Warning! This is a horror/dark fiction story so may be disturbing to some. There is strong language and sexual situations.
Track of the Beast
Vince allowed the machine to rev for a moment, then throttled back until the sound dropped away to a series of staccato popping noises. Climbing into the saddle and checking the fuel gauge out of habit–although he already knew from having serviced it a few days before that the tank was full–he pulled down his amber goggles, nosing the heavy snowmobile away from the house and onto the long unused logging road running up into the trees behind the house.
Returning to the cabin from his unsatisfying rounds of the lake, he had checked messages on the answering machine, making notes of a few routine complaints of illegally parked vehicles out by the ski areas and a fender bender by the post office before cutting up the fresh vegetables and cubes of lean beef that would form the base of the Burgundy cassoulet he was preparing for dinner. Those details under control, he had shrugged into the heavy insulated body suit that was a must for snowmobiling in the high country and gone down into the parking area below the deck to uncover the larger of the two machines, trundling the big Ski-Doo out onto the snow and carefully checking the runners and suspension.
He had hesitated briefly, considering taking Annie’s nearly new Kawasaki instead. It was a sleek black thing festooned with chrome and digital gauges that was at once faster, lighter and more comfortable than his old workhorse and the temptation was great. He resisted, deciding that the big Ski-Doo’s extra weight and sheer low-end horsepower might come in handy on the steep slopes he would be required to negotiate in order to reach the most remote of the cabins he was planning on checking out. As a final act before climbing aboard, he had slipped a portable two-way radio into one of the big pockets on the right leg of the padded ski suit and strapped the thirty caliber rifle from the Jeep’s dashboard rack onto the snowmobile’s rear saddle.
Although Vince certainly didn’t expect to encounter the killer of Terry Carling and Ferdinand Kramer on his short trek, solo travel into the mountains after a big snowfall always carried with it an element of risk. Even the most reliable machines broke down from time to time, and a man alone in deep snow ten miles from civilization might as well be stranded on Mars, especially if the weather suddenly turned. For that reason also, the Ski-Doo’s bulging saddlebag contained a first aid kit, freeze-dried rations and a tiny portable stove, as well as space blankets and a powerful flashlight with extra batteries.
None of those thoughts were in his mind as he twisted the black knurled hand throttle, feeling the reassuring thrust of the Ski-Doo’s big engine winding up beneath him and reacquainting himself with the familiar jounce and vibration as the runners slid over the crusted surface of the old trail.
The exhilaration of the cold wind in his face was a pleasant change from the Jeep’s cramped interior. Vince found himself grinning as the snowmobile raced through the trees for several minutes, finally surging out of the deep shadows of the forest and into the sparkling expanse of a small alpine meadow. His first objective, an old trapper’s cabin that had been renovated some years earlier to serve as a rustic summer retreat for backpackers, stood out in sharp relief against a snow covered slope half a mile above the thick stretch of wooded land bordering the far side of the meadow. He altered course slightly to line up with the Forest Service fire road that he knew would eventually lead him to it. The old log structure was actually the most distant of the places he hoped to visit this afternoon, but because it was widely known to be stocked with emergency supplies for stranded climbers and skiers, it was also the most likely refuge for an outdoor type to have holed up in. Thanks to the recent snowfall, any signs of recent habitation would be readily evident.
The Ski-Doo’s engine droned in his ears as he negotiated the easy passage across the flat expanse of the meadow and he took advantage of the undemanding ride to let his mind run through the strange details of the three bizarre murders. He was still having great difficulty finding an even halfway rational explanation for the childlike footprints, especially those he had spotted around his own house. Having once run barefoot through deep snow on a dare while he was in college, he knew that the pain was incredibly intense–until your feet froze. After that, you had frostbite and pretty soon it was all over. The footprints he and Frolich had followed alongside the freeway in Los Angeles–the same footprints, he was certain–had run straight and true for some distance, giving no sign that the person who made them had been limping or injured in any way.
It was crazy, as crazy as the coroner’s report concluding that the two kids in the Kramer cabin had been killed by an animal.
The tree line was coming up fast and he allowed the snowmobile’s speed bleed off preparatory to re-entering the forest. Lengthening shadows reached out from a towering stand of ponderosa pines at the edge of the wood, enveloping the Ski-Doo in sudden darkness.
Something nagged at the fringes of Vince’s mind as the illusory warmth of the bright afternoon sunshine fled and a deep chill crept in around the neck of his insulated suit: something he had once read somewhere.
What kind of an animal made human footprints?
He frowned at his own musings.
Better to ask what kind of a human killed like an animal.
“Do you….?” Rollo, the crudely worked gold medallion his father had pressed into his hands as the old man lay gasping on his deathbed held flat in his upturned palm, looked frantically at the chalky skinned male creature standing before him.
“Affirm and avouch….” The male’s voice was soft and silky with reassurance.
“Affirm and avouch,” Rollo stammered, struggling with the ancient Romish dialect the other had made him memorize, “that the pact made by your sire before The Oracle was a true and valid pact?” The sweating Gypsy raised his eyes to the slender female creature beside the other. Her round golden eyes seemed fixed on some distant point behind him and he had a sudden urge to look over his shoulder.
“I do so affirm,” she said, the tone and inflection of her low, musical voice filling the cramped office with an overwhelming feeling of profound sadness.
Fifteen-eighty-six. Jesus, she looked like a teenager. Rollo smiled weakly and looked hopefully at the male. “Well then, I guess that’s it….”
The male stared at him and he suddenly stiffened. “Oh yeah,” he mumbled, “I almost forgot…” He held the gold medallion out, dreading what he knew was about to happen. The muscles of his flabby arm tensed, waiting. The goddamn thing had insisted that the marriage would not be complete without this last little ritual and he had very reluctantly agreed. Still, the fat envelope sat on the desk, waiting for him to go through with it.
The creature withdrew an object from the inner lining of his jacket and a none too clean looking blade flashed in the cold glare of the flourescents. A straight razor! The guy had said a symbolic bloodletting, he hadn’t mentioned anything about a fucking straight razor! Rollo tried to snatch his arm away. A pale hand rose up with lightning speed to take his wrist, catching him fast in an iron grip. Yellow eyes burned into his soul.
“Trust me,” whispered the pale creature.
Rollo was suddenly queasy. The overheated room with its cheap red carpet and distress sale furniture swam before his eyes and his blubbery lips trembled soundlessly, a clear bubble of saliva glistening between them as the thing brought the jagged razor to the back of his plump brown hand and slashed once. Then again.
The Gypsy’s eyes blinked rapidly as two parallel cuts appeared in his skin, the dark venous blood welling up, flowing together to form a single glistening dome among the bristling hairs.
“As you have shown your loyalty to the unseen tribes, so shall your noble blood be sacred to them and all their ken,” intoned the male. The golden eyes flickered to the silent female, who was now gazing fixedly down at the back of Rollo’s hand.
“You I offer this sacred blood to seal our pact,” said the creature, raising the fat man’s hand to her mouth. The Gypsy’s eyes rolled back in his head as the female’s purple tongue flicked into his blood. “On this blood I pledge my protection to you and your younglings.” The male bowed his head. Thin lips fastened on Rollo’s hand and he sucked noisily at the lacerated flesh. When he withdrew, the marks left by his razor stood out pink against the gray bloodless flesh. He released the hand and Rollo stared at it in horror.
“The numbness will soon disappear,” said Straight Razor Dan. “You might, however, wish to apply an antiseptic as soon as possible.” Reaching into his pocket, he removed his dark wraparounds and placed them on the bridge of his handsome nose. “There are a number of blood borne diseases about these days,” he added. With that the creature turned on his heel, and grasping his female firmly by the arm, he left the office.
Rollo Castle flopped limply into his creaky desk chair, staring in disbelief at his slashed hand. The limb was without sensation nearly to the elbow and the gold medallion dangled weightlessly from his fingers. “Jesus Christ!” he breathed, fumbling awkwardly for the intercom switch with his good hand, “Jesus Christ almighty!”
“Yeah, Rollo?” Remy’s simpering adolescent voice crackled through the speaker, sounding as if the kid was on another planet.
“Get the fuck up here,” he bellowed. “And bring me the first aid kit. I’m bleeding.”
The snow around the old miners’ cabin had no visible tracks, mute testimony that no one had entered or left since the big snowfall four days previously.
Vince guided the Ski-Doo to a halt before the ramshackle porch and dismounted. There was a small chance that someone might have entered before the storm, then left under cover of the falling snow. He stepped up onto the creaking boards and went to the front door, which was left unlocked.
A quick search of the single sparsely furnished room revealed several boxes of unopened emergency rations stacked beside a cold pot bellied stove. The neat pile of firewood behind the stove appeared untouched, the nickel firebox devoid of ashes. Two neatly made up cots, a pile of extra blankets and a wooden table containing a Forest Service map of the mountain and a note strongly advising lost hikers to stay put until the Service’s helicopter made its twice weekly flyover completed the cabin’s meager inventory.
No one had been here recently.
Returning to the porch, Vince closed the door securely behind him and stood looking out over the valley. The sun was already dropping below the far rim of the mountains, casting a rosy pall across the smoggy flatland below. At the farthest limits of his vision, an ominous line of clouds obscured the coastline, a sure sign that another early winter storm would soon be arriving to drop more snow around the lake.
He looked at his watch, calculating how long it would take him to traverse the distance from the miners’ cabin to the isolated cluster of camp buildings hidden among the trees on the opposite slope. He had plenty of time before dark. He should be able to reach the old camp in no more than half an hour, even taking into account the short detour he’d have to make around the base of the narrow canyon marking the division between the two high peaks dominating this end of the Condor Valley.
Of course he would make the detour around the treacherous canyon.
No sense risking an avalanche.
Stepping down off the rickety porch, Vince trudged through ankle deep snow to the Ski-Doo, threw his leg over the saddle preparing to fire up the engine.
A funny thought struck him as he realized where the stray thought had come from that had been playing around at the edges of his mind earlier–the thing he thought he had remembered reading about humans who walked barefoot in the snow. It hadn’t been an article at all. It had been one of Annie’s trashy horror novels, a thick paperback he’d picked from the bedside table and idly scanned one evening while waiting for her to emerge from the bathroom. A broad grin creased his features as he recalled the slick cover art: Dripping Gothic letters emblazoned in–what else?–blood red had spelled out the title Track of the Beast, a vampire story.
The snowmobile engine racketed to life, drowning out his laughter as he let out the clutch and sped away toward the lower end of Avalanche Draw.
“Have you fed?”
They were speeding north along some nameless freeway, the prince’s powerful black vehicle weaving dangerously through a glut of lumbering late afternoon traffic. Summer looked across the narrow leather lined cockpit to squint at his silhouette in the light of the dying sun. He had not, so far as she could determine, bothered to remove his eyes from the road when he had addressed her.
“Yes, My Lord.” She spoke in the old language, the formality of her reply intended to sting. He seemed not to notice and she suddenly realized that was how he expected her to address him; as underling to master. Why was she allowing herself to be humiliated by this arrogant breeder?
She did not have an answer.
“Very well.” He turned to regard her now, and she could feel his eyes assessing the slim contours of her body from behind the dark glasses he wore. “We shall go directly to my sleeping place where we may couple undisturbed,” he said matter-of-factly. “Then I shall hunt and feed later.”
She felt the longing ache rise into her throat again and turned away to gaze through the glass at the endless blocks of habitations flashing past below the roadway. The flat, coppery taste of the Gypsy’s blood felt heavy on her tongue and she wished desperately for something to take it away.
Some coffee perhaps.
A human word came into her mind, a word Bobby had used to describe the cruel master of the place they had sent him after the deaths of his beloved sire and his mam. It was a perfect word for the cold male beside her at the controls of the vehicle. She played with it in her mind, wondering how the proud prince would react if she dared voice what she was feeling toward him.
The vehicle swerved dangerously, nearly careening into a huge, many-wheeled vehicle ahead. His dark glasses slipped from his nose and he stared at her over the tops of them, his piercing yellow eyes wide with astonishment. “What have you spoken?” he demanded, his suddenly imperfect English signifying the profound discomfort that the sound of the word had stirred in him.
“Asshole. It is a human word I learned in the streets,” she said innocently, all the while fighting to keep her lips from curving into a smile. “What does it mean?”
“The humans are a vulgar and stupid race,” he growled, replacing his glasses and returning his attention to the road. “Nothing can be learned from them.”
“But what does the word mean?” she persisted, enjoying his distress.
“I forbid you to use human language,” he snapped. “Henceforth, you will address me only in our native tongue.”
She bowed her head obediently, the ache in her throat returning with redoubled intensity. He had no right to treat her so. She was a huntress, had proved she could survive and kill on her own in this new world. He had no right. “Yes, my Lord,” she murmured resentfully.