Sam Rawling got out of his car, being sure to grab the small notepad from the passenger seat as he did so. There had been a number of times in the past that he had been so focused on the matter at hand that he had forgotten it, and every single time he had ended up regretting not having notes to refer back to later. Because of this, he felt a small twinge of pride that he had remembered it this time. It wasn’t much of a victory, but he would take what he could get.
He had been in town a total of three days, and while it had first appeared quaint, he had already learned to dislike it. The bed at the motel he was staying at was best described as horrid, and he had yet to find a place that sold a decent cup of coffee. His partner had also been particularly grouchy for the entirety of the stay. It had gotten so bad that he had been overjoyed when she had suggested that they work separately for a few hours.
Sam shivered and pulled the collar of his coat up to keep the wind off his neck. He had hoped to park closer to his destination, but there hadn’t been any available spaces nearby. Because of this, he was forced to make the two block walk and suffer through the unseasonably cold day. He snorted. Just before being sent on this assignment he had been complaining that he missed field work, and now he would have given a lot to be sitting behind his desk in his nice warm office. He wondered if he was getting soft.
He was pretty sure that he knew the answer to that, and it wasn’t something that he was eager to admit to himself.
Reaching the antique store, he took a quick look up and down the road before going inside. The warm air of the shop washed over him. He took a moment to just appreciate not feeling like he was being frozen to death before heading towards the counter.
Watching him approach with a smile on his face was an odd-looking man. Sam couldn’t exactly pinpoint why he thought the man looked out of the ordinary, as at first glance he was just a normal looking guy wearing an expensive suit. Still, there was something about him that seemed… off.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the man greeted him. “How can I help you on this fine day?”
“Not so sure about that ‘fine’ part,” Sam said, sticking his thumb out towards the large front window.
“The weather is a bit off-putting, to be sure, but no reason to let that ruin the entire day.”
“Maybe.” Sam reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his identification. “Sam Rawling with the FBI. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“Absolutely.” The man stuck out his hand and they shook. “I am Silas Pembrook, the owner of this establishment. I’m happy to help in any way that I can.”
Sam dug around in his other pocket until he produced a picture. “Have you seen this woman?”
Pembrook took the picture from him and stared at it for a moment. “Yes, I have. She was in the store a few weeks ago.”
“Did she buy something while she was here?”
“Quite the opposite, Agent Rawling. This… hyena attempted to steal a few items.”
Sam frowned. “I didn’t see a police report for that.”
“There wasn’t one.” Pembrook leaned in slightly. “I’m still fairly new to this town, Agent Rowling. I didn’t want the first thing to come to mind when someone thought of this store to be associated with theft, even if I was the victim. I’d rather avoid that if at all possible. So, no, I didn’t contact the local authorities.”
“You just let her go?”
“After I reclaimed the store property that she tried to take, yes. May I ask what interest the FBI has in a lowly shoplifter?”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “It’s possible that she’s involved with a series of killings that took place about three weeks ago. Her fingerprints were found at a pretty nasty crime scene. The local police noted that during their investigation there were a few witnesses that saw her running out of your store the same day as the murders, but they hadn’t had time to follow up on those leads yet.”
“Oh my. I’m sorry, Agent Rowling, but I don’t have any information that would help with that.”
“I figured, but I still needed to check. Thank you for your time.”
“Of course. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to call me or stop back by at any time.”
Sam reluctantly left the warm shop and went back out into the cold day. He checked his watch and found that it was almost time to meet his partner. With a heavy sigh he headed back to his car.
Normally he didn’t mind their partnership. In fact, it was one of the best that he had been a part of since he had joined the Bureau decades earlier. While they didn’t always see eye to eye, that tended to make them both look at things from different perspectives than they normally would, which in turn led to better case outcomes than might otherwise happen. Beyond that, they tended to get along on a personal level. That definitely helped with the long drives and plane rides that were often called for.
She wasn’t her usual self during this particular case, though. She had been short-tempered and irritable, and any attempt he had made to find out what was wrong had been met with silence. As much as this change in her personality had annoyed him, it concerned him even more.
“Hey,” a voice said from behind him as unlocked the car door.
Speak of the devil. Sam turned to find his partner crossing the street and heading towards him. Agent Jennifer Gates was tall and thin, standing an inch taller than him and in better shape than he had ever been. Her long blond hair was tied back and was whipping around in the wind.
“Hey yourself,” he answered, walking around the car to open the passenger door for him. “Have any luck?”
“Nothing,” she told him with a shake of her head. “You?”
“A whole lot of jack shit. Cup of coffee sound good?”
“Not as good as an entire pot.”
They got into the car and Sam headed towards a restaurant on the edge of the downtown area that he had seen earlier. He glanced over at Gates as he drove. She was staring out the window silently, her hand under her chin and her forehead against the glass.
“I hate this place,” she mumbled.
“Yeah, I’ve been able to tell that just about every single second that we’ve been here,” Sam replied wryly.
She turned towards him. “I guess I haven’t been very good company on this trip.”
“That would be an understatement. Ready to tell me why yet?”
“I suppose you deserve to know. I actually grew up in this town. Lived her until I was nineteen.”
“Really. Did Garrison know that before he assigned us here?”
She nodded. “Yeah, he knew and decided that it wasn’t a conflict of interest. He thought it might even be useful. You know how hard it can be sometimes to get people in small towns to cooperate. Everyone knows everyone and is protective of their community.”
Sam grunted. “I’ve noticed. Give me New York or Chicago every time. So why isn’t this a happy homecoming?”
“Let’s go for a drive. We can get coffee later.”
Gates directed him through downtown and past the buildings. Blackwood was a coastal town, and within a few minutes Sam saw the beach and ocean off to their right. The heavy cloud cover made the waves look gray as they crashed against the sand. They arrived at a bridge stretching out to a landmass across the water.
“Pull over here,” she instructed him, pointing at a small parking lot in front of the beach.
He did as she said, guiding the car into a space. His was the only car parked there. That wasn’t a surprise given the miserable weather. Still, it was quite the view.
“I’m about to bore you with a history lesson,” she warned him.
“That’s fine,” Sam said with a faint smile. “It will be a change from all the other ways that you bore me.”
“Remind me to request a new partner when we get back.” Gates sat back in her seat. “Way back in the day, fur traders and lumber barons had operations set up further north and into Canada. This was before this town existed. Before America existed, for that matter. All of this was wild terrain, which made moving their goods south to sell almost impossible over land. Instead, they had to use ships to transport them.”
“I’m with you so far, although I have no idea where you’re going with this.”
“The waters out there aren’t nearly as deep as you would think, at least not until you go past a certain point. Ships would often catch against rocks and sandbars and be ripped open. There are a lot of sunken vessels out there, and a lot of them dragged their crews down with them. Dozens, if not hundreds, of sailors died around here. Local legend says they called it the Devil’s Reef.”
She pointed off into the distance. “See that lighthouse way out there? It’s the first structure ever built here. It was built to help sailors guide ships into deeper waters. In the early days a single man would be stationed at it to make sure that the light shined out to passing ships. It was projected using large lamps. As they burned, they reflected off the glass windows and made it look like the entire top of the lighthouse was on fire.”
“Huh,” Sam said, scratching his chin. “Interesting.”
“For a long time Blackwood was prosperous. The fishing industry in particular boomed, and the docs were filled with fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. Farms were built further inland to take advantage of the fertile soil. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, Blackwood was one of the wealthiest communities in the state. In the early 1940s, a businessman named Frank Elliot visited the town and fell in love with it. He opened a cannery and made deals to purchase fresh fish and produce for the locals so that he could process and ship it all around the country. That brought in even more money and success.”
Sam frowned. The town they were in certainly didn’t have the appearance of being wealthy. The buildings in the downtown area had looked worse for the wear, and there weren’t many businesses that were still open. When they had gone to the crime scene where the druggies had been killed, he had noticed that the houses they passed were also in rough shape. He opened his mouth to ask about it, but she was already continuing before he could.
“Around that same time, a decision was made by the town council to expand Blackwood,” Gates told him. “That island over there is roughly half the size of the town, and they saw it as the perfect place to continue to build. They authorized the building of a bridge to connect it with the town proper. It made sense. The townspeople were already going over to it for walks and picnics by crossing a long sandbar that pops up during low tide. With the bridge they were able to cross at any time and bring over vehicles and building materials. Businesses and homes sprung up on the island. People started calling it Firefly Island because of how the lights from the buildings looked from across the water at night.”
“So what happened?” Sam finally managed to ask.
“You know the expression that all good things must come to an end? Well, they did. On June 18, 1968, a fishing boat returned to the docks just before noon. It had left at daybreak with a crew of six, but only two people were on it when it came back. One of the men was unconscious and badly injured, while the other one was ranting and raving incoherently. When they finally managed to get him to make some semblance of sense, he spoke about decaying bodies pulling themselves up out of the ocean onto the boat and killing the other members of the crew.”
“What happened to the two survivors?”
“The crazy one was evaluated and eventually sent to a mental institution. The injured sailor died a few hours after they arrived at the dock. The town council got wind of what had happened and decided that it could be bad for the town’s reputation if the story got out, so they worked with the police department to cover up the incident. Too many people had heard about what happened, though, so while the story didn’t really make it out of town, everyone here knows about it.”
“That’s a hell of a local legend.”
Gates shook her head. “It’s not a legend. Well, the part about a boat coming into the dock with two out of six sailors on it, anyway. That actually happened.”
Sam nodded. “Gotcha. So it’s one of those things where a story gets blown out of proportion over time. Unless you’re actually suggesting the living dead crawled out of the ocean and attacked them.”
She didn’t answer. For a long moment she simply stared out at the water, an unreadable expression on her face. As he waited for her to continue, a motion near the treeline on the opposite side of the road caught his attention. He turned just in time to see someone step back into the cover of the brush. It was so quick that he wasn’t sure that he had actually seen it. He stared at the spot intently, but nothing else happened.
“Rachel Logan was the daughter of a local minister,” Gates finally said. On October 27, 1974, she was walking home from a friend’s house when she disappeared. A lot of people had seen her walking through town, but no one witnessed the moment that she vanished. The police and a group of volunteers searched all night, but they weren’t able to find her. It wasn’t until the next morning when the tide had washed out and the sandbar connecting Blackwood and Firefly Island was visible that her body was found in the wet sand. There were signs of a struggle, and a series of dark bruises around her neck revealed that she had been strangled.”
“Jesus,” Sam muttered, turning his attention back to her. “How old?”
“She was fifteen. Over the next two months, seven more killings took place. Each was ruled death by strangulation. The police were under heavy pressure to find the killer, but there wasn’t any evidence to go off of. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who the victims were or when killings took place. The final murder took place on Christmas Eve. The last victim, an elderly retired veteran named Arnold Varney, was left in on the front steps of the library. The coroner determined that he hadn’t been killed there. The body had been put there so that it was on display for everyone to see.”
“Eight strangulations over a two month period in small town Maine.” He squinted. “Why haven’t I heard about this before? That should have been all over the news.”
“The same reason the boat killings weren’t. I know that you’re from New York, Sam, so you may not understand this, but small towns keep their secrets.”
“That’s a hell of a secret to keep.”
“Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be the last one. The next spring was one of the most difficult the town had ever been through. The fishing seemed to dry up. Day after day the fishing boats would come back nearly empty. No matter how far out they’d go, they rarely got enough to justify a day’s work. At the same time, the farmers began to have issues with their crops. There weren’t any early season frosts or summer pest issues, the typical stuff farmers have to deal with, but for some reason the plantings in the fields simply refused to grow. They brought in specialists to test the soil. The results came back saying that there were no issues with the ground itself. Everyone involved was clueless as to what was happening.
“It got worse each year from there. Less and less was produced from the town’s two biggest industries. During the ‘80s a lot of people decided it was time to move on, and the Blackwood’s population began to decline for the first time in the town’s history. Businesses moved out or shut down entirely. The last straw for the local economy was when the cannery closed down in August of ‘85. Everyone knew it was coming. Without local fish and produce to process, the company had begun to bleed money. The hours being offered to the employees had gone down each quarter. The owner tried to find a buyer for the company, but when he couldn’t he was forced to simply close the doors and leave the property to rot.”
Sam turned his head back towards the woods. He had thought that he’d heard something. Motioning for Gates to stop speaking, he rolled down his window and listened. A few moments later he heard it again.
“What is that?” he asked quietly, more to himself than to his partner.
“It sounds like laughing,” Gates answered anyway.
“Kind of, yeah. It’s a little… off, though. Must be a weird echo or something. Anyway, go on with your story.”
“Sure.” She didn’t seem as certain as he was that the laughing wasn’t anything to worry about. “As the years passed Blackwood continued to diminish. You saw all the closed businesses downtown, and I’m sure you’ve noticed the crappy shape everything is in. There’s just no money to pay for anything. Firefly Island got it the worst. There’s nothing there anymore except for some trailer parks and a couple of low income housing blocks.”
“That’s a shame. It seems like this town got the short end of the stick.”
“There’s more. On May 27, 1998, just two days before Blackwood’s annual Founder’s Day celebration, Mayor Thomas Blige walked into the police station covered in blood. The officers initially thought that he had been attacked, and they rushed him over to the town doctor.”
“What had happened to him?”
“Nothing. The doctor determined that there were no cuts on his body, and the blood wasn’t Blige’s. He wasn’t responsive to any of the questions the officers asked, so they went to his house to try to figure out what was going on. The front door was standing wide open when they got there. They went inside and found Blige’s wife, mother, and dog torn apart and gutted in the living room. They immediately called it into the station, and the chief of police started grilling the mayor. He was dazed and seemed completely unaware that he had done anything wrong. He just repeated that he had only done what the voices had told him to do.”
“It was right around then that the rumors started.”
Sam frowned. “What rumors?”
Gates didn’t answer immediately. She stared out her window silently, seemingly lost in her thoughts. There was another laugh from the direction of the woods, but he was too engrossed in what she was saying to notice.
“Blackwood had fallen a long way in a short amount of time,” she eventually said. “When that kind of thing happens to a town, the residents start to wonder why. This has always been a superstitious place, so when you combine that with trying to understand why bad things have happened… Some people say that it’s some kind of curse, or a dark deal that was made by the town’s early settlers that has come due. Others say that it’s the spirits of the merchants and sailors that died off the coast in the days before the lighthouse was built. The thing that everyone agrees with is that the nights seem a bit darker every year, and the fog that comes in is just a bit thicker, and most of all that Blackwood is a forsaken place.”
“A bit dramatic, don’t you think?” Sam asked.
“Maybe,” she replied shortly, not sounding like she believed it. “The point that I’m trying to make is that the problems in Blackwood didn’t start with these killings. This has been a bad place for a long time. I think what we’re seeing here is a symptom and not the cause.”
He looked at her for a long moment. “None of what you just told me explains why you hate this town so much. Did something happen to you here, something that ties into this story somehow?”
Gates looked down and didn’t immediately answer. “Something happens to everyone here.”
Sam thought about what she had said later that evening as he was sitting in his motel room. She hadn’t gone into any further details about her past experiences in the town, but her demeanor had made it clear that he shouldn’t keep pressing the issue. There had been a look in her eyes that he knew would stick with him for a long time. He had seen it before. It was the look war veterans got in their eyes when they recalled past traumas.
Deciding that he was thirsty, he sighed and got off of the bed. He was pretty sure that he had seen a vending machine back at the motel office. He heard a light rain pattering against the windows, so he begrudgingly put on his coat. It was probably for the best that he wore it anyway. It concealed the fact that he was wearing his gun, and he had long ago learned that walking into a room with an exposed weapon was a good way to panic people.
The air was cold, even colder than it had been earlier that day. He shook his head as he closed the motel room door. Someday he was going to figure out how to get assigned to cases in Hawaii.
He froze as he heard a sound from above him. It was the same laughter he had heard coming from the woods that afternoon. Furrowing his brow, he took a few steps back and stared up at the roof. The laughter stopped, and for a long moment there was only silence.
A figure, black against the black sky, leaped off the roof. Sam instinctively ducked and spun around. He was certain that someone had just committed suicide. No one could have survived a fall from the top of the two story motel.
His breath caught in his throat as he came face to face with the figure standing unharmed in the dark parking lot.
He wasn’t sure what he was looking at. At its most basic it seemed to be a woman wearing a wooden mask, but that didn’t tell the whole story. It was impossible to tell where the wood ended and the flesh began. The mask melded into the skin and moved like it was a real face. It had a long snout and two rounded ears with points at the tops. The eyes staring back at him through the sockets were black with pinpoints of red in the center.
The woman’s mouth opened wide, wider than any human jaw could. It was filled with sharp teeth. A long black tongue flicked back and forth as saliva slowly dripped out over the sides of her mouth.
As Sam took an involuntary step backwards, he quickly looked over the rest of her. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that had once been gray but was now dark with blood. The hands that extended out from the sleeves had tufts of hair sprouting from them, and they ended in curved black claws. Her jeans were ripped in multiple places. Something seemed off about her legs, and it took him a moment to realize that the kneecap was pushed behind the lower leg instead of in front of it. The way her legs were jointed reminded him of a dog’s legs.
She stared at him and cackled.
“Ms. Bennington is exactly like I said, isn’t she?” a calm and steady voice inquired from behind him.
Years of doing field work for the FBI helped Sam not jump in surprise, but he still felt a chill run through him. He glanced over his shoulder and found that the owner of the antique store that he had gone into earlier in the day was standing less than a dozen feet away. The man was staring at him with a blank expression, an open umbrella in one hand.
“Do you remember what I told you, Agent Rawling?” Alastor Pembrook asked. “I told you that she is a hyena. More accurately, that she is Hyena.”
The woman laughed again. It changed in pitch and tone as she did so, creating an odd almost echo-like effect.
“What the hell is this, Pembrook?” Sam demanded, his hand going towards his gun.
“I really wouldn’t do that,” Pembrook warned. “If you attempt to draw your weapon, Ms. Bennington will see it as a threat. She’s quite fast.”
His hand froze.
“Smart man. You’re one of the few intelligent people that I’ve met since I’ve been back in Blackwood, Agent Rawling. I could see when we first met that you had your doubts about me. That sort of insight is a rarity indeed.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Sam growled sarcastically.
“You misunderstand me. That wasn’t a compliment. It was a lament. I consider what has to happen here a shame. I’m so close to achieving a goal that I’ve long worked towards, though, and I can’t have you interfering while the final pieces are put into place.”
“If you think that I’m a headache, you should see what happens when an agent goes missing. If you kill me, this place will be swarming with FBI personnel in just a few days.”
Pembrook nodded once. “Yes, I’m sure that it would be quite the nuisance, but there won’t be anything for them to find by the time they arrive. Hyena, please attend to the matter. Oh, and don’t forget his partner when you’re done.”
Sam went for his gun. The woman’s laughter became louder, and she was on him before the weapon could clear its holster. He cried out in pain as the claws on one of her hands slid easily through his clothes and deep into his side. She shoved him to the ground, and he hit the wet pavement hard. His vision was already growing dark when her jaws clamped down on his neck and tore at his throat. His final thought was the words that Gates had spoken to him at the beach.
Something happens to everyone here.