Niall couldn’t stop looking at the blank eyes staring back at him. The woman was young, according to the police file she was only 28. Niall thought she looked younger than that and maybe that was why he couldn’t shake the image of her from his head. It was only a picture, after all. Well, it was a series of pictures of the same scene. The red-haired, blue-eyed, twenty-eight year old, named Carly Jensen, whose body was found three weeks ago, ripped to shreds, in the woods just off the highway.
The dim light from the tiny desk lamp that sat on small wooden table in the corner of the motel room was making his eyes hurt. Niall looked over and could see Zayn’s tattooed arm hanging over the side of the bed on the other side of the room. It was almost 2am, but Niall knew that World War 3 could be going on just outside and it wouldn’t wake Zayn.
They drove over fifteen hours to get there after Niall saw the news about all of the animal attacks happening in the area. Zayn had hacked into the police files to get them copies of all the reports and pictures to try to establish some sort of pattern. Even though Niall was the one that drove the whole way there, Zayn was the one that said he was too tired to do research after such a long car ride.
Niall looked from the photos spread out on the table to the list he was making in his notebook of all of the possible monsters they could be hunting. A wendigo was possible but not probable because they eat the entire body. A werewolf was more probable, but the moon cycle didn’t match up since there were six bodies found in the last month in a half on various days not just on full moons. Plenty of other monsters had the claws to do that kind of damage to the bodies, but it all seemed out of place for Niall for some reason.
He ran his hands through his messy hair, which was only blond on top, but dark brown on the sides. Zayn kept giving Niall grief, because they would have to pretend to be college students, doing some sort of report for school to get any information from the police or the coroner’s office. Zayn was getting tired of all the vague answers and “ongoing investigation” lines, so he told Niall flat out that he wasn’t allowed to dye his hair anymore. Niall protested at first saying that he’d rather break into places under the guise of an idiot college kid than get caught pretending to be a FBI agent, but Zayn insisted that cases would be easier if they actually got the whole story from the police and took an active role in the investigation.
Niall sighed heavily, threw his pen onto the pile of crime scene photos, and rubbed his face. Maybe it was time to go to bed. He looked over at Zayn again and wondered how he always fell asleep so quickly. Niall turned off the light. He toed off his shoes kicking them under the table, then slinked out of his jeans, and crawled into his bed wearing only his boxers and a white t-shirt.
Niall woke up the next morning with his blankets pulled up to his nose. It was strangely cold in the room and Niall couldn’t figure out why until he noticed Zayn wasn’t in his bed anymore. Zayn always got hot easily so Niall had to suffer through freezing car rides with the windows down and freezing motel rooms.
For a moment all Niall could see was a haze of white as a pillow came flying across the room coming straight for his face. Niall tried to block it but his hands were caught in the blankets, allowing the pillow to hit him square in the face.
“Hey, get up.” Zayn laughed.
Niall groaned and the mound of blankets on top of him felt much heavier than he remembered. Niall looked over at Zayn’s bed and noticed that the bed was bare aside from the lone white sheet. Zayn must have put his blankets on Niall after he got up, knowing that Niall would be cold with the drop in temperature.
“Ni, come on. This case isn’t going to solve itself.” Zayn hit the blankets where Niall’s legs were.
Up by the pillow, Niall’s blue eyes and the messy blond tips of his hair poked out. “I don’t wanna. It’s cold out there.”
Zayn looked up and saw furrowed brows. “Come on, ya tosser.” Zayn threw another pillow and hit Niall in the face again.
“Fine, but we are waiting to get breakfast,” Niall said, throwing the pillow back at Zayn but he jumped out of the way and just laughed at Niall.
“Fine, but you might want to do something about that hair first there, Nialler.”
Niall ran a hand over his hair, feeling all the pieces sticking out. Niall made his way out of bed wrapping one of the blankets around him as he shuffled toward the bathroom.
When Niall emerged from the bathroom, Zayn was leaning over the table in the corner looking at the mess of photographs and reports that Niall had left out the night before. “Pretty gruesome, innit?” Zayn said tossing the photo back onto the table. “You gonna be alright going to the coroner’s office to see the last body?”
Niall nodded weakly. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“I could go by myself, you know,” Zayn offered.
“For as much as I don’t want to see what’s left of that girl, I really don’t want you to have to do this alone. So, if it means that we’re both scarred for life, so be it,” Niall said with a faint smile.
After Niall finished getting dressed into his jeans and t-shirt, he and Zayn made their way out to the parking lot where Niall’s car was parked just outside their room. Of course, to Niall, it wasn’t just a car. It was his sweetheart. His ’71 Chevelle. Zayn was shocked that when they got to the states that Niall had not only chosen an American made car but that he chose a classic muscle car. It seemed odd, but when they went car shopping at the used car lot that was attached to a junk yard, Niall embraced his little bit of knowledge of cars and went for something a little different. It was matte black with white racing stripes going up the middle.
They got into the car and as they made their way to the coroner’s office, Zayn dug through the glovebox looking for the student IDs he made for a nearby university. The boys still looked too young, especially Niall, to pull off being FBI agents so they pretended to be college students instead, American accents and all. It was early September, so they could get away with it, plus Zayn had emailed the coroner’s office earlier asking if they could come in and take a look at the most recent body for a paper they were working on about the psychology behind animal attacks (Zayn just made something up) and so the coroner’s office gave them a time for the appointment for this morning.
“So,” Zayn began. “What do you want to do for your birthday next week?”
“I dunno,” Niall shrugged his shoulders but kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road.
“Come on, Ni. There’s gotta be something.”
“I honestly have no clue,” he paused. “Can we just hang out, watch a movie, and order some KFC or something?”
“It’s your birthday, Nialler. We can do whatever you want.”
“Well, I just want to hang out with you and have a quiet night, given that our day job is so crazy.”
“Quiet night in, it is then!” Zayn said as Niall pulled into the parking lot of the coroner’s office.
As Niall started getting out of the car at the coroner’s office, Zayn looked down at Niall’s feet, noticing something he hadn’t before. “Niall, are you wearing blue and yellow striped socks?”
Niall looked down at his ankles where sure enough, his colorful socks were showing. He looked back up at Zayn and gave him a wide grin as he then pushed himself up out of the car. Zayn hurried after him. “You know we are supposed to look professional…” Zayn whispered.
“What’s the fun in that? And besides, we’re impersonating college students not the FBI,” Niall chirped back with a small smile.
“If you get me and your pale Irish ass thrown in jail over fuckin’ socks, Niall, I swear to god...”
“Don’t be such a Debbie-downer, Zaynie-pooh. I know what I’m doin’,” Niall opened the front door and popped his eyebrows at Zayn. “Ya just got to have a little faith.”
Zayn followed behind Niall up to the receptionist, who was a small woman, probably in her late twenties, with a dark pixie cut. “How can I help you boys?” she said looking up from her computer.
Zayn stepped forward so that he and Niall stood side by side in front of her. “We have an appointment with Doctor Jacey. I emailed him about a paper we are working on for school and he said to come in around this time.”
“Ah yes, can I see your student IDs please. Can’t be too careful. I don’t want to be letting a couple of weirdos off the street tamper with anything,” she said with a chuckle.
Zayn and Niall handed her their “student IDs” and she looked them over, then handed them back. “Alrighty, Kyle and Wayne, you can just go down the hall, first door on your left. Dr. Jacey should be expecting you.”
Niall and Zayn walked side by side down the cream-colored hallway to the door with “Autopsy” written on a plaque next to the blue door. The sudden cold air of the room hit them, making Niall shake slightly. This morgue, like most that they found themselves in, was intensely cold and sterile smelling. A middle-aged man in a white lab coat and grey tweed pants looked up at the sound of the door.
“You must be the two boys from the college. Wayne and Kyle, right?” the doctor said offering each boy his hand.
“Yes, sir,” Zayn said shaking the doctor’s hand.
“You know, it’s not too often that we get visitors from colleges outside the county. I had to clear this with the police before I could give you boys an answer, but since they ruled these unfortunate deaths as animal attacks, they were a bit more lenient in having you boys come in. But, as your part in this goes, I hope that you would share any findings you may have about the type of animal that this could be,” the doctor continued to say as he made his way over to the wall of metal drawers. He pulled at one at waist height, revealing a mangled and unidentifiable female body.
“Unfortunately, this one has not been identified as of yet and remains a Jane Doe,” the doctor said with a sigh.
“Was there anything missing from the body?” Niall said abruptly getting a side-glance from Zayn.
“What do you mean by missing? Most of the body was rather badly mauled as you can see,” Dr. Jacey said looking at Niall with a confused face.
“I mean any organs or body parts?” Niall said attempting to make it sound like a less weird question.
“Most of the organs were rather torn up…”
“Was the heart missing though?” Niall said cutting to the chase.
“No, the heart was still there. Why do you ask? That’s oddly specific.”
“Well, something that we are also looking to include in our paper,” Zayn began, saving Niall from having to say anything else. “Which parts are eaten first and whether that is the same for all animals or just certain species?” Zayn didn’t really know what he was saying, and they went through this every time they had to go to a morgue during daylight hours, but each time the case was a little different and warranted different lies.
“Oh, but now that you mention it, there were not many signs of bite marks on any of the victims. Usually, there would be some teeth marks from the animals eating, but looking back at it; it seems like most of the bite marks that I noticed on the bodies were to the neck resulting in mass blood loss.”
“So, it seemed calculated?” Niall asked, looking up at the doctor. “Like whoever did this intended to kill them?”
“Whoever? Son, you mean whatever,” the doctor said. “Calculated or not, these attacks were made by animals. Probably a wolf or coyote.”
“Or you know,” Zayn began, taking the doctor’s focus off Niall. “It could be a dog. I mean something big, but that would explain the marks, wouldn’t it? If it was an attack dog that someone trained.”
The doctor nodded at Zayn’s suggestion. “Another possibility, of course,” he said looking down at the body then darting his eyes between the two boys. “Is there anything else I can help you boys with? Or will that be all?” The doctor closed the drawer.
“No, that’s everything. Thank you, Dr. Jacey, for your time,” Zayn said shaking Jacey’s hand.
“And sorry about the weird questions,” Niall said shaking the doctor’s hand next. “One of those, ‘the more you know’ type of things,” he added.
“No problem. If you boys think of any questions, feel free to call the office and I’ll do my best to give you an answer,” Jacey said ushering them out of the room.
“Sure thing,” Zayn replied quietly.
When they got back to the motel room, Niall threw himself on the bed letting out a long sigh. “Well, that was helpful, but not as helpful as I wanted it to be.”
Zayn threw his bag on the floor and sat on the edge of his own bed. “At least we got some answers.”
Niall sat up and looked at Zayn. “Yeah, we know it’s definitely not a werewolf, and if it was a wendigo there would be nothing left of the body at all, so that’s ruled out from the start.”
“Maybe a skinwalker?”
“Could be. But the body count seems a little high and varied for it to be a skinwalker. They usually only attack if they feel threatened. And the police reports didn’t say anything about any weapons being found near any of the bodies.” Niall sighed again. “Though, maybe we are going about this the wrong way.”
“What do you mean?” Zayn looked at Niall with a confused look.
“I mean, maybe we should look into the victims a little closer.” Niall got off the bed and went over to the desk where the photos and personal information on the victims was still laying.
“But they didn’t have anything in common. Different classes, age groups, jobs, genders. Aside from them all being semi-well off there isn’t much to go off,” Zayn came over and stood beside Niall.
“Well there has to be something, Zayn.”
Zayn walked in a couple hours later with lunch. “Any luck yet?”
Niall was now sitting with his feet up on the desk. About an hour earlier, he devoured a half a bag of Cheetos, which prompted Zayn to go pickup something for lunch to tame the beast that was Niall when he was hungry.
“Well,” Niall began with a pen clenched between his teeth. “I think I’ve got something, but I don’t think you are going to like it.”
“Do I ever like it? I mean, we hunt monsters for a living,” Zayn replied setting the food on top of all of the papers Niall had laying out.
Niall laughed and took his feet off the desk so he could face Zayn, who was sitting on the side of Niall’s bed. “I was looking back at the last few victims and that wasn’t doing me any good so I went back a little further and found something kind of interesting.”
After a long pause, “Which was?” Zayn said staring at Niall, who was looking between a couple of pieces of paper he had in his hands.
“Oh, right,” Niall said putting the papers down and going back to his story. “About six months ago, there was another death, which was ruled an animal attack, that the police here didn’t know about which happened two towns over. The only thing was that the woman, uh…” he looked back over the papers. “Rachel Cook, originally lived here and moved ten years earlier after she got her first book published and it became a national best seller and by the end she was practically rolling in dough.”
“What does some writer have to do with this, Niall?” Zayn still didn’t know where Niall was going with this story.
“Well the book that she wrote was all about the supernatural and more specifically, demons.”
“I’m still confused, Niall. What does that have to do with a bunch of “animal attacks”,” Zayn said making quotey fingers.
“Zayn, put two and two together. Some woman suddenly makes it big writing about the things that go bump in the night and ten years later she’s supposedly killed by an animal. And you said it yourself, all the other victims were “well-off”,” Niall said mimicking Zayn’s quotey fingers. “I think they were making crossroad deals with demons.”
Zayn thought it over but parts of it still didn’t add up. “But those people only became “well-off” a couple months or weeks before they died. So, where does that fit into your theory, Einstein?”
Niall leaned in, “That’s the thing, Zayn. I think the crossroads demon in these parts is cashing in early.”
“So, the animal attacks are actually…”
“Hellhounds,” Niall interrupted. He had a smile on his face that made it seem like he was happy about this news, but Zayn just hoped that it was because Niall had finally figured it all out after how many hours of staring at the same five pieces of paper for the last two days.
“So, how are we going about righting these wrongs?” Zayn asked. “I mean, if it didn’t cross your mind already, hellhounds are invisible.”
“I did think about that actually,” Niall stood up and went for the food that Zayn placed on the table. “And I don’t think we have to deal with the hellhounds directly, because the crossroad’s demon is the one that controls the dogs so if we trap the demon, we can get them to drop any pending deals and if necessary, kill the bastard,” Niall said shoving fries in his mouth.
“And how do you propose we trap the demon?”
Niall licked his fingers and sat back down at the desk with his chicken sandwich. “One of us acts as bait,” Niall said plainly.
“Oh yeah, Niall. That sounds like a great idea. Why don’t we just dangle one of us in front of a demon who’s killed how many people?” Zayn said sarcastically.
“If we plan ahead, I think we could pull it off.” Niall shrugged.
“And what happens if the demon sends their attack dogs after us?”
“Well, hopefully it won’t get to that point, Zaynie-pooh.” Niall took a bite of his sandwich. “With some carefully laid devil’s traps, the demon killing knife, and the art of surprise, we’ll be golden. The only thing we need to decide on is which one of us is going to be the bait.”
Zayn looked up at Niall with a worried expression. He didn’t know why, maybe it was the casual tone that Niall used, but he felt like they had to decide something life changing. It wasn’t even the first time they had done something like this; after all, saving people tended to mean risking their own lives.
“I’ll do it,” Zayn said.
Niall was mid-bite, but when Zayn spoke, he stopped. “You sure about this? I think it might actually be my turn. You were the one that stuck your neck out with that whole vampire situation back in Phoenix.”
“No, it’s cool. You did most of the legwork on this case so far. I should pull some of my own weight.” Zayn nodded slightly and looked up at Niall with a small smile. “So where are we going to do this?”
“Pick a crossroads any crossroads,” Niall said pulling out a map of town from underneath the other papers.
It was almost midnight by the time Niall finished spray-painting the devil’s trap in the middle of the crossroads. They spent most of the day gathering all the things they needed to summon the demon and Zayn clipped his own picture from one of his old IDs and added it to the small container. The shallow hole was already dug in the middle of the devil’s trap. “You ready for this, Nialler?” Zayn asked hovering over the hole with the little wooden box in his hand.
Niall pulled the demon knife from his belt and sighed. “’bout as ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
Zayn placed the box in the hole and covered it with the loose gravel. It was a rather secluded area. There was one lone streetlight, but aside from that, there were mostly woods and small fields. It was getting cold, Niall was only wearing a white t-shirt and a light jacket, and Zayn, as usual, was wearing a graphic t-shirt with his black leather jacket.
Zayn stood alone in the middle of the devil’s trap waiting as Niall hid nearby. The car was parked near the side of the road on the left side from where Zayn was facing.
Zayn looked around but still didn’t see anyone. His heart stopped for a moment when he couldn’t remember whether they had drawn the devil’s trap or if Niall actually had the knife. His mind worried for only a fraction of a sentence until he looked down and saw the faint black spray paint on the gravel road. He looked back up and was startled by a woman’s voice.
“Hey there, handsome.”
Zayn turned and saw a thin, dark haired woman, in a black dress, standing before him.
“I assume you are looking for me,” she said as her eyes flashed black.
“If you’re asking if I was looking for a low-life, bottom-feeder bitch, then yeah,” Zayn said as his lip turned up into a half smile.
The demon cocked her head to the side. “For someone that needs my help, you aren’t very grateful. So, I’m going to have to pass. You can keep your tarnished soul. As for me, I’ll be leaving.” She took a step back, but it didn’t take her long to realize something was wrong.
“Well, that would be a great trick,” Zayn said smugly.
The demon looked down at the ground, noticing the faint lines of the devil’s trap. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Honey, I don’t joke around about things like this. And if it makes you feel better, we’ll only kill you if you don’t do as we ask,” Zayn said as his eyes shot up to look just behind the demon.
“We?” the demon said confused.
Just then, a knife was pressed lightly to her throat and she could feel the heat of the body behind her. “Yeah, we,” Niall said wrapping his right arm around her and keeping the knife to her throat in his left hand to keep her from going anywhere.
“Fucking hunters. I’m impressed,” she said with a twitch of a smile. “I’m always looking out for a bunch of apes in flannel, but a couple of young boys, with pimples and hair gel. I never gave it a second thought. So, you haven’t killed me yet, so what do you want?”
“We know what you’ve been up to and I don’t think it’s very good for business when you kill off the customers ahead of schedule,” Zayn said flatly.
“Girl’s gotta have her fun.”
“Yeah, well you’re going to absolve any deals you’ve got in progress, and call off your dog,” Niall said tightening his grip.
“Or what? You’ll kill me?” she said smartly.
“It crossed me mind,” Niall glanced up, meeting Zayn’s eyes.
The three of them stood so closely together inside the devil’s trap that the world seemed to continue around them but they were living this scene in a sort of slow motion.
“Or I could just take my chances,” she said.
Zayn saw the look change on her face and before he could react, her hands flew out hitting him dead in the chest and Zayn’s entire body slid backwards. His heal sliding across the outer circle of the devil’s trap, breaking the line.
Niall didn’t have enough time to react before she turned on him, and with a flick of her hand, he flew back through the air. His feet left the ground and Niall could feel himself plunging toward the ground, but instead, his entire left side slammed against the car. The back windshield cracked against his weigh and Niall could have sworn he heard a cracking sound come from his left knee. He rolled off the back of the car and hit the gravel ground with a thud. It took a moment for the air to refill his lungs and he lay there on the ground with the most intense pain rolling down his body.
He could feel the blood running down the side of his face. He felt disoriented and at the same time, all he could think of was Zayn. He heard a loud whistle, which he knew came from the demon and then heard an ear-piercing howl in the distance.
Zayn scurried to his feet. “Niall!” he called out.
The demon charged him grabbing Zayn by the throat. “No!” she yelled. “You both came here to kill me and now I’m going to kill both of you. Starting with your friend.” She clenched her teeth together and raised Zayn up, with hardly any effort.
The howling got closer. Zayn tried to get free. He tried to get to Niall, but the demon wouldn’t budge. He pulled and pushed against her, but her grip only tightened.
Suddenly, the noise wasn’t howling anymore, but heavy footsteps, running toward Niall.
Niall could hardly move from the pain, but when the gravel began to move and the sound of panted breathing could be heard, he knew nothing could be of use.
The invisible beast charged forward, its claws ripping into Niall’s chest. His skin tore open and blood began to stain his shirt. Niall screamed out in agony, as the hound clawed at first shallow cuts down the right side of Niall’s neck then, got deeper and deeper as it went down. Niall could see nothing, and could only hear and feel the beast’s presence as it tore through his entire body. Niall couldn’t fight back and only screamed. “Zayn!”
It was a wrenching scream, which Zayn had never heard before. He panicked and began to fight back against the demon using everything he had. He grip on his throat dropped as he pushed her backwards. “Niall!” he yelled out again. She fought back against him to reclaim her dominance. “Stop this! Niall!” he screeched. Zayn lunged forward out of her grasp and made a mad dash for the knife that Niall dropped on the other side of the circle. Knife in hand, Zayn came at the demon plunging the blade into her chest just below the collarbone. She screamed out and Zayn removed the knife from her chest preparing to strike the next blow.
The demon pushed him back and he slid across the gravel. The last thing he saw when he looked up was the defeated look on the demon’s face as she vanished from sight. The clawing and guttural sounds had desisted and it was disturbingly quiet.
Zayn clambered to his feet and looked to the area beside the car, where Niall lay motionless in the road. The gravel twisted under his feet as he ran, sliding to Niall’s side.
Niall’s entire body seemed to be covered in blood. Claw marks ran up and down from his neck to his ankles. His face was utterly pale and his eyes were heavy-lidded. A slight breath pushed his tattered chest up and down still and blood escaped his lips. With a heavy, choking cough, blood spurted and bubbled from his thin mouth.
“Ni?” Zayn’s shaking hands went to Niall’s face. He was afraid to touch him. Like his remaining skin might just peel off. “It’s gonna be okay,” Zayn said quietly. Zayn scooped his left arm under Niall’s arm and along his back as Zayn’s other arm lifted under Niall’s legs, at his mangled knee.
As Zayn carefully lifted Niall off the dark gravel, Niall head slumped back having no tension to keep it held up. That’s when Zayn noticed how much more blood was now seeping into the dirt under the gravel road. Zayn carried Niall to the passenger’s side of the car and opened the door with the hand under Niall’s legs. Zayn’s mind slipped back to the few times that Niall passed out at various pubs and bars and Zayn had to carry him to the car. However, this was different, because this time, instead of Niall smelling of beer and smoke, all Zayn could smell was the iron-y aroma of blood.
Zayn slammed the car door closed and ran to the driver’s side. He fumbled with the keys at first but as soon as the car started, Zayn took off toward the nearest hospital.
He didn’t remember most of the drive, but he remembers looking over at Niall and wondering if he was too late, because Niall seemed far too still in the seat beside him.
Zayn came to a screeching halt outside the hospital and once again ran around the car to get to Niall. He scooped him up, the same as before and went as fast as he could toward the automatic doors, which seemed to welcome them into the lobby of the emergency room like angels into heaven. “I need help!” Zayn managed out. It came out more of a plea than a yell.
Suddenly a gurney was wheeled in front of him and then Niall disappeared down the hallway surrounded by doctors and nurses. Zayn couldn’t even move. His mind raced through the look on the faces of the doctors and nurses as he laid Niall down, as if he had brought an already autopsied and embalmed body into their ER.
Zayn looked down. His hands and clothes were covered in Niall’s blood. He took an unsteady step forward and left a bloody boot print on the floor. He followed the trail, which led all the way back out to the car. He looked back up and down the hallway. Everything had gone so wrong.