It started out like every other day . . .
Except it didn’t.
If he stopped to think about it . . .
There had been warnings. Subtle in their intent they were unable to gain his attention, unwilling to be clear enough to cause alarm bells to ring. His natural instinct, his ability to sense things that others couldn’t was blind to the terror that was to come, body and mind not prepared for what they were going to encounter.
So hard to believe monsters really do exist . . . the Boogeyman from childhood nightmares becoming a reality that even Ironhorse found difficult to comprehend.
Oh, he knew about aliens and their continuous effort to take over the planet, knowledge of their existence gained months earlier, fought them almost every day, but this . . . this was so much worse . . . this involved Debi, the young girl’s life put at risk . . . Ironhorse so afraid he wouldn’t be able to save her.
It started out like every other day . . .
Patience lacking, Ironhorse paced the room, space limited, as he waited for the conversation to finish. He was sure they did it on purpose, talking in a language he sometimes found difficult to comprehend; he was a soldier, not a scientist. Certain they went out of their way to make him feel stupid, he waited until they made an explanation in laymen’s terms so he could understand what was happening.
Blackwood was excited, like a child on crack candy. Something else Ironhorse couldn’t understand; there were times, like this, where Blackwood took too much enjoyment out of a negative situation. The aliens were making another threat against humanity and Blackwood was enjoying himself. Ironhorse shook his head, turned and paced to the other side of the room.
They were huddled in a group in front of Norton Drake’s computer, expressions in awe of something flickering across the monitor. To Ironhorse, it looked like a bunch of numbers that didn’t add up, a series of crooked lines without purpose or direction, distorted shapes capable of causing mild nausea; it made no sense to Ironhorse. The image changed, something created that Ironhorse could understand . . . a map, a location of possible alien activity.
Drake’s fingers danced across the keyboard, a hard copy created. Blackwood stepped up to the printer, tore off a sheet of paper. Behind wire rimmed reading glasses, blue eyes gave the printout a quick glance before Blackwood turned away and walked toward the elevator, Suzanne in quick pursuit. Norton, a proud expression on his face, watched them go.
Ironhorse paused, his pacing interrupted. Confusion marring his own features he waited for an expected explanation. It didn't come. He wasn’t surprised. They were taking it too far, leaving Ironhorse to figure it out on his own. Ironhorse always considered himself a patient man, patience a requirement when fighting the enemy but Blackwood had a way of testing the soldier’s patience, a test Ironhorse failed too often. Failing again, Ironhorse snapped.
“Would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?”
Blackwood turned to face Ironhorse, Suzanne stopping beside him. A big grin on his face, Blackwood said, “Weren’t you listening, Colonel?”
Only Blackwood had the capability to anger Ironhorse to the point of violence. He wanted to hit the man, feel his nose break beneath his knuckles. He wanted to knock him on his ass and leave him there to contemplate the error of his ways. Friendship keeping him in place, Ironhorse took a deep breath.
Hands on his hips, Ironhorse said, “Laymen’s terms, Doctor.”
“Norton detected alien transmissions . . .”
“I figured out that much when Mr. Drake called to inform me he had detected alien transmissions.”
Suzanne ducked her head, gaze finding a spot on the floor but not before Ironhorse saw the smile crossing her features.
“Then no explanation is needed,” said Blackwood.
“Harrison,” said Norton. “Put the man out of his misery.”
Ironhorse glared at Norton. All innocence, Norton smiled back. Violence wasn’t an option with Norton Drake, the man confined to a wheel chair . . .
“Norton was able to locate where the transmissions originated.”
This wasn’t laymen’s terms, it was idiot speak. Blackwood was enjoying himself a little too much. He glanced at Suzanne hoping she would give him an explanation, put him out of his misery. It didn’t look good, her gaze still focused on an interesting spot on the floor. His day quickly turning sour, he looked back at Blackwood.
“Where are the transmissions coming from?”
“A two hour drive from here in a town called Ravenswood.”
“Any relation?” said Ironhorse.
“Careful, Colonel, your sense of humour is trying to escape.”
“Along with my sanity,” said Ironhorse, his voice soft, the words muttered beneath his breath.
“I’ll give you one guess as to what we’re going to do next,” said Blackwood.
Even he wasn’t that stupid. Walking toward the elevator, Ironhorse said, “Thirty minutes, people.”
Her voice hesitant, enough to stop Inronhorse mid stride. Bringing his heels together, he stood facing Suzanne, left eyebrow raised in a silent question.
Suzanne looked toward Blackwood and then back to Ironhorse. She seemed unsure. Something was wrong, Suzanne McCullough always so confident. Had he done something wrong? Had he taken it too far? Had she seen the threat of violence flickering across his eyes? She had to know, as much as he wanted to hit Blackwood, he never would . . . he would never hurt them.
“Kensington and Mrs. Pennyworth have the weekend off and I . . . I can’t leave Debi here on her own.”
Keeping his expression neutral, Ironhorse considered the situation. He didn’t like taking civilians out on an operation, not when he was certain things were going to become combative but Blackwood and Suzanne never gave him a choice. They didn’t ask. Blackwood was in charge of the project and he had made it clear from the start . . . they were going to be in the field and Ironhorse should get use to it.
It was something he couldn’t get use to, having to watch their backs and take care of his own. He was use to giving orders. He was use to having his orders followed without question. Blackwood was always so defiant; he had a knack when it came to disobeying an order, a constant source of irritation. They weren’t trained to fight and it didn’t matter how often he offered to teach them, they always said no and Blackwood refused to carry a gun . . . they didn’t make it easy. But when it came down to it, they had their own way of surviving, of fighting, of defending themselves and others . . .
Debi was a different matter, still a child, if put in a violent situation, she wouldn’t be able to fight back. It wasn’t a good idea to bring her along. He would have to keep her in sight at all times, keep her away from danger. Suzanne must have seen the doubt in his eyes, her body language becoming defensive.
“I’m not leaving her here.”
No she wasn’t. There had to be another way. “I’m sure Mrs. Pennyworth would be willing to give up her weekend.”
“I’m not willing to ask her,” said Suzanne. “She hasn’t had a day off since we arrived.”
“But you’re willing to risk your daughter’s life.” He knew he’d gone too far the moment he started speaking and for some unknown reason he couldn’t stop himself, couldn’t snap his mouth shut against words he knew would wound and hurt. Knew it when Suzanne’s expression turned from anger to hurt and quickly back to anger. If she slapped him, he would gladly accept. The only way he could make up for his hurtful words was to apologize and allow Debi to come with them. He just hoped it would be enough. He hoped he would be able to keep Debi safe, protect her from the enemy. Something nagged at the back of his mind, a whisper so soft, he couldn’t translate its meaning. “I’m sorry. I know you would never put her in harm’s way. And yes, she can come with us.”
It wasn’t enough. Suzanne turned, her body snapping away from him and took the stairs, her anger following her, a cloak of emotion. Knowing what was coming, Ironhorse looked at Blackwood, the man’s expression no longer cheerful. A quick glance toward Norton . . . they weren’t happy either. Without a word, Blackwood walked away, echoing Suzanne’s steps up the stairs. Ironhorse swore, the words muted, not wanting Norton to hear. He’d managed to piss everyone off. Again.
Lately, he always seemed to be pissing people off. They were always angry with him for some reason. He knew Blackwood hated everything military, the way they had treated his pseudo father left a bitter taste in Blackwood’s perception of the military but Suzanne . . . her uncle was military, a General; Ironhorse’s commanding officer but she seemed to react to him in a way that confused Ironhorse. She followed Blackwood’s lead. They all followed Blackwood’s lead.
The angrier they became, the more defensive he became, his stubborn nature floating to the surface. Things couldn’t keep going this way . . . someone was going to break, emotions were going to explode, he just hoped it didn’t happen when they were facing the enemy.
The atmosphere thick with anger, Ironhorse sat in the passenger seat, gaze watching the passing scenery. He tried to prepare himself for an eventual violent confrontation with the enemy but found it difficult, his mind in turmoil. Couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened earlier, found it too hard to stop thinking about the words he’d spoken. Nothing more he could say, his apology rejected, Suzanne still so angry. He couldn’t and didn’t blame her. He’d spoken out of line. Her feelings hurt, it would take more than words to rectify the situation. It would take more than he had to gain her forgiveness. A soldier for most of his life, Ironhorse wasn’t use to emotions, didn’t know how to deal with it . . . not when it came to civilians.
He felt shut out, alone . . . nothing new. He’d felt this way since he’d made the decision to attend WestPoint, his father not happy that his son had chosen to join the white man’s army; his father so fixated on past history. Ironhorse closed his eyes and tried to remember his father’s face. He couldn’t, so long since he’d seen him, Paul Ironhorse no longer welcome in his father’s home. Heart clenching with emotion, he snapped his eyes open, ignored the moisture forming in his eyes. Tried to tell himself he no longer cared, a lie he wasn’t ready to admit.
Heritage not helping, it kept most people at arm’s length. It hadn’t been easy, working hard to get where he is, to gain the respect and loyalty given by the men and woman under his command. He didn’t know how to relate to the members of the Blackwood project; it had been a long time since he worked with a civilian. More effort was required, Ironhorse determined to gain their respect.
Time dragged, the silence continuing. Even Debi was subdued, her young mind very aware something was wrong with the group. She had tried to draw everyone into conversation, eager to gain information about the trip, questions asked and repeated, her excitement floundering when their responses were limited and uninspiring. And much like the teenager she was becoming, Debi began to sulk. Ironhorse had to give her credit she sulked like an adult, the occasional exasperated sigh an attempt to gain attention. He knew different, Debi too intelligent for her own good; attention focused on Debi, the Blackwood project might forget about their own troubling issues. It wasn’t going to work but he was thankful for her efforts.
He felt sorry for Debi, an aspiring young woman caught up in a war against aliens determined to take over the planet, to end humanity. Suzanne had decided to involve her daughter from the start, expressing the need to tell Debi the truth; if Debi found out another way, she would never forgive her mother.
Blackwood had agreed. Ironhorse was against the idea, unsure an eleven-year-old could handle the responsibility of keeping the war a secret. But handle it she did . . . Debi reacted as expected . . . scared, confused, angry, unsure if her mother was being truthful. Reality thrown in her face, she had no choice, brought into something beyond her control, taken from her life, her friends. Living amongst a group of adults, she grew in maturity, even with Blackwood’s child like tendencies, grew into someone Ironhorse admired and respected.
He wanted to talk to her, create a conversation but he had no idea what to say, unsure of how her mother would react, afraid Suzanne would pull her daughter away from him. Debi was the only person in the cottage who didn’t show him any anger. It was as though she understood him . . . as though she was the only person who liked him, so he thought. Everyone else seemed to put up with him, aware they couldn’t remove him from the project, General Wilson’s standing orders, so they accepted the fact he was there to stay.
Aware he was feeling sorry for himself, Ironhorse decided he needed a distraction, something to do, something to take his mind away from the morbid thoughts filling his head. If he were back at the cottage, he would go for a run, stuck in Drake’s van he could only sit and fidget. Needing something familiar, a task that would ease his troubles, Ironhorse decided to complete a weapon’s check. Most of his weapons in a duffel bag in the back of the van, he carried only his M9 Beretta in a shoulder holster and his long battle knife strapped to his back between his shoulder blades. It didn’t take long enough, so efficient, he was finished in a matter of seconds.
This was hell but he could cope, he’d been through so much worse in his life, emotionally and physically. He’d lived through nightmares with his mind and body still intact. He could get through this . . .
Debi let out another dramatic sigh, long and loud. She was good. A six sense told him what she was going to say next. He decided he would beat her to it, anything to break up the tension filling the van.
“Are we there yet?” said Ironhorse.
He got a reaction. Debi laughed. Norton glared at him. He could feel the emotion slung at him from the back of the vehicle. He’d cut through the anger, separated it only to have it fight back with more determination. Debi took it as an opportunity.
“Are we there yet?” said Debi.
Norton glared at Ironhorse for the second time. Ironhorse, innocent expression on his face, smiled back.
He could get through this . . .
Ravenswood, no relation to Blackwood, was a small town with an even smaller population. The prominent road ran the length of the town. It looked run down, deserted, so many closed signs in business windows. Ravenswood was dying, only a matter of time before the last of its occupants left. Some of those remaining moved along the sidewalk, stopping in curiosity to watch the green van driving down Main Street. They looked uncertain, afraid . . . human.
At the end of town, tucked away in a corner was the ‘Dance on Through’ motel. Decrepit and dirty, it was their only choice of accommodation. Not bothered by appearances – he’d stayed in worse places – Ironhorse opened the passenger door and removed himself from the negative environment. He opened the sliding door and stepped away. Standing still, his back to the van, Ironhorse searched for anything that would threaten the safety of the others.
A shiver ran the length of his spine . . . a nasty itch crawled along his flesh. Something soft bit into the back of his neck, an uncomfortable sensation as it burrowed its way into his skull. A delicate hum inside his skull, brain vibrating like an electric charge. It wasn’t painful . . . just . . . wrong. An eerie feeling turned his head to the left, gaze settling on a cloaked figure standing a short distance away, face hidden within the shadows of the cloak’s hood. Fear pooled in his gut, the emotion so familiar. Words spoken, a soft whisper in his ear, the words distorted . . . he didn’t understand . . . the figure stepped forward . . .
Feet slammed against the pavement behind him. Released from the strange sensation, Ironhorse knew the source of the noise, he didn’t need to look . . . Debi making an excited exit from the van. He did shift with surprise when the young girl came to stand beside him, taking his hand in hers, pulling his gaze away from the dark figure now moving away. Confused, he looked down at her. She returned his gaze, adding a smile. Forcing himself to smile back, he wondered if she had concluded he was the reason behind the tension and silence throughout the two-hour drive. If she did understand, she wasn’t blaming him, instead supporting him, showing him that she was on his side. She had no idea of the reason behind the anger, probably didn’t care, too concerned with the way it was affecting him. She could see right through him and that fact didn’t bother him.
“Debi,” said Suzanne, her hand reaching for her daughter.
That hurt, he couldn’t deny it, felt like, she’d accused him of a crime against children. Did she really think he would hurt Debi? He would give his life to protect the twelve-year-old. He would give his life to protect the members of the Blackwood project. Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they understand . . . Grasping the situation with too much clarity, Debi rolled her eyes, bringing a glancing smile to Ironhorse’s face. She hesitated, taking too long to release his hand. Seconds felt like minutes, Ironhorse waiting for Suzanne to snatch her daughter’s hand from his fingers. Finally, after a gentle squeeze, Debi let go and walked over to her mother, standing by Suzanne’s side. She looked at the motel, her face scrunching up in disgust. He would have to make her feel better, tell her about the time he had to sleep with a dozen cockroaches.
Blackwood stepped out of the van, a piece of luggage in each hand and walked toward the motel. Suzanne and her daughter followed, Debi glancing back over her shoulder at Ironhorse. He waited for Norton, making sure the man disembarked without injury. Wheelchair set over the moveable platform, he watched Norton and Gertrude lowered to the sidewalk . . . Gertrude? Only Norton Drake would give his wheelchair a name, treat it like a person. Norton had programmed it to obey his every command. If only Ironhorse could do the same with civilians. With Norton following the others inside, Ironhorse waited until the platform returned to the inside of the van, reached in and removed his duffel bag, the weight of weapons reassuring him. Slammed the sliding door shut. A quick glance to his left, before walking toward and into the motel.
The inside of the motel looked as bad as the outside. Blackwood, Suzanne and Debi were at the counter talking to a man who looked burdened with the worries of the world. Norton moved closer, listening to the conversation. Not wanting to interfere, Blackwood capable of booking three rooms, Ironhorse stood back and listened to them conversing as his gaze searched the lobby. An empty snack vending machine sat in a corner on the left side of the room. To the right, a round table covered with worn A4 posters, a collection of children’s faces. Frowning, Ironhorse stepped toward the table, fingers reaching for the top poster, a black and white picture of a boy . . . interest ripped away, words spoken catching his attention . . . a possible threat.
“How old is the pretty girl?”
Ironhorse moved quickly, concern and worry filling his chest, a tight embrace reluctant to let go.
“Twelve,” said Debi, not understanding the question was wrong.
“You need to keep her close . . .”
Stepping between Suzanne and Debi, he placed his body in front of Debi. He reached back, gripping her upper arm with his left hand, keeping her in place. She acknowledged his intent, her small fingers gripping the back of his jacket. Knowing she would stay where she was, Ironhorse placed his hands on his hips, brushing his jacket back out of the way, revealing the butt of the gun in his shoulder holster.
The man behind the counter lifted his hands, surrender initiated, a placating gesture. “Are you a cop?”
“Worse,” said Debi, peaking around Ironhorse’s body, her blue eyes glaring at the stranger. She was taking strength from him . . .
Suzanne moved closer to her daughter and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She didn’t pull Debi away, keeping her where she was . . . behind Ironhorse, behind a wall of protection.
“I’m sorry. I was just trying to warn you.”
Before Ironhorse could respond, Blackwood rested his forearms on the counter, removed his reading glasses and said, “Warn us about what?”
Ironhorse understood . . . Blackwood believed they were dealing with something alien related. Ironhorse knew this had nothing to do with aliens . . . they had never shown an interest in children, not in the few months he’d been defending the planet. There was no mention of children in Blackwood’s notes, not in Doctor Forrester’s notes. No, only monsters of the human kind showed this king of interest in children.
The man shifted his gaze from Blackwood to Ironhorse. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
“Does it have anything to do with the missing children posters on the table?” said Ironhorse.
Everyone, including Debi, turned to look at the table, expressions of concern and curiosity marring their features. The man and Ironhorse stared at each other, neither of them wanting to break eye contact. Ironhorse stepped forward, closer to the counter, dropping his hands from his hips, the gun hidden once more. The others moved away, gathering around the table, a closer look at the posters.
“What’s your name?” said Ironhorse.
Harold was tall, thin, under weight. He wore his weariness like a piece of dark clothing. His eyes were grey and dull, his face pinched with pain. Shoulders stooped, he looked like he was ready to give up on the world.
“Harold, if you go anywhere near her, I’ll kill you.”
Eyes wide with fear, Harold said, “No. No. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m just trying to warn you. It’s not safe here for kids of her age.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Harold looked toward the table. “She’s not safe here. You should take her home.”
He could do that. Debi’s safety came first, the safety of the Blackwood project just as important. But would Suzanne allow him to take her daughter home, trust him with her daughter for two hours. If she did, and he drove Debi home, then what. He couldn’t leave her alone. He couldn’t stay with her. He wouldn't be able to ensure the safety of the others from such a distance. He was at a crossroad, torn between his fear for Debi’s safety and his orders to protect the others. It no longer felt like he was following orders; he liked these people, he cared about them, he wanted . . . he needed to keep them from harm . . . he needed to protect them from themselves. Maybe if he talked to Suzanne, asked her to take her daughter home.
He needed more information before he could make a decision.
“Explain it to me,” said Ironhorse, aware of someone behind him. Suzanne. He could smell her perfume. She set one of the posters – a young girl – onto the counter. In his peripheral, he could see that she was close to Debi’s age, blue eyes, blonde hair and a bright smile. Suzanne wrapped her fingers around Ironhorse’s forearm, a soft squeeze . . . he refused to look at her.
“Your little girl shouldn’t hear this,” said Harold.
Ironhorse waited for Suzanne to correct Harold. She didn’t. He turned his head, gave her a hard look.
“I’m sorry,” said Suzanne.
Did she mean it? Was she playing a game, anything that would entice him to protect her daughter? He didn’t care, too absorbed in the moment. He turned back to Harold. “She’s not my daughter but I will protect her as if she were.”
Harold nodded. “Not here.”
“Here and now,” said Ironhorse.
“I can’t explain it without alcohol in my system. If we can go back into the restaurant . . .”
“Is there coffee,” said Norton, rolling up to the counter.
“Um, yeah, if you can call it that.”
Blackwood joined them at the counter, leaving Debi behind. Suzanne, reacting at a much faster speed, turned to face her daughter, motioning Debi to her side. Ironhorse relaxed, the tension easing from his shoulders, the fear still gripping his chest. Everything felt wrong. They shouldn’t be here. He didn’t want to be here.
“Lead the way,” said Blackwood.
Ironhorse glared at Blackwood.
“He’ll be more willing to tell the story if we cooperate with him instead of threatening him.”
He hadn’t begun to threaten the man . . . not really. Seeing the sense behind Blackwood’s statement, Ironhorse nodded in agreement. There was plenty of time; the threats could wait until needed . . .
Ironhorse couldn’t help but notice Suzanne and Debi staying by his side, sticking close. Suzanne was aware of what he could do, what he was capable of doing. She had gone from being angry with him to being afraid for her daughter. He felt used but he understood and he didn’t hold her accountable, fear would do that to a mother, it would change their perspective, make a friend out of an enemy; she would do whatever it took to protect her daughter, even if it meant forgiving him for hurting her with words that should never have been spoken. He didn’t want it this way, he would rather her be angry than be put in a situation where she feared for her daughter’s life.
He felt his heart swell with emotion when Debi took his hand. She saw him as her protector but he knew there was more to it. Debi trusted him . . . trusted him to keep her safe. Determined to do whatever it took, Ironhorse made a silent promise . . . he would do everything possible to protect Debi McCullough, he would put himself in harm’s way to save her, he would die for her.
They stepped into the restaurant. Surprisingly clean, it was empty of patrons. Numerous tables on one side of the room, condiments resting on top of red and white chequered tablecloths. A long counter lined with stools separated the room from the kitchen. Two pots of coffee were brewing, an ugly gurgling sound that reminded Ironhorse of something else. A restaurant that once thrived had died a long, slow, agonizing death. The town of Ravenswood no longer what it was, its occupants desperate, scared . . . Ironhorse could see it in Harold’s eyes every time he looked at the man.
Harold led them to a table beside a large window overlooking Main Street. Ironhorse raised an eyebrow, not surprised to see a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass sitting on the table. Harold was prepared . . . the man sat down, poured himself a drink, downed in one swallow before filling the glass again.
“This is how I spend my days,” said Harold, emptying the glass a second time. “I sit here and wait for my son to come back.”
“And drink yourself into a stupor,” said Blackwood, sitting in a chair opposite Harold.
Harold frowned, a flicker of anger and resentment crossing his face. “Don’t judge me. You have no idea what I’ve been through. What this town has been through.”
“Tell us,” said Blackwood.
Ironhorse indicated to Suzanne to sit down next to Harold. She frowned at him, not sure she wanted to sit so close to Harold. Ironhorse nodded, reassurance given, she sat down. “Norton, take Debi to the other side of the restaurant. Stay where I can see you.”
“Help yourself to the coffee,” said Harold.
“I want to stay with you,” said Debi.
“This isn’t for you to hear, little lady--”
“Her name is Debi,” said Ironhorse sitting down beside Blackwood. Not his preferred position, he wanted to sit directly opposite Harold, wanted to see the man’s eyes as he told his story, better to see any lies. But Blackwood had taken on the predominant role, a need to always be in charge. Knowing what would happen, Ironhorse wasn’t going to ask him to move, embarrassment created because Blackwood would only argue and refuse to change seats. He was going to have to do with what he had.
Suzanne looked at Ironhorse, a question in her eyes. Ironhorse could read her like an open book. She wanted her daughter to stay. He could see her argument. If Debi knew what was going on in town, she’ll know what to look for, too scared to wander off on her own. If she could handle the revelation of aliens with decorum, she’ll be able to handle this in much the same way. Ironhorse didn’t agree but again, he wasn’t going to argue with her in front of a stranger. He nodded, hoping he wasn’t going to regret it.
Ironhorse reached back behind him, stole a chair from another table and placed it at the end of their table. “Sit.”
Debi smiled at him, sat down in the chair. She looked grateful, thankful to be treated as an adult. Eyes wide with curiosity Debi looked at Harold and waited with the patience of a child. Ironhorse didn’t like it, understood her curiosity was about to be wiped away, replaced with fear of the unknown. He didn’t know what was happening in Ravenswood but he had the worst feeling; knew it was bad . . . very bad. He’d had the same feeling more than once in Vietnam . . . before everything had gone to hell. He was certain without a doubt Harold was going to ask him to help.
In search of coffee, Norton rolled away. Ironhorse felt the need for caffeine, unaware if Norton was going to return with enough for everyone. He waited, his own patience beginning a departure.
Blackwood shifted forward in his seat, forearms resting on the square table. “What happened to your son?”
Blunt and to the point. Harold’s son was only part of the story. There was so much more going on here.
“What happened to the children?” said Ironhorse.
Harold poured another shot, his hand trembling with emotion. Almost threw the alcohol into his mouth and down his throat. Clenched his eyes shut as he gagged on the alcohol stinging his throat. He wiped a hand across his eyes, tears already forming. Harold took a deep breath, let it out, a shuttered release. Another breath, released in a much calmer manner.
“It all started five years ago. Beth Dodson disappeared in the middle of the night from her bedroom. The town searched for days but we couldn’t find her. But we didn’t give up, kept searching and then two weeks later Jack Gibson disappeared in the middle of the night from his bedroom. We thought we had some sick pervert taking children for his own pleasure . . .” Harold looked at Debi.
Ironhorse followed his gaze. Debi’s eyes were still wide, no longer filled with curiosity, fear taking its place.
“Keep the morbid details to yourself,” said Ironhorse, looking back at Harold.
“What did the sheriff think?” said Blackwood, leaning further forward, chest against the edge of the table.
“He thought the same as the rest of us. When Hannah Peterson went missing he called the FBI.” Another drink, his words already beginning to slur. “They couldn’t help. They couldn’t find anything that would lead them to the person responsible. They were here for months. There’s still an agent here working the case but he won’t accept what’s happening. He doesn’t believe us.”
“Where is he?” said Suzanne, turning her upper body to look at Harold.
“Agent Thompson? He should be here soon. Always eats here although the way I’m going, he’s going to have to fix his own dinner.”
Norton returned to the table, a tray on his lap; four cups of steaming coffee. Squeezing his wheelchair into a corner close to Ironhorse, he began to hand out the cups. His waiter job completed, he settled back and drank from his own cup . . . his face quickly screwing up in disgust. Ironhorse looked down at his coffee . . . decided he didn’t need a caffeine fix after all. Looking up at Suzanne, he shook his head. She raised an eyebrow and pushed her cup back into the middle of the table.
They looked at him with surprise.
“We had a baby boom. Firecracker night. So many kids disappeared the first year. After the sixth child went missing, it stopped. We thought it was over and then . . . the following year it started again. Three kids went missing that year all within a few weeks. Then it stopped again only to start up the next year. They’re all gone now. All our kids. My son went missing last year . . .” he looked out the window, searching for his son. “I keep hoping that I’ll see him walking down Main Street like nothing had happened. Like he’d never been gone.”
Suzanne rested her hand on Harold’s arm. Tears in her eyes, she looked to Ironhorse for answers.
“How old were they?” said Ironhorse, already knowing the answer.
“Twelve. They were all twelve years old.”
An abrupt movement, Suzanne standing too quickly, her chair pushed away from the table. “We have to leave.”
They could leave but Ironhorse knew he was staying. “You go. Take Debi home. Blackwood and Norton will go with you.”
Blackwood turned in his seat, facing Ironhorse. “We can’t leave. If this has anything to do with why we came here . . . we have to stay.”
“We’re not leaving,” said Ironhorse. “You are and I don’t believe this has anything to do with them. It doesn’t fit their pattern.”
“And what pattern would that be?”
“They’ve never involved children. They haven’t shown any interest in them.”
“There’s always a first time.”
“This isn’t it, Blackwood.”
“It has to be them,” said Blackwood. “What else could it be?”
“The Boogeyman,” said Harold.
Ironhorse felt the air catch in his chest, unable to take another breath. As a child, he’d heard stories. Sitting around a campfire, his Grandfather would tell him about the Boogeyman, more of a warning than a story. He had explained in detail how the Boogeyman would take children from their homes, never to return them to their families. He would take them while they slept and left no trace of his abductions. When he was older, Ironhorse learnt of a different version of the story. He’d learnt about the Corn Festival where young Cherokee males wore masks to scare the children; known as the Booger Man.
He believed his Grandfather’s version. His Grandfather had never lied to him; for a long time he had slept with the light on. A punch in the chest; he’d been twelve years old when his Grandfather told him about the Boogeyman . . .
“Ironhorse?” said Suzanne, reaching forward, an attempt to gain his attention.
A warm breath caressed his skin, words whispered. His skin began to itch, a painful feeling he couldn’t ignore. A humming in the back of his skull, this time more aggressive, a headache forming. The feeling of something so wrong returned. His gaze drawn to something outside, Ironhorse stood up and turned his head. The cloaked figure stood on the sidewalk, visible to everyone . . . but Ironhorse knew only he could see him, even Debi was blind to the threat.
Blackwood stood with him, putting himself in the way, Ironhorse no longer able to see cloaked figure. “Ironhorse, what’s wrong?”
The sound of his Grandfather’s voice. Trust in yourself
“Stay here,” said Ironhorse. “Stay with Debi!”
Removing his gun from its holster, he turned away, a fast walk turning into a run. He made his way through the lobby and out the front door. He stopped, gaze searching for what he believed to be the Boogeyman, a childhood nightmare becoming real. About to face something that had become an urban legend, a story told to scare children. Common sense told him he was grasping at straws; the Boogeyman wasn’t real. It was a nut-job taking on the persona of something so frightening . . .
It . . . He was moving back into the shadows.
Careful and slow, Ironhorse moved toward the figure. He raised his weapon, a defensive position. His heart beat painfully in his chest, so afraid his bad dreams were about to come true. It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter . . . anything to protect Debi.
The figure turned away from him, putting his back to Ironhorse before stepping into a side street. Ironhorse knew what he – he couldn’t find the strength to refer to him as it, not yet, not until he was sure – was doing, trying to draw Ironhorse away from a safe environment, trying to get him alone. Ironhorse stopped, about to return to the motel; he wasn’t going to put himself in a vulnerable position. If he followed the man into the side street, Ironhorse would lose any advantage he had; the other man would be waiting for him.
That uncomfortable feeling scratched at the back of his neck, forgotten headache increasing, gaining his attention. Lowering his weapon, Ironhorse lifted his left hand, pressing the palm against his forehead. He swayed on his feet, shifting his stance to keep his balance. Losing control, he could feel the need to move forward, to follow the man. He fought it with everything he had, aware he was losing, the feeling too strong. Dropping his hand away from his face, Ironhorse returned to his defensive position and took a step forward . . . a second step, a third. He couldn’t stop.
Whatever it was, it was in control.
Ironhorse stepped around the corner . . .
The figure stood before him, waiting.
Head lifted, face hidden within shadows . . . fingers, longs and thin unfolded from the sleeve of the cloak, growing in length, stretching outward. Skin pale, dry and brittle . . . a piece of string tied around the middle finger, its edges frayed . . .
Faster than Ironhorse could follow, the hand snapped upward, fingers wrapping around Ironhorse’s throat. He turned, taking Ironhorse with him, forcing Ironhorse backward, off the street and onto the sidewalk until Ironhorse’s back hit a wall; he wasn’t going anywhere.
The shadows beneath the hood of the cloak change, separated, a face revealed. Skin so pale . . . grey, carrying a sweaty pallor, stretched tight across high cheekbones. Lips thin, bloodless. Eyes black, too close together. Nose so flat it was barely visible. Its breath smelt of death . . .
Introductions made, Ironhorse felt more comfortable referring to this thing as it . . . it almost looked human, more human than scary . . . but not quite . . . it exuded a sickening aura, turning Ironhorse’s stomach. Fear gripped his chest, a tight hold, pain pinching beneath his ribs. His Grandfather’s stories were true, a warning given but not heeded. Now it was too late.
Ironhorse pressed the barrel of the Beretta against its chest and pulled the trigger, gun firing. It didn’t flinch. Lifting Ironhorse off his feet, it slammed his back against the wall. Ironhorse grunted in surprise and pain. Damn that had hurt. It leaned forward, its cheek resting against the side of Ironhorse’s face. He tried to pull away, the sensation of touch, of chilled, dry skin blinding him with nausea, his stomach turning away. Closing his eyes, Ironhorse held his breath, if he drew that rotten odour into his lungs . . .
“I came for you but you were protected. No longer. I will have you and the child.”
Eyes snapping open at the mention of Debi, Ironhorse tried to fight back. He fired his weapon a second time, kept pulling the trigger until the clip was empty. The loud gunshots left a painful ringing in his ears. A new fear; the sound of gunshots would draw the others out of the motel. Damn it. He’d made a mistake. If they left Debi with someone who couldn’t protect her . . .
Showing short, blunted teeth, it snarled at him. Pulling Ironhorse away from the wall, it waited a moment, staring into Ironhorse’s eyes. Expression changing, it smiled at him. With too much strength, it slammed Ironhorse against the wall. He knew he was in trouble, his head hitting a solid object . . .