He is still dressed in his uniform, but he's left his gun in the glove compartment with his badge. The buttons of his shirt are undone, and the tail of it untucked. He sits in the corner, jaw resting on balled fist, considering the glass of beer in front of him.
Deputy Connors glances up when the jukebox starts playing. He puts a cigarette to his lips and lights it. The bar is dingy, but so dark that it isn't really a problem, the walls stained with tar and reeking of stale beer and urine beneath the shroud of cigarette smoke.
The man at the juke—not a farmhand, Connors guesses - something else - forestry service worker?—curses when the wrong song comes up.
Stomp, clap and guitar. Simple. Downbeat.
"You can run on, for a long time…" Johnny Cash began, "Run on, for a long time, Run on, for a long time, Sooner or later God'll cut you down, Sooner or later God'll cut you down…"
Connors drains his beer, and stubs out the cigarette in the ashtray, watching the day-laborer feed more and more quarters into the jukebox. Connors knows that the electronic juke has only two or three dozen songs on it, cherry-picked by the bartender and the owner one afternoon over a bottle of cheap bourbon, scrawling out the song titles in increasingly illegible handwriting.
So now, no matter what code gets put in, it comes up how the bar staff liked it.
Connors stands, and heads out of the roadhouse, tipping an imaginary hat to the man behind the bar, who nods but remains silent.
He unlocks his car door, and sits in the driver's seat; eyes closed, head tilted upward.
Am I too drunk to drive?
No, he decides.
Am I too drunk to drive legally?
Yes, he concedes.
He checks his glove compartment, and sees everything in there, exactly as he left it. Deciding on a course of action, he turns on the car and heads out.
The county is, at most, thirty miles across, with a vaguely square-like shape. But due to quirks of geography, including hills, valleys, gullies, rivers, swamps, and a flooded quarry filled with eyeless, troglodytic catfish of unusual size, it has a much greater surface area.
Deputy Connors is driving from the roadhouse in one corner of the county, down through the hills and into the town nestled between the slopes of two massive hills. He swerves a little as he passes the old road leading out to the Burnt Church, subconsciously edging away from the malignant place with its mendacious idols and brackish water.
He heads around the bend, and pauses by a fork in the road, having to choose between the road by the radio station or the road by the house where he'd shot a teenager. It takes longer to deliberate than he was comfortable with.
As he takes the right, toward the radio station, he reflects on his role in the county. As time has gone on, he has become a part of this place, his self melding into the woods and the stones, the people and their words. Archaeology as self-discovery. Anthropology as an act of contrition.
Out of the hills, into the town, along the main drag of closed store fronts and sagging brick buildings. The old fire station with its blind windows; the Sheriff's office, where Deputy Danvers is manning the desk, waiting for Ms. Manning to inform him of any phone calls.
Chester Long, the town idiot, is shuffling along the sidewalk, his eyes are fixed on the ground. Upon finding a beer can, he picks it up and twists it into a disk. No one had ever heard him speak, though his braying laugh was common enough.
Upon seeing the approaching police car, he smiled and started waving. Connors ignored him, and Chester's smile disappeared, replaced by a look of sadness.
The phone hardly ever matters, and they all knew it. It was a formality. Chances are that Danvers and Manning are discussing daytime soaps.
Connors turns down a side street, and pulls into the gravel drive behind the old apartment building he lived in. It had been a house, until Elias Manning--Ms. Manning's great uncle--was caught attempting to sodomize a horse and was committed.
Now, it is an apartment building.
He parks his car, taking his badge and gun from the glove compartment, and walks up the long flights of wooden steps to the third floor.
Unlocking the door, he steps into his apartment, and undresses on his way to the bed.
Every surface in the apartment, every table and ledge and counter top, has brown glass bottles sitting on them, many with the remnants of cigarette butts floating in the last bit of beer.
Remnants of his three week suspension, after shooting the child who took his grandparents apart and tried to make--succeeded in making!--a musical instrument from the pieces.
Connors sets his badge atop the television, which is turned on, though all it receives is white noise. He crawls into the bed, and slips his gun under his pillow.
He lays on his back, arms rigid at his sides, eyes squeezed shut, trying to sleep.
In through the nose, out through the mouth, one.
In through the nose, out through the mouth, two.
In through the nose, out through the mouth, three.
He counts to one-hundred-and-eight before he falls asleep.
"Got a job for you, Connors," The Sheriff says, looking over the top rims of his aviator glasses.
That's not good.
"Yes, sir?" Deputy Connors looked up at his superior.
He is sitting in his chair, in the cubicle allotted to him, and the elderly sheriff is leaning against the side of the desk, his cane tucked into his right armpit.
"I need you to go out onto Country Route Twenty-Three; the south end. Get down into the swamp. There's a tar paper shack that the neighbors have been claiming stinks to high heaven. Mary's going to head on out there as soon as you give the go-ahead."
"So it's a dead-body smell," Connors said, without enthusiasm.
"You bet your sweet ass it is," the sheriff says, "and it's exactly the sort of thing your volunteered for."
"Let me get my coat."
He stands up, and steps out of the cubicle, heading toward the front of the sheriff's office.
"Connors," The sheriff says.
"Yeah?" he says, turning back to the older man, who stoops forward, resting both hands on the handle of his cane.
"This might be pretty bad. The neighbors say they don't know who lives in the shack. It could be a homeless man who crawled in there and died...it could be something entirely worse."
"I'll expect worse, sheriff."
"And try not to shoot anyone who doesn't need shooting."
"I'll keep it in mind."
The shack stinks to high heaven, and Connors knocks on the door when he arrives. The overhanging trees form a canopy, tinting the sunlight green.
Behind the shack is a narrow creek, a 'crick' as the locals would say, that swirls with an oily flow between the narrow rocks. Beneath the smell of rotting meat, he can detect mildew, moss, and something else. Something he can't quite identify.
"Sheriff's department. Anyone home?" he calles.
He pulls out his walkie-talkie, and contacts the Sheriff's office.
"This is Connors. No one's answering the door out here, can we get a warrant?"
There is a long pause, then the handset clicks.
"Shack doesn't legally belong to anyone," Deputy Jenkins reports, "sheriff says to push on in."
Connors returns to his squad car and retrieves his flashlight, which he tucks into his belt. Squaring up, he lets muscle memory take over, and he goes through the practiced motion, slamming into the door of the tar paper shack with his right shoulder.
The door splinters on the first impact, and he manages to catch himself before he falls to the ground.
Clicking on his flashlight, he sweeps the room.
The shack is simply furnished. There was a mattress against one wall. A dresser pulled from a junk heap, an old hand-cranked lamp, a pile of books sitting on the floor.
But this isn't the first thing Connors notices:
There is a dead body on the floor, obviously having been there for a long time, and a message on the wall, written by the obviously semi-literate or dyslexic inhabitant of the shack:
"MAKE ME COMPLEAT."
Connors examines the letters of the message, sweeping them over the three words. The top two are on one line, and the bottom one is written larger, longer.
It is now that Connors notices the perspective trick on the bottom line. Half of the "C" in "COMPLEAT" was written on the dresser. It looked correct from the doorway, but any other angle in the shack made it long and misshapen.
Connors pulls out the walkie-talkie.
"Yeah, we got a corpse, here. Can't tell in this lighting whether it was murder or not. Probably was. Tell Mary to bring some lights with her."
Mary the Coroner borrows a cigarette and she and Connors smoke together before she steps into the foul-smelling shack, hoping the smoke would clog their sense of smell and keep the corpse from offending.
A futile hope.
She gazes in from the door, and Connors directs her to the message, she looks at it for a long moment, trying to understand the trick of perspective that allows it.
"That's weird," she deadpans.
She drops her cigarette, and stamps it out, before heading into the shack. She clips a light to the doorway, and sets up another in the corner, before covering her mouth and beginning to get to work.
Connors walks around the back of the shack, and looking down into the stream. He looks for a long moment, his face slack with fatigue. When he sees something glimmering in the water, some small metal thing, he crouches down, reaching into the creek.
His fingers squish in the silt, passing through the mud and sand until he grips the cylinder he saw.
Pulling it free of its watery grave, he looks at it. A polished bit of stainless steel, thick as his thumb and long as his outstretched hand. There is a rough seam on one side where it was welded. A ring of what looks like solder held one end of the cylinder in place.
Turning it this way and that, he tries to make sense of it.
"Deputy?" Mary calls from inside the shack.
"Yes?" Connors responds, slipping the cylinder into his belt as he goes back to the door.
"Could I have some help getting this body into the bag?"
Mary summarized a few things after she'd had a chance to look at the body.
The body had been in the shack for at least seventy-two hours before Mary and Connors removed it. The man who had been inhabiting the now-emptied shell was Colin Farkis, who lived on the northern edge of the county, up past the flooded quarry, into the mountains. Near enough to the roadhouse to make it not matter.
He has a Y-incision on his chest, with no real explanation for how it got there. The edges are ragged, so it was probably done by a strong man with a knife of middling sharpness.
A few organs (the heart and liver, specifically) had been cut with a knife, specific bits taken out for whatever reason.
His genitals had also been removed, and were nowhere to be found. The Sheriff assigned Deputy Colburn, who had let slip his voting preferences in the last election, to that particular duty.
But none of this was the killer wound.
That would be the wound that left Mr. Farkis with two black eyes and a shattered nose.
After Connors learns this, he looks through the records, finding out what he could, learning as much as possible about one Mr. Colin Farkis. It took him a moment to differentiate Mr. Farkis from Colin Farcus, who was a drunk who had managed to fit a lit M-80 into a pig's hindquarters last July, explaining that he believed it would make it rain bacon. The cleanup from this event took three weeks and required quite a bit of bleach, as well as a trip to the emergency room for Mr. Farcus.
The only witness had been Chester Long, who had brayed like an ass when asked about what Farcus did.
Farkis, however, is a registered sex offender.
Or, rather, was.
Now, he is dead.
Connors climbs into his car, and sets off for Farkis's last place of residence, up in the hills.
Farkis had lived on a flat hilltop, with a long gravel drive and one of those aeromotor windmills. It isn't been hooked up to anything, so apparently Farkis simply enjoyed the look of it.
A skinny dog runs out and starts barking as soon as it sees Connors. A skin-and-bones animal that his classmates back in college would've referred to as a "gutter mutt."
Connors got out, hoping that the dog won't attack him. It runs up, stopping just outside of his reach, and turns clockwise twice, barking, before crouching down, its eyes pleading.
"Okay, come on," he said.
He walks up towards the house and tries the door. Upon finding it locked, he checks under the welcome mat, then finding the extra key on top of the door frame.
The house is dusty, with splotches of cleaner surface peeking through the near-uniform envelope of dust. The television's screen is gray to the point that it would probably be impossible to make out an image beneath the dust. The dog slinks in behind him, and Connors heads through the living room, looking for the kitchen.
Inside, he finds no dog food in any of the cabinets, but opens up a canned chicken for the animal, and upends it on the front walk, where the dog proceeds to gorge itself.
He searches the house for any signs of who took Farkis, but finds nothing but an unmade bed and a dusty house. The electricity and water are still running, though.
Light a cigarette and sit on the front step.
Connors watches what the locals call a "ghost owl" land on a fence post, lifting a frog up to its mouth and biting down into it. He's always heard them called "barn owls" but the locals had some sort of strange superstition about them. He wasn't clear on everything, but had heard similar ideas were attached to whippoorwills in the North-East.
His Walkie-talkie crackles.
"Connors," he said into it.
"I've got something I need you to check out for me," the Sheriff said.
"I'm still working on the tar paper shack thing," Connors said.
"I think this is connected. There's an intersection south of town, Danvers saw a hanged body there on his way in for the night shift. Mary thinks it might be connected. Check it out for me, tell me if you think it's the same thing."
Connors sighs, squeezing his eyes shut.
"Connors. I need you to look into this for me."
"You really think this is...the sort of thing you were looking for me to do?"
"I do. I can't trust none of these local boys to look into it. Who knows what strange ideas they'd get? Come on, boy. You wanted to play detective."
Standing, Connors walked back to the squad car. The ghost owl watched him approach, then slid off through the air on spectral wings.
"I wasn't expecting any of this."
"Well, Connors, I suppose the only real advice I can give you is to man the hell up. I told you what you were getting into, and if you think the disturbing stuff doesn't happen back north or out west, or anywhere else, you're just deluding yourself. Now get down on Old Dry Road and tell me if it's the same M.O."
The body has been hanged from a tree branch, her face blue, and her tongue black. There is a Y-shaped bloodstain on her blouse, an arm of the Y over each breast.
Her wrists are bound together, her hands gone.
Connors looks for a long minute, and then searched around for any clue; in the hollow of a tree glimmered another silvery cylinder.
They opened the two cylinders with a buzz saw the sheriff had in his garage. The old man held a bottle of Old Grandad in his left hand and kept his leg stretched out as Connors examined the contents of the cylinder.
Inside of each was a sheet of notebook paper. The first one reads:
"the Angel says i can be compleat if I do something for him so i'm going to be a sineater and make the world clean."
"Christ, sounds like whoever wrote that's an idiot and a lunatic rolled into one."
"Does that narrow down the suspects?" Connors asked.
"Not particularly. What's the next one say?"
"It's better written, for one thing:
"The Angel tells me about the man who touches children and the woman who cooks drugs in her kitchen. It tells me about the boy who threw his brother to the fish and the man who burnt the church. When these four die, I can be complete."
"How's he spell complete?" The sheriff asked.
"Properly," Connors noted, "the handwriting looks a bit better, but still kind of the same."
"And they were found in the same condition. I'll send one of the other deputies to check that woman's home, see if she's got a meth lab set up, or something."
"What do you need me to do?"
"Find 'the boy who threw his brother to the fish.' Any idea what that would be?"
"Maybe the quarry?"
The sheriff shivered. The locals said the place was cursed, and Connors had seen it on the nights of the full moon. He was unable to disagree.
"It's worth checking out, but maybe it'd be better to look elsewhere."
"I've got a hunch, Sheriff. I'm going to look into it."
The Sheriff sighed.
"I guess you got to follow your instincts. You've done more of this than anyone else."
The Flooded Quarry was known as "The Swimming Hole" in the years after they drilled down through the rock into a subterranean river. In high summer, children would walk down into it and swim in the murky water.
This was before the Jones Triplets all died in a diving contest, getting down deep enough that the current of the stygian river pulled them down into the endless darkness of the world's interior.
Some hydrologists from the state university came and measured it with a small remote control drone, taking samples of the water. They'd said two important things about the river.
First, it was wider than the Mississippi. They had no way of measuring the length.
Second, they didn't think it mix with the ocean. It wasn't completely anaerobic, but they'd lost contact with the drone almost six miles beneath the surface. It was it's own system of water, as far as anyone could tell.
After the drownings and these revelations, the locals declared the place cursed, and stayed away, calling it "The Drowning Hole," in the cleverest pun they could think of.
This was all before they knew about the catfish.
One of the nights after he'd been suspended, Connors had been looking at the pool in the moonlight, looking at the twinned reflections and drinking the cheapest whiskey he could find.
He'd seen a car crash, a boy had run off the road and his car had tumbled down the hill, landing in the quarry, sinking slowly into that nameless river beneath the county.
The boy had gotten out of the car, coughing and shouting for help. Connors had stood up, beginning to head to the narrow ramp that would take him down to the gravel beach of the Drowning Hole.
Then he saw it.
A dead white thing rose up from the water. A fish at least ten feet long, maybe fifteen, its serpentine bulk glistening in the moonlight. Milky white eyes like cue balls seeing the moon for the first time.
It came up from below the boy, mouth open wide, rushing from the murky depths into the clear night air.
In a single gulp, the boy was gone, sucked down into the fish's stomach.
Rising up into the air, it twisted, breaching like a whale, and falling back into the water, to go down, down, down into the endless dark beneath.
Connors stands at the lip of the hole, looking down at the calm water beneath. Someone has run a line off from the edge of the quarry down into the water, and a pale thing on the end twitches.
As the deputy watches, he sees a head rise up from the water and take a gulp. His skin is stained slightly red. The line terminates at his calf, where a hook has been pushed into him.
Connors runs around the edge of the hole, careful not to fall in, careful not to run into a branch.
He stands at the edge, above the rope down into the water. It is staked in place, and Connors immediately sets to work pulling it from its place in the soft earth, and letting it go.
Stepping over to the edge, he looks down, and sees the child wrestling the hook from his leg, trying to get free.
He found a narrow ramp down to the water, and half-crabwalked half-shuffled down it, trying to reach the water without falling in. As much as he wanted to save the child, he knew what lived down there. Knew what could be lurking below.
The boy is still, now.
"Shit," he hisses, dropping his walkie talkie and phone, and dives into the water.
He swims over, and sees the boy floating, face-up in the water. He couldn't be more than fourteen. Only a child, in Connors's estimation.
Looping his arm beneath the boy's arms, he swam over to the beach, and flopped him down on the ground.
His shirt is open, with a Y-shaped cut in him. It had been stapled shut, and looked red and angry. The wound in his leg is big enough that Connors could have fit his thumb into it.
"Jesus," he says.
The boy is trying to breathe. He's already survived longer than Connors thinks should be possible.
"Ch...." the boy begins, before his head lolls to the side, eyes half-lidded forever.
Connors picks up his walkie-talkie, and signals:
"Sheriff, we've got another dead body."
The boy had been Malachai, or "Mal," Graves. Older brother of Ezekiel "Zeke" Graves. Zeke had vanished six weeks ago, apparently after Malachai had tossed him into the hole.
The internal wounds had been near-identical to the others. How the boy had survived so long was a complete mystery. His body cavity had turned septic, and had only gotten worse with all that filthy water getting in.
That's not the worst part, though. Whoever's done this has gotten much better. Impossibly so.
But now there was a weapon to trace, and witnesses to question.
The hook hadn't been bought, but taken out of the dumpster behind a warehouse store west of town that sold farm equipment.
Other deputies interview the family, while Connors walks back to his apartment. He showers and changes into a clean uniform, then sits at his kitchen table, and smokes four cigarettes in succession, lighting each successive one off of the spent butt of the previous one before dropping it into a beer bottle.
He feels tired.
Upon finishing up, he walks back to the station, and sits at his desk, staring at the keyboard for almost ten minutes before the Sheriff comes up behind him.
"You couldn't have saved him."
"You prevented him from being eaten by those goddamn fish, isn't that enough?"
"You're next, you know."
"The parents say that someone was lurking around their house. A dark figure in the night, slithering through the underbrush, looking in windows. Thought it was the goddamned boogieman."
"If whoever this is gets me, he'll probably take me to the cellar of the old church, up in the hills. The one where no one ever goes, anymore."
The Sheriff says nothing.
"I'm going to go find whoever did this," Connors says.
He is forced to acknowledge what a horrible idea this was.
The back of his head throbs, and his hands feel raw. They're bound behind his back, and are being scraped against the ground. Someone is dragging him by the collar of his shirt.
He didn't even get to his investigation. He'd gone to buy another pack of cigarettes, then everything went dark.
"Soon," a raspy voice, unlike anything he'd ever heard, says, "the Angel will give me what I was promised."
Connors doesn't respond, though he does look down. His gun is gone.
His captor has pulled him up into the hills, walking and pulling tirelessly.
"Don't worry," his captor said, "this will hurt for a bit, but you're going to go to heaven. I'm going to take your sin away. I'm going to steal you away from the Devil. Then the Angel will make me complete."
There is a bark of laughter, with something vaguely familiar about it. Connors can't place it, though.
He can see the lights of the town in the sky behind him, but knew they were nearing the terrible place where that church burnt down, struck by a bolt of lightning full of Old Testament wrath.
All that had been left was a hole in the ground full of water tainted by blood, wine and oil, with a misshapen idol in the middle, a thing that Connors could only spy vaguely, but that he knew belonged in no Christian service he'd ever heard of.
On the second week of his suspension, he'd driven out there, and poured several five-gallon cans of gasoline into it, before tossing a match, burning it a second time. It had been a superstitious day for him, and he'd seen the leftovers of the people who went to that church. They'd gone elsewhere, and their way of worship had diversified, but became no more acceptable.
Now he was going to be cut open, and thrown face-down into the water, he would guess. To drown as a sacrifice to the brazen idol under the water, that loathsome thing that filled him with an instinctual revulsion.
Eventually, he is dropped onto the ground, looking up at the stars overhead. He looks up, and sees the tall figure of his captor emptying more cans of gasoline into the water.
The church will be burnt a third time, with Connors drowning and burning at the same time.
"I'm real sorry I've got to do this, deputy. But the Angel, it told me I've got to."
The captor turns back to him, and grinned. In the moonlight, it was clear who it was: Chester Long, the town idiot. Something was different about his eyes. Like some connection that had been misfiring had begun to work properly.
He pulls out a pocket knife, and comes towards Connors. The blade cuts each button, opening his shirt. Connors looks up at him, as Chester closes the knife.
"Pray with me, brother Connors."
The idiot lowers his head, and began to mumble. Connors sat up, and then lunges forward, digging his teeth into Chester's right hand. His jaws clamp down, and he feels a squirt of hot blood on his tongue, and the jolt of his teeth connecting to bone.
Chester howls, and falls back pulling Connors with him, but not managing to dislodge the irate deputy from his hands.
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Chester shouts, shaking his hand, which still holds the pocket knife, but Connors holds on tight.
The deputy moves his knee up, and plants it on Chester's sternum, forcing the wind out of him. Straining and pulling, he manages to force his tied hands in front of him, and grabs Chester's right hand.
"Drop the knife," Connors says, blood dripping down his chin.
"But the angel..." Chester begins, wheezing.
"Drop the fucking knife."
The other man complies, and Connors picks it up, using the narrow blade to cut his bonds. When he is freed, Chester looks up at him, eyes displaying a mingling of fear and hope.
Connors thinks for a moment, then punches him, cracking the bridge of Chester's nose with his knuckles.
Chester is taken to the hospital, where he is handed over to the state police. He has a new, gangrenous wound in his hand, and severe bruising to his face, with a broken nose and a cracked cheekbone. He has swallowed several teeth and would be leaving them in the toilet bowl over the next few days.
Mary summarizes the report to Connors over the phone, as he lies in bed recovering from a concussion:
"the Doctors can't explain his newfound ability to speak. It had been believed that Chester Long would be stuck forever at the cognitive level of a three-year old child, but would never develop even the most basic capacity for speech, though he could understand it."
"Really? There's no indication of how it could happen?"
"Well," she says, "when they gave him a CAT scan to check for the possibility of brain damage, they noticed that his brain appeared not developmentally disabled, but closer to a schizophrenic's."
"Does that happen?"
"No. It doesn't happen, don't be absurd."
"I'm sorry. This isn't really my field."
"Just get some rest. Your job will still be here, tomorrow."