As midnight divided one day into the next, an early snow began to fall. Goose feather-sized flakes drifted down, softening the cityscape. Geoff put another blanket on the bed and fell comfortably asleep in his lover’s arms. The last of his sullied mood had evaporated.
When he awoke it was still dark, but he noticed Chris’ absence immediately. As sleep-worn eyes focused, he found him seated at the end of the bed. He didn’t seem to be doing anything but sitting rigidly, hands folded in his lap, head turned toward the window. Geoff realized he was listening to something. He was still dressed in his t-shirt and boxers.
“Chris,” he whispered. There was no response. He said his name again. His head slowly turned toward him. His eyes sparkled in the dimness, but Geoff could tell he was still asleep. He was sleepwalking again; or very close to it. It seemed to be the one consistent side effect of the supplement. “Come back to bed, babe.” He patted the mattress.
The pale face resumed its blank gaze at the window.
Reluctantly slipping from the warmth of the bed, he trotted on tiptoe across the cold floor to the window. A quick check outside confirmed it was still snowing. He coaxed his partner beneath the covers and, at last, Chris closed his eyes.
There was enough winter chill in the room to affect his bladder. Standing quietly at the toilet, he tried to filter out the sensations around him. The smells, the pull. The feeling that something bad was going on out there.
As he finished and flushed, he noticed the room temperature had taken a drastic nosedive. Goosebumps pebbled his arms. He could see his breath.
Upon his return to the bedroom, the reason for the cold was evident. The bed was empty; the window open. The drapes billowed on the breeze, carrying in snow to form wet specks on the floor.
His mind wanted to reject the meaning of what had happened in his absence. He tugged the drape back and looked outside. The snowfall had been consistent; the ground was covered with a velveteen layer of white. Imprints of bare feet could clearly be seen on the fire escape, but no Chris. His eyes swept both directions of the street. He saw nothing. Looking below, he discovered the half-dressed sleepwalker standing on the sidewalk, hair dotted with white; face pointed down the street like a hunting dog signaling where the duck had landed. The chill, along with annoyance, made Geoff bristle.
Trying not to disturb the neighbors, he whispered; “Chris! Get back up here!”
If he’d heard him, there was no acknowledgement. He’d have to go down and fetch him. Geoff found his jeans and threw them on. As he zipped them, he poked his head out the window.
“Chris!” he whispered louder, trying to catch his attention.
Slowly, the pale blue neon eyes of the somnambulist turned upward to him. Then he turned and sprinted barefoot down the street.
“Shit!” Geoff cursed, hastily cramming his feet into his running shoes. He jumped over the ledge and outside. Without a thought of the danger, he leaped over the rail, landing four stories below. The impact jarred his teeth, but the adrenaline revving his system reduced pain to an afterthought. Eyes focused on the nearly blank canvas of ground cover, following the solitary set of footprints. Visibility, even for him, was minimal in the speckled curtain of white. At the pace he’d set, Chris was already blocks ahead of him.
His cauldron of thoughts had him fuming as he ran. He knew exactly what was happening. He could smell it in the air, too. Chris’ heightened instincts had pulled him out onto a trail.
The distance between the footprints widened. He was in a full sprint; his direction mapped.
I’ve created a fucking nightmare, Geoff mentally whipped himself as he ran, snow crunching underfoot. It was unbelievable that the man he loved was running half-naked and barefoot through the snow in freezing temperatures. They were heading north to the older section of the city.
He crossed an intersection without looking, the sharp blast of a car horn startling him. The driver stomped his brakes, sending the vehicle into a sideways skid, missing him by mere inches. Headlights momentarily blinded him as the car slid into the curb and struck a lamppost. He didn’t have time to look back at the sound of crunching metal.
Apartments gave way to warehouses, staring like featureless faces. The smell of decay and neglect were a smoky undernote beneath the other scent. The trail of footprints led to a dead end and a three-story brick building with double garage doors. It seemed to be the only one in the block that’d received maintenance. Frosted windows were dimly lit. The trail led to the alley alongside and to the rear of the long, dismal building. A quick survey of the street in front revealed the tire tracks of at least three cars leading inside the building. That engaged his radar, sensing trouble. This was a not a good place.
Neither the brisk run nor the chill was responsible for the thick lump in his throat. It was worry. If he was right, Chris had just found a very nasty nest.
The barefoot imprints vanished at the back of the building. Glancing up at a staggered set of windows, he knew Chris had used their ledges to scale the building. He was up there somewhere. Geoff would soon follow, but he was curious to know what they were walking into.
The graveled backyard, even with a blanket of snow, was noisy to walk across. He chose his steps cautiously, finding a door near the rear. The crud on its windowpane had likely accumulated for decades, but with a little spit he succeeded in rubbing enough away to look inside. He immediately didn’t like what he saw. Draped on a wall near the door was the ominously familiar red, white, and black flag, the symbol of perfect intolerance and evil. Chris had stumbled upon what Detective DiMarco had warned him about weeks ago—a band of neoNazis. From the number of voices muffled inside, they were having a meeting.
He wasted no time climbing to the roof. The architecture was surprising, pitched high with clay tiles and a double door walkout to a veranda in years of disrepair. The upper floor had been a residence at one time. One of the doors was open. Chris was already inside.
Beyond the door was a shadowy room which, with a perfunctory examination, appeared to be used for storage. There was a lot of old WWII Army paraphernalia. To be precise, German army paraphernalia: coats, boots: the works. In the left corner, another door stood half-open. Light slanted through. He could hear smatterings of conversation as he approached.
An L-shaped balcony ran the length of hallway directly outside the door and to the right, overlooking a garage below. The building was enormous. Here, mingled with grease and motor oil, the stench assailed his nostrils stronger. A wall at the end of the balcony had been knocked down, opening to another cavern-black room. A stack of disordered bricks were piled in front of the opening. It was here he caught sight of what he was looking for: the white t-shirt and boxers crouching beneath the bricks, hidden in the shadows. He could see the head of knotted brown curls. Chris was listening to the voices below.
An inner dialogue warily prodded him. The one and only priority was to get Chris out safely. He’d no intention of involving either of them in this business. There were others who could take care of it.
A garage door rattled the walls as it opened. A car pulled inside. From where Geoff stood, he could see a black limousine. It stopped just beneath the balcony. The men in the shop gathered around.
He had to move with the utmost delicacy. Crouching on all fours, he inched his way along the balcony toward Chris. Not only did he not want to alert the men below, he didn’t want to startle the sleepwalker.
There was little doubt these were the very people DiMarco had spoken about. They were in the middle of a meeting, swastika flags proudly displayed throughout the room. How a group like this could still exist in the 21st century boggled the imagination. It simply had to be people who loved to hate.
He’d counted six men, but felt there were more beyond his vision. The room was filled with too many voices. Someone had stepped from the limousine. There was no vantage from the balcony to get a clear view. A glimpse here and there revealed he wore a suit, was middle-aged, and looked to have a ponytail. No sooner had he slipped from the vehicle, than every hair on Geoff’s body stood on end. He knew they were in the presence of something diabolical. As the new arrival spoke, the room fell silent. He had a pronounced Southern drawl, the kind of accent that turned one syllable into two, like someone singing.
“I’m glad we all could get together on this fine evening. Looks like our Master has graced us with a canopy of virgin white, a symbol of the way the world was in the beginning and shall be when our mission is complete.”
This was followed by a chorus of “Amen” and “Right on.”
“I can’t tell you the pride I have looking ‘round at y’all tonight. It does my heart good knowing there’re still righteous men with resolved hearts willing to do the work of the Almighty. We live in a world of sin and sinners, and they think they have all the time in the world… They’re a pompous bunch livin’ to do the devil’s deeds in the name of education and science. They think they can push us to the corner. They think we’ll cower like mice in their cage.”
“No more!” a man yelled from the group.
“We all know we can no longer trust our government; the police, the FBI; the CIA. We hear the stories every day of our good leaders, the men of faith and conviction meeting strange ends, suicides and disappearances. We know what’s going on. They’re trying to shut us down, cut us off. They think if they kill us, they kill the message.”
Geoff edged closer to the balcony’s rail in an attempt to see the man’s face. He’d heard the voice before, but couldn’t place it. He remained just out of sight.
“They took two of our best men in Roy and Allen at The Patriots Way. They thought they could weaken us, but they have only strengthened our determination.” The emotion in his voice was stirring. He was a gifted orator for sure. “But little did they know Roy and Allen had already done their part to help us on our way. We’ll make a statement all the world will hear.” His voice had turned defiant. “We, too, can work in mysterious ways. We, too, can strike terror in their hearts. We’ve lost nothing because their strike against us has guided us to send our message where it will be heard.”
There was a scattering of applause and “Here, here.”
“We have most of the stuff ready,” another voice spoke up from the group.
“Will it be enough to make a statement?” the southerner asked.
“More than enough.” The man cackled. “It’ll make ‘em shit their drawers!”
“Good. We’ll have a new reason to rejoice this Thanksgiving.”
A bang, loud and disrupting, hit the garage roof. It sounded as if a car had been dropped on it. Dust spilled in streams from the rafters. Lights blinked. Everyone’s eyes shot upward.
“What the fuck was that?” someone said.
Chris’ head pushed upward, listening. His expression was curious, attentive. It had definitely rattled Geoff, setting off the unwanted stimulation just beneath the surface of his skin. He held his breath, calming himself. This was not his fight.
Something heavy dragged across the roof, the sound deafening, like a colossus walking just above their heads. It headed toward the rear of the building. Every thump sent more dirt raining down from the ceiling. A quick check below: all eyes had turned upward following the noise. Some had drawn guns.
“Al, Gil, go check that out,” a baritone voice instructed two of the men. “You know what to do.”
Two pairs of feet started to the stairs. Looking around, he knew he couldn’t back into the room he’d come from. They’d be headed in that direction. There was little choice: he went down on his belly, sliding over to where Chris was hidden. His movements caught the sleepwalker’s attention. A nose quickly sniffed, then turned back to the sounds on the roof. Geoff lay flat in a rectangle of darkness between the bricks and wall. He was close enough to his partner to see the hair on his legs had stiffened and scratched the floor.
Glass shattered with explosive force inside the storage room. Something had blown its way through the window. A series of tumultuous thumps followed. Everyone in the building came to an abrupt standstill: listening, including the men who were halfway up the steps. Whatever had been on the roof was now inside the building, in the room. Al and Gil on the stairs, their faces now substantially lighter in color, stared at each other. Their confidence, even with guns in hand, had met a serious challenge.
“What are you guys waiting for? Christmas? Get in there and get the job done!” the voice commanded them from the garage below.
They slowly approached the top of the stairs, faces taut, fingers white around their revolvers. Just before reaching the door, another crash came from inside the room, stopping them in their tracks.
He scooted closer to Chris. He didn’t appreciate the precarious position they were in.
“Well?” The impatient voice came from downstairs.
He didn’t have to read minds to know what held them back. The news had been overrun with tales about strange creatures killing people. Their sort of people. They could only imagine what horrible thing awaited them beyond that door. Every step closer probably sparked a fresh terror in their imagination. They stepped uneasily through the door, disappearing into the cold void.
Hard soles crunched broken glass; there was stumbling. A voice called out: “Looks like the window is broken. It could have been the wind.” The last statement rang uncertain.
Something rattled in the room; followed by the cacophonous din of crashing. The group below moved closer to the staircase.
A projectile, hard and roundish, with a ragged flap at its end soared in a high arc from the darkness of the door, bouncing down the stairs to land at the feet of those below. The head of either Al or Gil lay staring at them in obscene, choked silence, paralyzing them with incomprehension. It’d happened so quickly that their minds locked their tongues. Eyes slowly, fearfully, turned back toward the mystery of the door.
A roar so ferocious and unearthly it sounded prehistoric shook the building. Beginning in a low bass, it rose to a fearsome ear-piercing shriek in seconds, raising the hair on Geoff’s neck. He’d never heard anything like it. It was a sound that could shear nerves, rip courage from a beating heart.
Someone in the garage below was making a hasty retreat. A pair of feet in hard-soled shoes scampered away. A car door opened and closed. The engine of the limousine started.
That noise was apparently the impetus for whatever hid itself in the darkness to act. Wood splintered as the doorframe exploded outward. Bricks blasted over the balcony. A dense plume of charcoal-colored smoke swelled from where the door had been, blooming out above the stairs. Inside that smoke, using it as cover, was something enormous. As the camouflage dispersed, a silhouette gradually emerged, ten feet in height, black as iron, and breathing powerfully as a locomotive. As if it were not big enough, it began to unfold itself, revealing a twenty-foot wingspan, feathers the color of brushed iron. A collective gasp came from below before it released another ear-splitting shriek.
With a flap of its gigantic wings, the last obfuscation of dust cleared, leaving only it: the thing, gargantuan, feathered, and gleaming like metal. A perverse imitation of an eagle, feet twice as large as a man’s hand, talons like sabers. Eyes of burning yellow appraised the men below. The gray hook of its beak was darkly stained, from its maw dangled the second man. What was left of him. Below his waist hung a skirt of bloodied entrails; his legs had been ripped from his torso, but his arms continued to gesture helplessly. Saddened eyes gazed down at his friends. He tried to speak, but his lips only twisted around breathless, unspoken laments.
Geoff couldn’t tear his eyes from the creature. It was magnificent, monstrous, majestic.
Gunfire popped from the garage below. Their panicked aim askew, stray bullets hit everything but the target. This seemed to present a direct challenge to the monstrous fowl. It tossed the remainder of their friend to them. The half-living remnants plopped nearly on top of them as it took flight. Its wake had the thrust of a gale, an awesome spectacle as it circled the ceiling of the building sending the terrified group scattering. Bullets pinged off walls, taking out windowpanes, shattering lights. The sound of men screaming and running was chaos. Rafters shook, lights rocked as it dived and ascended, eyeing the men like defenseless field mice.
It swooped down with a grace nearing elegance, a talon finding the first of its running prey. One swipe of the claw sliced the head off clean to his shoulders. The suddenness of the attack left the body standing, squirting blood like a macabre fountain before it dropped rag-like to the floor. It threw the head at another man. It bounced lopsidedly until it came to rest near one of the cars parked in the garage.
Tires squealed as the limousine sped in reverse toward the garage doors. The building convulsed when it crashed through the door, speeding away from the scene of carnage into the freedom of the night.
Another victim found himself impaled through the waist before being flung to the stairs. He came apart as he tried to crawl away, unravelling in the middle, leaving his legs kicking helplessly on the floor below.
Geoff couldn’t help but marvel at the unique beauty of the winged predator. This was no ordinary creature. Nothing existed like it on the planet; he knew that. This regal monster had Seuthers’ stamp all over it—supreme and frightening, swift and deadly. It moved from man to man dispensing justice dismemberment-by-dismemberment, pitching limbs like garbage throughout the garage.
Chris’ head swayed in tempo with the mayhem. The one thing noticeably absent from his demeanor was fear. Geoff wrapped an arm around him pressing him deeper behind the blockade of bricks.
Another victim squirmed, screaming from where it hung in the humongous beak before being pitched to the balcony. He landed in front of Chris and Geoff on the stack of bricks, his face a hellish portrait as frantic fingers reached forward for help. They found Chris’ collar, clutching it before Geoff tore the hand free, pushing him back. In the next second, he was gone, snatched away by a huge claw, then torn in half mid-air and thrown to opposite ends of the garage.
They had to get out of there. He saw another of the men attempting to fend the creature off with a flag. He stabbed and jabbed at it, trying to keep it at bay as it first bit through and shredded the red, white, and black fabric, and then flipped the pole from the man’s hands before biting his head off at the collarbone.
Grasping an arm, he hauled Chris up from the floor tersely whispering; “Time to go.” And he guided him to the hole in the wall through which they’d come. The trunk of a body lay just past the threshold surrounded by a lake of fresh blood, which they stepped around. Geoff looked around for something to cover his partner’s near-nakedness. A rack of vintage German army overcoats provided what he needed. He gently manipulated Chris’ arms through the sleeves, buttoning it while shrieks racked the building. He found boots and pushed Chris’ bare feet into them. The screams continued, sounding like a medieval torture chamber, but nothing penetrated the sleepwalker’s trance.
Stepping onto the rooftop’s veranda again was like escaping a preternatural world of darkness for one of purity. Snow blanketed the city in a mantel of white, spilling from the sky like confetti. The air was brisk but not unbearable. He was glad he wore his sneakers. The rubber soles were going to be necessary for the precarious trek home… beginning over the rooftops.
The building shook under their feet. It was time to go.
Draping Chris’ arms around his neck, he hoisted him onto his back, instructing him to hold tight. He followed Geoff’s command with no problem. He’d done this roof running act before, just not carrying another person. Life was providing one new adventure after another for him. But this time he actually felt like the knight rescuing his beloved.
XPERIMENT By DAN SKINNER Buy link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B019UUUTY2