Sarah adjusted her seat belt and peered out through the rain-streaked windshield, the rain sheeting down, a silvery wall in their headlights.
"Thanks for driving me home," she said, glancing over at Harold. "I knew that battery was going--it sure picked a fine night to crap out on me."
"No problem," Harold replied with a chuckle, slowing down as he navigated a corner. "You gonna need a lift back into town in the morning?" Sarah reached up and wiped the condensation off her window while she considered. Harold was a nice guy--kind of quiet, kept to himself. He'd been working at the market for about a year, and all she knew about him what the didn't like dogs and he had a picture of an old woman taped inside his locker.
"Thanks," she said with a smile, "but I can get a ride with my neighbor. He has breakfast over at Flo's every morning."
"All right, then," Harold said. "But if you need to, you can call me. It's no trouble, really."
"Thank you, Harold, that's really--Watch out!"
Harold mashed the brake against the floor, the light pickup skidding over the wet pavement and lurching to a stop. The red horse jumped back, tossing its head and turning a circle in the middle of the road, its eyes ringed with white.
"What the f--" He closed his mouth and glanced over at Sarah, her hands pressed to the roof of the cab as she stared, wide-eyed out the windshield. "I mean, there's a horse in the road." Sarah lowered her arms and sat up in her seat, a frown creasing her brow.
"The poor thing," she said. "He looks terrified." He was beautiful, his coat a dark red, slicked and gleaming in the rain, his ebony man plastered to his regally arched neck. He stepped closer to the truck, looking in at them with his big, brown eyes, and then he wheeled around and galloped out of the road, vanishing into the darkness.
"It's going to cause a wreck," Harold said, slowly letting the truck creep forward. "You should call Animal Control--maybe they can catch it before it gets hit by a car."
"Good idea," Sarah said, still shaking as she turned in her seat and peered out the back window. She reached down for her purse, sitting on the floor between her feet, but then straightened up with a sigh. "I'll do it when I get home. Reception ends back at Cedar Creek Bridge."
"Doesn't that frighten you?" Harold asked, glancing over at her. "Driving this road every night by yourself, with no cell, especially with what's been going on up north?"
"You mean those murders?" Sarah pulled her jacket tighter around herself. "Yeah, it scares the hell out of me, but what am I supposed to do? I have to go to work. Steve won't give me different hours."
"You could move to town," Harold suggested with a single shoulder shrug.
"My father built that house," Sarah said, her voice barely loud enough to be heard over the driving rain and hissing wipers. "It's where I grew up. That's my driveway." She pointed ahead on the left, where blue reflectors caught the headlights. Harold slowed and turned down the drive, winding through the tall pines and cedars until the golden glow the porch light drew into view.
He didn't blame her for wanting to keep the house. It was big and rustic, like the pictures of hunting lodges in his big game magazines. He pulled up at the end of the front walk and started to shut off the engine.
"Thanks for the lift," Sarah said quickly as she opened the door of the truck. "I'll see you at work tomorrow." With her purse tucked under her arm and her shoulders hunched against the rain, she ran around the front of the little pickup and started up the walk.
Harold rolled down his window. "Make sure you lock your door," he said, ignoring the rain as it blew in, cold on his arm.
Sarah waved at him from the wide porch. "Those people were killed on empty roads, not in their homes," she said, tilting her purse to catch the light as she dug for her keys. "Drive careful."
"Will do," Harold replied. He waited until she had found her keys and opened the front door before rolling up the window and putting the truck back in drive. He watched her step inside and flip on a light, then slowly pulled away from the house. In the rear view mirror, he watched her through the three, floor to ceiling picture windows as she peeled off her wet jacket and dropped her purse on the sofa.
With a sigh and a shake of his head, he turned his attention back to the road and sped up. She was such a pretty, nice girl. He'd been trying to find the courage to ask her out since he started working at the market, but for whatever reason, he never could. This would have been a good time, but instead he had to bring up that serial killer, the one the police called the Animal because he tore the throats out of his victims.
"Very smooth, Harry," he muttered. "Very smooth." The rain seemed to be lightening and he switched his wipers to intermittent. Yes, it was definitely lighter. The weather report said the storm would blow out by midnight. Looked like they were right for once. He slowed to take a corner, and then put his foot back on the gas as the road straightened out, but he didn't depress the pedal. There was something in the road up ahead.
Scowling, he rolled to a stop and pounded on the horn, but the red horse merely laid back its ears and continued standing in the center of the road. "Son-of-a-bitch," Harold said, glancing to the left, and then the right of the beast. This was one of the old parts of the road, the grassy shoulder not even wide enough to walk along and the ditch deep on both sides. He tried a few more blasts from the horn, and then cranked the wheel to the right.
The truck rolled toward the ditch. There wasn't enough room to get cleanly past the horse, but he had a feeling that it would move when it felt the bumper against its back leg. He was still six feet away when the horse suddenly stepped backward, square into his path. Harold slammed on the brakes and stared out the windshield. He knew horses were dumb, but it was almost like this one wanted to be run over.
Harold tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, thinking, and then reached down and turned off the headlights, plunging the road into blackness. Animals were easily blinded, especially at night, and tended to panic and freeze. That was why a deer would just stop dead in the road and you hit it. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and counted slowly to thirty. Plenty of time for the horse to go on its merry way.
The headlights blazed to life and Harold cursed under his breath as the horse shook its head and stared in through the windshield at him.
"That's it, you reject from a glue factory," he muttered, shutting the engine off and unbuckling his seat belt. He reached behind the passengers seat and pulled out his shotgun. It wasn't loaded, but the shells were in the glove compartment. Did he really want to shoot somebody's stupid horse?
Leaving the shells where they were, he opened the door and stepped out. The rain had petered off into nothing more than a heavy drizzle, but it was still cold as he walked around the open door and toward the horse, the shotgun resting on his shoulder. He didn't want to shoot it, but he wasn't above hitting it.
"Go on, now, git!" he shouted, waving one arm. "Hya, go on, get out of here!" Unafraid, the horse stepped toward him, out of the beams of the headlights, nickering softly as it stretched out its neck toward him. At least it was friendly. Harold reached out and rubbed its velvet nose, its skin wet and clammy. "Are you sick?" he asked. "Is that why you're acting so strange?"
Harold glanced around, looking for a barn, or a farm house, but he was in the middle of the woods, and he couldn't remember seeing another driveway between Sarah's house and Cedar Creek Bridge. How far had this beast wandered? The horse pulled away from him, and Harold turned back to it, just in time to see a flash of sharp, white fangs.
Her purse slung over her shoulder, Sarah walked along the edge of the road, kicking aside little pine and cedar branches that had fallen during the storm. Her neighbor, Jim, should be along any time, heading into town for his morning coffee and waffles at Flo's. She didn't have to be at work until two, but if she wanted a ride, it was Jim or nothing. That old road could go a week without seeing a car other than her sedan and Jim's big truck.
She glanced at her watch, and then over her shoulder. It was a quarter after eight. Whenever Steve asked her to cover the morning shift for one of the other checkers, she had to be there by eight thirty, and Jim was always in the cafe already. Had she missed him? She groaned and adjusted the strap of her purse. It was only six miles, but that was about five miles farther than she wanted to walk.
Rounding one of the large corners, Sarah stared out into the woods, appreciating the way the sunlight slanted through the trees, tendrils of mist creeping along in the shadows. She often saw deer out her back windows, sometimes even elk, foxes and once, a black bear. That was another reason she didn't want to move to town--she enjoyed living among the wildlife. Although, walking alone and unarmed along a deserted road, a hungry bear was probably the last thing she wanted to see.
Tearing her eyes from the forest, she turned back to the road, and her steps faltered at the sight of a vehicle parked in the middle of the road up ahead, the driver's side door hanging open. Was that ... was that Harold's pickup? Uneasy, Sarah glanced around, but help had not miraculously appeared out of thin air. Heart pounding, she walked toward the vehicle.
"Harold?" she called, her voice sounding small and timid in the silence. "Harold, are you okay?" There was no answer, but she hadn't really expected one. Gripping her purse tight in both hands, she walked along the side of the pickup, hardly able to breathe. Everything in her screamed to run home and call the police, but she couldn't stop her feet from moving forward. She had to see. At the front corner of the pickup, she hesitated and swallowed hard. She could hear flies buzzing.
Sarah looked down, in front of the truck, at Harold, his face white as chalk, his lips blue, eyes wide and staring, as thick, black blood clung to his face. His throat had been torn out. The hunk of flesh lay beside his head, attracting flies. Sarah stared, and then turned away and threw up.
"I told you," Sarah said, rubbing her temple, "my battery died. He took me home, dropped me off, and left. This morning, I found him in the road."
"And you're sure no one followed you?" Chief Thomas said for the hundredth time. "You didn't see any lights in the forest, no cars parked at the side of the road, nothing suspicious?"
"If I had, I would have told you," she said, glancing up at the clock on the wall. "There was just that stupid horse--"
"Yes, we have a record of your call to animal control at eleven thirty-seven. Is that right?"
"It sounds about right. Did they find the horse?"
"No," Chief Thomas said with an annoyed shake of his head. "County budget only allows for non-emergency calls on Tuesdays and Fridays. Are you sure you don't remember--"
"I'm sorry, Chief," Sarah said, rising from the hard, metal chair and grabbing her purse off the corner of the desk, "that's all I remember. I have to see if Sean can put a new battery in my car and then I have to get to work. If I think of anything else, I'll call you."
"Are you sure you want to go to work after ..."
The image of Harold's throat lying on the pavement beside his body flashed before her eyes, but she banished it with a sharp shake of her head. "If I don't go in, Steve'll fire me."
"What time do you get off?" Chief Thomas asked as he walked her across the station and to the door.
"About a quarter after eleven," Sarah replied. "Why?"
"I'll have Kurt follow you home tonight."
"Is--is that really necessary?" Sarah asked, frowning. "You don't think he--he's still in the area, do you?"
"Nah," the Chief said with a shake of his head, "he's probably miles away by now." But she noticed that he wouldn't meet her eyes. "Better safe than sorry, though."
"Thanks, Chief," Sarah said, clutching her purse as she stepped out into the glaring morning sunlight. If that animal was still around, a police escort didn't make her feel any safer.
Kurt was sitting in the market parking lot as Sarah pulled on her jacket and stepped out into the spitting rain. Her keys jingling in hand, she waved as she headed across the empty lot toward her car and Kurt started up the dented police cruiser. Driving down the deserted highway with the town's only police car behind her, Sarah felt a little silly hunched forward over the steering wheel, her knuckles white as her breath fogged up the inside of the windshield. Nothing was going to happen. That lunatic was miles away.
She slowed as she passed the spot where she had found Harold. A blurry chalk outline and a single piece of crime scene tape fluttering from a post at the side of the road were the only clues to the horror that had occurred just twenty-four hours ago. Had the police found any evidence? After last night's storm, she didn't imagine there was much to find.
About a mile from her driveway, Kurt's red and blue lights flashed on in her rear-view mirror and Sarah's heart nearly stopped. What was wrong? She saw Kurt wave his hand, motioning for her to pull over, and he drew up along side of her sedan. Cold, damp air blew into her face as she rolled down the window.
"I just got a call," Kurt said, leaning into the passengers seat. "Some kind of trouble at the gas station. Will you be all right if I head back?"
Sarah nodded immediately. "Yeah, it's only a mile." It was silly of him to have followed her all the way out there in the first place. He made a U-turn and headed back, waving to her as he hit the flashing lights and sped away. "It's only a mile," she repeated as she pulled back onto the road, and not even the devil himself was going to stop her from getting home.
Around the very next corner, though, Sarah had to slam on her brakes, her tires squealing across the damp pavement, as that damned red horse darted out of the trees and into the road in front of her. It stopped, blinded by her headlights, and stood pawing at the ground and tossing its head. "You son-of-a-bitch," she gasped, her heart pounding. If she had hit the thing, she would have killed them both.
Turning off her lights, she hit the horn, her eyes straining to see out into the near pitch-black night, hoping to see the horse run back off into the trees. In the silence that followed, her ears still ringing with the echoes of the horn, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as she realized she was sitting alone in the middle of the road, no more than a mile from where Harold was killed. "To hell with this," she muttered, and turned her lights back on.
The horse blinked at her, his ears pricked forward. Unnerved, Sarah double-checked her door locks and bit the edge of her lip. After a moment, she gripped the steering wheel and lightly stepped on the gas. The engine revved and the car rolled forward, but the horse refused to move. "Get outta the way, get outta the way," she whispered as her bumper pressed against the front legs of the horse.
The car stopped moving. The horse laid back his ears and seemed to glare in at her. Her foot twitched and the car leaped forward. The horse stumbled back, hooves sliding on the pavement, and fell to his knees. Sarah's hands leaped from the steering wheel, covering her mouth as the front of her sedan slammed into the horse's shoulder and knocked him on his side.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she said, her stomach churning as the horse screamed and thrashed on the ground, his hooves smashing one headlight and plunging the right side of the car into darkness. Tears streaming down her face, Sarah cranked the wheel and stomped on the accelerator, the car lurching around the crippled animal.
On the other side, Sarah stopped the car and glanced in the mirror, the horse lit by the red tail lights as he struggled to climb to his feet. His front legs had to be broken, his knees shattered. She needed to go home, call the police, get them to come out and put the poor creature out of his misery, but she couldn't tear her eyes off the pitiful sight in the road behind her.
Exhausted, the horse lay still, every now and then raising his head and letting out a thin, frightened whinny. She wanted to do something, to help him, but there was nothing she could do--her cell wouldn't work out there and she didn't carry a gun. "I'm sorry," she said again, lowering her eyes to her purse as she reached for a tissue to dry her eyes. It was an accident. She hadn't meant to hurt him.
With trembling hands, Sarah dried her face and blew her nose. She had to get home; she had to get somebody out here. With one last glance in the rear-view mirror, she lifted her foot from the brake and the road was swallowed by darkness.
"Wait--What the hell?" She braked again, and turned in her seat, staring out the back window at an empty road. The horse was gone. Had he gotten up and limped off somewhere to die? How horrible. Turning back around, she reached up and braced her hands against her steering wheel, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
Something moved outside her driver's side window and her head snapped around, a scream rising in her throat as the red horse stared in the window at her, his nose black as soot, his mane like ebony, and his big, brown eyes fixed on her. He squealed, the sound filling her car and rattling inside her head, and then reared up, his front hooves slamming down on the roof of her car.
The driver's side window exploded as the roof buckled, showering her with squares of safety glass. Sarah screamed and shielded her face with both arms as she planted both feet on the gas pedal and shoved it to the floor. The car roared and leaped forward, tires squealing. Or was it the horse? Sarah grabbed the steering wheel as the car squirreled down the wet road.
She saw the curve, she knew she was going too fast--Sarah hit the brakes--she screamed again as the sedan fishtailed, hit the gravel shoulder and flipped into the ditch.
Sarah opened her eyes, her head aching, spinning. Everything was wrong, upside down. She smelled gas and mud. What had happened?
The horse, the wreck, it all came flooding back, setting her heart to pounding. She had to get out of there, she had to get help. He house was less than a mile down the road ... maybe only half a mile ... She pulled at her seat belt, tight across her chest and lap, holding her into the upside-down car.
The buckle released suddenly and fell with a thump onto the dented roof. Groaning, she rolled over and began to crawl out through the broken window.
Out of the corner of her eye, something moved. She turned her head, her neck stiff and protesting, and stared at a pair of shiny black hooves sinking into the wet earth. Her mouth went dry as she raised her eyes, following the soot black socks up to powerful, blood-red legs and a broad, barrel chest.
The red horse lowered his head, his breath warm on her face, but rank with the stench of blood. He stared down at her, lying on the ground half-out of her wrecked car, and drew his black lips back in a fearsome smile, revealing a pair of gleaming fangs.
She screamed and the horse lunged, sinking his fangs into her soft, warm throat, her blood thick and hot and sweet as it filled his mouth. He gulped it down, ignoring her hands as they clawed at his face. Scratches were nothing compared to the raging hunger inside him, endless, aching, an emptiness he never could fill, no matter how much he drank, no matter how many he killed.
Her hands fluttered against his hide, weakened, fell back to the ground. Her cries grew silent, her breath weak, then gone. Her blood became sluggish and he sucked at the wound, drawing it out in great mouthfuls. More, he needed more.
There was no more. Frustrated, he bit down, crunching and tearing, ripping out a hunk of flesh. He didn't eat flesh. He spat it out beside the body and licked at the gaping hole, searching for just one more drop. With a snort he raised his head and turned away, heading back up onto the road to wait for the next car.
Author's Note: Hello again. It's been a long time. I'd like you all to know that the first two volumes of my book series, Magebound and Spellwrought have been accepted for publishing and will be available worldwide June of 2009 and February 2010, respectively. For more information, and for more of my work, please visit my website; the link is on my profile page. Thank you.
Oh, and if you can tell me the horse's name, I'll give you a cookie.