It was the start of summer and the sun hid behind the clock tower of the church. Sam Newell sat on the crumbling stone wall at the front of the church with his best friend, Scott. Behind them, scattered gravestones punctuated the worn grass that stood at the front of the church. Scott wondered what exactly was left beneath the gravestones, dead people or dust. Sam thought it best not to dwell on the subject because it seemed disrespectful.
“You think that discussing the dead will cause zombies to climb out of the graves and eat our brains, don’t you,” Scott said to Sam.
Scott ran to one of the gravestones and then turned to walk slowly towards Sam in a mock zombie walk.
“Brains, brains,” growled Scott.
Sam stood up and threw a stone at Scott.
“You’re out of luck, fucker. I ain’t got any,” said Sam, laughing.
The stone hit Scott on the shin and he forgot the zombie walk and ran after his friend.
“Hey, zombies don’t run,” shouted Sam.
“I’m an Olympic zombie,” said Scott, dragging Sam to the floor.
Sam pushed Scott off him and lay laughing on his back. Scott was looking, sheepishly, towards the path between the road and the church wall.
“Good morning, Mrs Pope,” said Scott.
“Have you boys no respect? There are people at rest in this churchyard,” she said.
She shook her head and mumbled something that the boys could not hear before walking off into town.
Sam and Scott resumed their positions on the church wall.
“As if she’s called Pope,” said Sam.
“It is very apt, young man,” said Scott in an authorative voice. Scott slapped Sam across the head.
“Ouch, chill it dude,” said Sam.
The pair of them laughed and fell backwards, enjoying the warmth of the sun.
Sam and Scott were both sixteen years old and neither of them had managed to get a girlfriend yet. Scott came closest to any sort of relationship. Two weeks with a girl called Katie from school. The relationship ended when Katie discovered Scott and Sam drunk in the school playing fields. Katie demanded to know where they had got the drink from and Scott told her it was a gift from heaven. Katie called Scott blasphemous and did not speak to him for another two weeks.
“You remember when I went out with Katie?” Scott asked Sam.
“Pig-tailed bible basher,” said Sam. “Yeah, I remember.”
“You ruined it for me by taking a bottle of vodka from your Grandpa’s,” said Scott.
“Dude, it was a gift from God. Don’t you remember?” said Sam.
“She still wants me, you know that?” asked Scott.
“Yeah, sure man. What she wants is some dick to carry her bible for her,” said Sam.
“You remember Barbara? I wonder what happened to her. She had the biggest hooters,” said Scott.
Sam turned and stared wide-eyed at his friend.
“Scott, don’t even bring that shit back up. My old man still has nightmares about it now,” said Sam.
“Sorry man. Didn’t mean to bring that back up but she was mighty fine,” said Scott.
“Yeah, she was, wasn’t she?” said Sam, smiling.
“Does your old man ever talk about it?” asked Scott.
Sam shook his head.
“Nope. Never. Won’t let my mum or grandpa talk about it in front of me, either,” said Sam. “It’s taboo in our house.”
Scott picked up a twig from the grass and started to strip it.
“My ma never talks about it, either,” said Scott. “It’s like a year ago now and we still don’t really know what happened.”
“All I know is that they found Jeff Walker and his two daughters ripped to pieces by bears and Barbara locked in the cellar,” said Sam.
“Dude, they don’t know for sure it was bears,” said Scott. “I reckon it’s a cover up. Maybe it was aliens.”
“Shut the fuck up,” said Sam, laughing as he slapped Scott on the shoulder.
“What’s so funny, boys?” asked a voice behind them.
Sam and Scott turned around to see Reverend Smith standing over them.
Scott sighed and rolled his eyes at Sam. Sam placed a subtle elbow in Scott’s ribs.
Reverend Smith smiled and sat on the wall, next to the boys.
“So what are you two up to today? Have you been waiting for the church to open?” he asked.
Sam and Scott looked at each other, both waiting for the other to offer a plausible excuse.
It was Sam who finally cracked under the pressure and spoke.
“I can’t Reverend,” said Sam. “I have to meet my mother soon, much as I would love to come to church.”
Reverend Smith smiled and placed a hand on Sam’s shoulders.
“Yeah, sure Sam,” he said. “What about you Scott?”
“I can’t either Reverend,” said Scott.
“And why is that, Scott?” asked Reverend Smith. “You meeting your mother as well?”
“Hell no,” said Scott. “I don’t believe in God, that’s all.”
Sam turned away and lay on the wall, praying for the ground to open up and swallow him.
Reverend Smith smiled, taking Scott’s statement in his stride.
“Look at the day. There’s not a cloud in the sky, the birds are singing and Atom is the most peaceful place on Earth. You think this is random, Scott?” asked the Reverend. “This has to be a grand design.”
“Atom wasn’t that peaceful a year ago. I’ll come to church the day God brings Barbara Young back to Atom. Then I really will believe,” said Scott.
Reverend Smith laughed. He stood up shaking his head.
“If Barbara Young returns to Atom, I suspect that I won’t see you for dust,” said Reverend Smith.
Reverend Smith said nothing else. He walked away from the boys, opened the large oak doors of the church and disappeared inside.
Scott turned to see Sam staring at him.
“What?” asked Scott.
“Do you have to do that? Say stuff, just to wind folks up?” asked Sam. “I have to meet my mother as well. Why didn’t you just say that?”
“I can’t do this with religious shit. Tell Jeff Walker and his girls there’s a God. I’m sure he’d feel the same as I do,” said Scott.
“Talking about cover-ups and conspiracy shit, I can’t believe his name is John Smith. It’s almost as bad as Mrs Pope,” laughed Sam.
“That’s the trouble with this town,” said Scott. “It’s so damn predictable.”
“Except when the bears kick off,” said Sam.
Scott stood up and started to wag a finger at Sam.
“Young Samuel, we will not be discussing bears kicking off in this house, you hear me,” said Scott.
“Yeah, okay dad,” said Sam.
“Now let’s go find my mum,” said Scott.
Sam laughed and the two friends jumped off the wall and walked away from the church.
Brad Newell sat at his desk, reading through the local newspaper of one year ago. Had it really been a year now? It seemed like it was only yesterday. Brad’s mind spun back in time to the events that changed everything for him.
It was midnight and Brad had a call from Jeff Walker’s neighbour, Ron McCabe. McCabe lived a mile away from Walker but he was still his nearest neighbour. McCabe said he could hear screaming and gunshots, and he and his boys were going to make their way over there. Brad told him to stay put. Brad wished with all his heart that he had let McCabe and his boys go to the Walker house but it was too late now. Brad grabbed a couple of deputies and they made their way over to Walker’s house. The house was a large brick and wood constructed dwelling, imposing and isolated. It stood alone on a hill that rose above the woodlands. As Brad and his deputies left their vehicles they noticed that all the lights were off in the property. Brad grabbed a flash light and entered the house; his deputies following close behind. All the men had their revolvers drawn and it did not take Brad long to discover the cause of the commotion at Walker’s house. The flashlight lit the walls of the house up as they made their way towards the living room. Everywhere they looked there was blood on the walls, and the air smelled of urine. Brad gasped as his light fell on the body of Walker’s youngest daughter.
“It’s Sarah,” he called out.
Ted Parker and Pete Coleman moved quickly towards their boss. Brad was crouched over the body of a twenty something woman. Both Ted and Pete gagged when they saw the body. Pete backed away and stumbled over the body of Jessica Walker. Jessica was thirty years old and lived with her father and sister in the house. They had only moved into the property a year ago.
“Brad,” said Pete. “Jessica’s over here.”
Brad was too busy examining the body of Sarah to pay much attention to Pete. Her chest was ripped open, exposing the fractured ribcage beneath the skin. Whatever it was that had done this, it was not human. The chest had been ripped open by what must have been a claw and her flesh had been partially eaten. Brad gagged when he saw that the killer had nibbled on her fingers and toes. Her head was still intact, perfectly unharmed, but her face was frozen in a silent scream. A disturbing thought crossed Brad’s mind. Was Sarah Walker still alive whilst she was being eaten? He moved over to the body of Jessica. Jessica had that same facial expression and she too was partially eaten.
“What the hell?” said Pete. “Brad, something ate them.”
“I can see that,” said Brad.
“Only thing I know that could do this is bears,” said Ted.
“Bears don’t eat people,” said Brad.
Brad stood up and moved the flash light around the room.
“Where the hell is Jeff?” he asked.
The three of them moved out of the living room and into the rear hallway. Brad could see the glass panels of the rear doorway that faced the stairway to the upstairs rooms. He flashed his light along the floor and came upon the body of Jeff Walker. Jeff was lying with his back resting on the door to the cellar. Brad crouched down in front of Jeff and saw that he had suffered the same fate as his daughters. The cellar door was covered in Jeff’s blood. Brad ran his fingers along the wooden door and then called to the others. Ted and Pate came running into the hallway.
“What the hell is that?” asked Brad, pointing at the door.
Carved into the door were a set of strange symbols. The door was covered in them and some of the characters had been inked in.
“Jesus. You think the Walker’s were religious?” asked Ted.
“I don’t think so,” said Brad.
“It’s Russian,” said Pete.
“How the hell do you know that?” asked Brad.
“Remember the Russian student that came here a while ago?” asked Pete.
“Yeah. Anya or something like that,” said Brad.
“She stayed with my folks and when she wrote home. Well, it looked like that,” said Pete.
“I don’t suppose you know what any of this means?” asked Brad.
“Brad, I just saw the letters. I have no idea what that shit says,” said Pete.
Ted knelt by Brad, staring at Jeff Walker.
“He’s different to his girls,” said Ted.
“Different?” asked Brad. “What do you mean?”
“Look at him,” said Ted. “His face. It’s angry. That’s not the face of someone scared to death, that’s the face of a man fighting for his life.”
Brad shone the light over Jeff’s face. It was the face of a man locked in a life or death struggle. Jeff’s face was bruised heavily and had a fractured cheekbone. Brad used one hand to turn Jeff’s face and as he did so, Jeff’s eyes opened and he grabbed Brad by the throat.
“Kill it. In the name of God, kill it,” screamed Jeff.
Brad struggled to free his throat from Jeff’s grip but when he finally succeeded, the shaking Jeff slumped back against the door, lifeless. Brad stared at the dead man for a second or two before turning to Ted and Pete.
“The bear must still be around here,” said Ted.
“Get some fucking lights on and secure this place,” said Brad. “I don’t want to get jumped by the animal that did this.”
“I’m on it,” said Ted, disappearing back into the living room.
“Help me move him, Pete,” said Brad.
Pete knelt to help Brad move the man away from the door but Brad stopped him, holding his finger to his lips.
“Listen,” said Brad. “Do you hear that?”
They both kept perfectly still and listened hard. They could just make out the soft crying of a woman from behind the cellar door.
“Fuck. There’s someone in there,” said Brad.
Brad and Pete moved Jeff to one side and pulled at the door but it would not budge. Brad’s light found a heavy duty padlock securing the door.
“She’s been locked in there. From the outside,” said Brad.
“Jeff must’ve done it to protect her,”” said Pete.
“Stand back,” said Brad.
Brad thought about putting a bullet through the lock before realising the key was still in it. He undid the lock and ripped the door open, shining a light inside. There crouched on the top of the stairs was a young woman, frightened and crying but unharmed.
“Barbara? Barbara Young? What are you doing here?” asked Brad.
He held out his hand and pulled the sobbing girl into his arms.
“What happened here?” asked Brad.
“I don’t know. I came for dinner and the lights went out and all hell broke loose,” said Barbara. “Jeff shoved me in here and locked the door. I couldn’t get out. I heard growling, like bears. I listened to them die.”
Barbara collapsed into Brad’s arms.
“Call it in,” said Brad to Pete. “Let’s get this girl to a hospital and find out what did this.”
Pete left the house to use the patrol car radio, just as Ted walked back into the hallway. Brad shone his light on Ted’s face.
“I thought I told you to get the lights on,” said Brad.
“The wires have been cut,” said Ted.
“Man-eating bears that cut the wires?” said Brad.
“Maybe it was Jeff,” said Ted.
“Why? Why would he cut the power?” asked Brad.
“I don’t know but I’m guessing the bears didn’t do it,” said Ted.
It had been two days since the slaughter of the Walker’s. The locals now called it the house on the hill. If anyone used that term, everyone else knew exactly what they meant. The forensics had examined every detail of the house but came up with nothing. The only blood in the house was the Walker’s blood. There was no fur in the house, not even a single hair and there were no claw prints consistent with a bear attack. Nevertheless, the authorities and the doctors reasoned that it must have been a bear attack. Despite the protests of local and external protection groups, Brad was told to organise a cull and find the killer. Much to Brad’s disgust, he was actively involved in the bear cull. They killed six bears before Brad stopped it. When they came across a couple of motherless bear cubs, some of the men were far too quick to raise their rifles. Brad had seen enough slaughter. The young and the innocent would not fall prey to the mob. The bears that they had killed had no human blood on them and no human remains in their digestive system. So it was that Brad called a meeting at the town hall to tell the civilians that the crime would stay unsolved, for now.
The residents of Atom gathered in the town hall, well before the meeting was due to start. Ron McCabe and his two boys sat at the front of the hall. When Brad finished telling the community about the results of the cull and the closure of the case, Ron stood up and jeered Brad.
“So what you are telling us is that you have no idea who or what did this. You slaughtered a bunch of bears for no good reason and the killer is still out there. Is that right?” asked Ron.
“No. What I’m saying is that at this time we have not found the bear responsible for the deaths,” said Brad. “And we have to scale the investigation down as it’s taking our eye off other offences.”
“What other offences?” asked Ron. “There are less than four thousand people in this town. Someone steal your ice cream, Brad?”
The town hall erupted into laughter, sending Brad’s face a bright red. Brad composed a reply as best he could.
“No, but there’s the matter of illegal poaching,” said Brad, staring at Ron.
Ron walked up the steps of the stage and angrily confronted Brad.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? If you’re accusing me and my boys of poaching, then damn well say so,” said Ron.
Brad said nothing but stared back at Ron. Brad wanted to punch the loud-mouthed hick so hard. Ron strode back down the steps and made his way down the centre of the hall, beckoning his two sons to follow.
As they reached the doorway, Ron turned to shout at Brad again.
“What this town needs is a new Sheriff. One that ain’t scared shitless when it comes to real crime. One that ain’t afraid to say what he thinks,” said Ron.
With that, Ron and his two boys left the hall, slamming the door behind them. Reverend John Smith stood up to address the people in the hall.
“I understand the frustrations that you all feel, but trust me; Sheriff Newell has done everything possible to solve this case. The fact that he has not found the particular animal responsible should not be held as detrimental to his efforts. The local bear population is large and we cannot go on forever killing God’s creatures in the hope of finding the one responsible,” said Reverend Smith.
The townsfolk mumbled a little but it was hard to argue against the Reverend. They seemed to accept the reasoning and left the hall calmly.
Brad suddenly felt alone in the world. He could only watch as the business men and dignitaries of the town gave him disapproving glances. Reverend Smith walked over to Brad and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s not your fault, Brad,” said Reverend Smith. “How are you supposed to find one rogue bear in a state full of them?”
Brad shuffled his feet and looked at the floor before looking back up at Smith.
“What if it wasn’t a bear?” he asked.
“What?” asked Smith.
“What if it wasn’t bear? What if it was a man and he’s still out there?” asked Brad.
“You don’t seriously believe that, Brad?” asked Smith.
“Reverend, I don’t know what to believe,” said Brad.
Brad walked down the steps and made his way outside. Outside, Pete was smoking a cigarette.
“Makes you wonder whether they’re worth protecting,” said Pete.
“What does Smith know that the rest of don’t,” said Brad.
“What do you mean?” asked Pete.
“Every god damn mother fucker in this town has been on my back except for him,” said Brad. “Some people would call that supportive. I call it suspicious.”
“Maybe he just believes in you,” said Pete.
“Yeah, well he’s the only one. Hell, I don’t even believe in myself anymore,” said Brad.
Brad climbed into his car and drove away from the hall. Pete put out his cigarette and beckoned to Ted who was leaning on a tree a few yards away.
“Yep?” asked Ted.
“We got to keep an eye on Brad. He’s a good guy. I’m worried we could lose him,” said Pete.
“Nobody could have solved this case,” said Ted. “It’s impossible.”
“Unfortunately, the rest of the town doesn’t agree. Oh, and Ted. Keep your eye on Smith,” said Pete.
“Reverend Smith? Why?” asked Ted.
“Brad seems to think he knows something,” said Pete.
Ted seemed outraged that Reverend Smith would be involved.
“Smith is a nice guy. Maybe he knows Russian but that would be all. By the way, what did the symbols on the door mean?” asked Ted.
“Most of it made no sense at all, apparently. It was Russian, but I’m told it was a very old dialect. Not only that, but the words were mixed up and jumbled. Most of it made no sense at all,” said Pete.
“Most of it?” asked Ted.
“Just one sentence made any kind of sense. It said, ‘provide no answer’,” said Pete.
Ted looked baffled but Pete said nothing further.
“I’m glad I asked,” said Ted.
Brad closed the newspaper and left his office. He made his way through the police station. He did not attempt to speak to anyone as he walked to the door. Once he was outside, he moved out of sight of the windows and leaned against the wall. He sighed and lit up a cigarette. He smoked too many these days, he knew that, but his nerves were not what they once were. He watched as people walked by and cars drove down the street. He squinted as he looked towards the sun. The heat of the day meant that summer had arrived in Atom. There was a time when this would have made him happy but that was over a year ago now. Summer terrified him. He stubbed the cigarette out with his shoe and prayed.
This is a work in progress and comments and criticism are welcome. In fact they are actively encouraged. The whole of the novel will be readable on this site, warts and all.
L J Hick