaty fist rammed along her jaw. There was a ringing in her head as she fell backward. Hank struck again, smashing her nose. Blood spurt from her nostrils as her face screamed in agony. April reached out her hand, begging for mercy. She mumbled incoherently before Hank lifted his Croc and booted her chest. April’s breath sapped away as she fell on her side.
Hank lurched over April and tugged her pistol. April’s entire body lifted as he jerked the firearm from its purse. A bug buzzed in her ear as the escaped convict panted over her, his breath stinking of fish.
“Sorry Pocahontas,” Hank snorted, his words dry and raspy as they clucked off his tongue. “usually I’d take my time with a sweet piece like you, but I’m in a hurry.”
April heard the hammer draw back from her pistol. She tried to get to her feet, pushing up from her knuckles, but her body faltered. The cold touch of the gun’s barrel pressed on her temple. She squeezed her eyes and readied for Hank to fire.
April felt a burst of draft followed by a jolt from Hank’s body as it fell on top of her. The weight alone was unbearable. April opened her eyes and tried to focus her blurred vision. A basketball-sized stone stained in red lay near Hank’s bloody head. Still, the big man thrashed about, kicking her as he wobbled to his knees. April spotted her pistol laying next to her. She strained to lift her hand, grabbing the handle.
“Don’t you even think about it bitch,” Hank fizzed through his locked teeth. He tried to capture April’s arm as she lifted the gun, but his wobbly mitt flapped past it. April found what little focus she had left, crawled backward and aimed at Hank’s head. His eyes rolled in his head before fixing on the barrel.
“Oh, look at Pocahontas.” Hank shook his head violently, trying to gather his senses. “Go ahead girl, let’s see if you got the guts,” Hank grunted, speaking through a hard grimace. “You get one shot. Make it good because I’m gonna split you in two.”
April didn’t want to shoot. It went against everything she believed in. If she didn’t though, Hank would surely kill her, then finish the hiker. If April missed, or didn’t hit him right, he’d do terrible things to them and then kill them both. Afterward, who knows if Hank would get Ian and anyone else that came up. April’s hands shook.
“I knew you didn’t it have it in you,” Hank snorted before pouncing like a tiger.
The gun’s flash was blinding, and its thunder stung April’s ears. Hank’s body froze, his expression locked in a scowl. A thumbnail-sized hole trickled red down Hank’s brows, then rolled over his nose. His body slumped over and collapsed to the side.
April dragged herself to a knee, cupping her broken nose. She stared off in the distance, looking for her rescuer. She half expected to see Ian with another rock in his hand, but no one was around. Then shockingly, in the woodland, a figure caught her by surprise.
A man-shaped creature half as tall as the oak it stooped behind exchanged glances with April. Its strapping chest made up the bulk of its body, which was covered in dark fur. Its strong brow curved over a flat face and broad, protruding jaw. Its eyes were calm and its body never moved as it watched April. It simply peered from the safety of the thick weald,
Just then a twig snapped hard to April’s left. She swung her head to see who was approaching. April could make out Ian’s peppered hair as he limped with his revolver pointed towards her path. His eyes grew wide as he saw the state April was in.
“Jesus April,” Ian gasped, “you sprung a hundred leaks.” April’s gaze returned to where the creature had been. It was no longer there. Ian spotted Hank and kicked him to ensure he was dead before looking at the jogger. “She alive?”
“Okay, I’m calling it in,” Ian said as he pressed on his radio button.
“Did you see it?” April asked calmly.
Ian paused. “See what?”
April shook her head. She leaned back, staring at the tree where the beast once stood. Her head pounded.
“See what?” Ian repeated, looking to where April was staring.
“Nevermind,” she said flatly. “Some people just can’t see the truth.”
About The Author
Justin Alcala is a novelist and nerdologist. He’s the author of the novels Consumed, (BLK Dog Publishing) The Devil in the Wide City (Solstice Publishing) and Dim Fairytales (AllThingsThatMatterPress). His short stories have been featured in magazines and anthologies, including It Dances Now (Crimson Street Magazine) and The Offering (Rogue Planet Press) and The Lantern Quietly Screams (Castabout Literature). When he’s not burning out his retinas in front of a computer, Justin is one of the geekiest tabletop gamers you’ve ever met. He’s also a blogger, folklore enthusiast and time traveler. He is an avid quester of anything righteous, from fighting dragons to acquiring magical breakfast eggs from the impregnable grocery fortress.
Most of Justin’s tales and characters take place in The Plenty Dreadful universe, a deranged supernatural version of the modern world. When writing, Justin enjoys immersing himself in the subject matter, from in-depth research to overseas travel. Much to the dismay of his family, he often locks himself away in his office-dungeon while playing themed videos and music over, and over, and over again. Justin currently resides with his dark queen, Mallory, their malevolent daughter, Lily, and their hound of Valhalla, Fenrir, and their hellcat, Misery. Where his mind might be though is anyone’s guess.
If you’d like to see what else Justin is up to, you can check him out at any of the following links: