CHAPTER 1—JERKY

Ray parked the 1990 Honda Civic, opened the driver's door and stepped out. He arched his back and stretched his arms and legs. His joints popped. Vertebrae cracked. He shoved his keys in the right front pocket of his jeans and closed the door. He didn't bother locking it. Anyone desperate enough to steal the piece of junk could have it.

Ray sniffed the air; gasoline vapors from droplets left by careless patrons. Patrons in too much of a hurry to shake the excess free of the pump nozzle into their gas tanks. He looked back to the off-ramp from which he came. The gas station sat low and close to the elevated interstate. Road noise echoed off the overpass's steel framework. It was too loud. Ray hated white noise. Survival depended on his acute hearing. His sense of smell too. He'd smelled threats when he was twelve and several times since.

A keqk could hide from view, but couldn't mask the faint vinegar smell secreted from glands in its dark grey leathery skin.

It had been eighty-seven miles since Ray's last stop. He didn't need gas. The tank was mostly full. He had a hankering for jerky. Not the teriyaki abomination. Something with peppercorns. The convenience store was the only stop for miles. More a truck stop. There were large stalls to park rigs and extra rows of diesel pumps. The store had a side entrance advertising warm showers. Most truckers loved jerky, so the store would have ample supply. Ray loved to pack pieces of jerky in his cheeks, suck the juice out until the pieces got soft, and then slowly shred the meat between his front teeth. It kept his tongue and jaw moving, which kept him awake.

The store repelled more visitors than it beckoned. It catered more to locals and rough drifters. Bikers, truckers, bounty hunters, and rednecks. Walls of chipped stucco, revealed brick, and gas pumps with signage worn and weathered. Weeds grew up from cracked concrete. The left side wall tagged with graffiti; Save Marcus, it said. Hard folk, those accustomed to heavy drink, seclusion, and check cashing pawn stores, came to yell and curse at slot machines.

The lot was mostly free of the lost and innocent. Ray would feel better if a hardened biker got split open than a sweet old couple passing through in a motorhome on their way to Wells and then north along highway ninety-three to Yellowstone. Innocent people only made it here by accident. Running low on gas, in desperate need of food, or bladders too heavy to bear.

Ray's eyes scanned the lot. He took everything in. Two big rigs meant two truckers. To the right, one pickup truck and an old Pontiac Firebird. He made a slow walk to the payphone on the south side, taking a closer look inside the vehicles as he moved. The pickup truck wasn't an extended cab, so it brought two, maybe three patrons. The Pontiac had several days' worth of fast food bags piled in the passenger seat. The rear seats had old blankets, a curling iron, a couple articles of female clothing, and a makeup box. Only room for one. Ray figured the Pontiac belonged to the woman he'd seen through the store's front glass doors. She stood behind the checkout counter. One vehicle parked out front. A minivan. The only thing out of place. It could seat seven. This meant thirteen possible people inside the store and its casino attachment.

He walked by the parked minivan. The engine was running and three kids sat in the back seat. They were all fixated on electronic devices. Handheld videogames tethered to car chargers. It kept the kids quiet and the parents sane. Dad was sitting in the driver's seat anxiously waiting and tapping his hands against the steering wheel. He made a quick glance at Ray. The man was alert and nervous. He eyed Ray with cautious suspicion. A smart man. He didn't want to be here. And he was right to fear Ray.

Ray was a rough and violent man. Life had made him this way and there was little he could do to change it. He was numb, often emotionless. A history of violent and disturbing experiences would break any man and Ray was as broken as they got. He wasn't debilitated by his experiences, but they made him hard and cold.

Ray stepped into the convenience store and paused to find the exits. He counted three. The front door, casino exit to his right, and back door straight ahead. A mother and daughter approached from the hallway leading to the restrooms. Ray held the door open for them as they passed by, their heads down. No thank you, kind smile, nor eye contact. Ray watched their brisk walk back to the parked minivan. He put it together. The family had an emergency bathroom break and this was the closest place. Dad wouldn't have stopped otherwise.
Ray looked to the attendant and then back to the minivan. Head on a swivel, he thought. The mother and daughter were in the minivan, pulling the seat belts across their chests and waists. The father watched and waited until the belts latched, then backed out and sped away.

Ray took another glance back to the off-ramp. It hadn't found him yet.

The Pontiac owner stood at the register and eyed Ray with uncertainty. It wasn't normal to enter this establishment and take time to look it over. Only crooks did that. Was this man casing? She thought. Ray imagined either a pump action shotgun or revolver stashed behind the counter. Ray smiled and she leaned back against the counter and stuck her nose back in a trashy romance novel. On its cover, a brunette with flowing sundress, embraced by a shirtless man in tight jeans and cowboy hat; His muscles bulging and glistening in the sunlight. Poor girl enraptured by imaginary love; the kind of love that found the lovely and not the haggard of Nowhere, Nevada.

Ray counted the remaining patrons. He needed to know who to protecting and who could fend for themselves. To the right, in the casino, three friends sat side by side at the slots. Boys, in their early twenties dressed in similar T-shirts depicting cartoon characters and videogames, laughed and shouted at regular intervals. They bothered Ray. The young were always loud. They felt the need to make their presence known. They were important, fun, and demanded attention. They struggled to impress each other. The more boisterous the better. They were fools. Fools with a pickup truck.

The truckers were not in the casino, nor the convenience store. Ray could hear a few voices down the hall, leading to the restrooms and showers. Had to be the two truckers. Everyone else accounted for.

Ray turned left, passed the sunglasses, DVDs, and motor oil, rounded the spinning audio book rack and into the aisle of salty snacks. He grabbed the biggest bag of jerky he could find. He turned back and walked to the row of refrigerators, opened one of the doors and removed a Mountain Dew. It was a Throwback. One that used real cane sugar and not high fructose corn syrup. It tasted better. He'd need the caffeine for the drive to Reno. It'd been forty-three hours since he'd last closed his eyes.

He was on the run. There was no time to sleep. Sleep meant death. It hadn't been this way four days ago. Four days ago, he was on the hunt. Now, the keqk hunted him.

He stepped to the register and the middle aged attendant helped him check out. She scanned the jerky and soda, one at a time. The woman looked depressed. Why wouldn't she? She lived in a small town off interstate eighty, an hour and a half drive from the nearest Wal-Mart. When she handed the items back, Ray saw her stained fingers. Nicotine stains. She smoked and when she did she cut off the filters. She turned to grab a bag and the back of her shirt said, Class of 1992. She was younger than Ray, but didn't look it. The arid weather, heavy smoking, and frequent drinking, had soured her appearance and demeanor. Ray smiled at her and she made a half attempt to smile back.

"Will that be all?" she said.

"Just the essentials," Ray said.

"Need a bag?"

"Nope. I'm good."

"Have a good day."

"You too."

Ray wasn't having a good day and he wasn't anticipating the rest of the day to be good either. His time was precious. His time was running out. He hurried back to the Civic and paused to grab his keys. The casino door burst open and jarring loud laughter filled the air. Ray shoved his hand in his right pocket and clutched his multitool; a Leatherman Micra with a tiny blade. The three slot players stumbled out into the parking lot. They laughed their way back to their truck. They were either early drunks or still playing up the idea they were fun-loving and wanted everyone to hear. Ray released his grip on the knife and pulled his hand out of his pocket. He watched these mouth breathers pile into the truck and drive away.

Only the store attendant and two truckers remained. Luck had whittled bodies down to more acceptable losses. He was concerned for his own life, but found greater value in the lives of the innocent untouched by true evil.

Ray stepped to the Civic, opened the driver's side door and got in. He leaned back in his seat and stretched his chest muscles. It stung a bit. He unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt and pulled the left side open. The sigil carved into the left side of his chest had bled through the bandaging, but not through his shirt. Sigils were magical symbols. He wasn't sure how it worked, but he knew it required flesh and blood. No ritual needed. No sacrifice. Just a pocket knife and his skin.

He found two sigils sketched in his father's notebook, along with several pages of obscure writing. It was all he had left, after his father's passing. The sigils were key to something else. Something he'd witnessed long ago. Something grotesque and violent.

Ray reached under the passenger seat, pushed his handgun to the side, pulled out his first-aid kit and opened it. There was plenty of dry bandaging left. He removed the soaked dressing from his chest, threw it onto the back seat and removed dry bandaging from the kit. He checked the sigil again. It bled more than he'd thought. It was good that it bled. Blood was key. That's what he read in his father's notes. Blood opens the gate.

He'd witnessed his family's brutal murder. His parents and younger sister mutilated when he was twelve. A keqk killed them. It was an impossible thing. Keqks weren't real. They were from stories his father told. Stories his father made up. Stories his father wrote, tried to publish, but were rejected from every publisher under the sun.

Audecutioners were known for their booming voices. They'd run through battlefields, shouting in the dreadful tongue the keqk summon. That's how Ray's father told it.

Ray feared the summoning; those words his father spoke.

Ray had stopped his ears when his father spoke them. He saw him mouth the words; Ray's mother watching and listening from the bedroom door. Ray's sister listened from the other side of the bedroom. He remembered his father's story. The keqk killed those who heard the summoning. Father was only trying to scare Ray and his sister. When the summoning neared its end, his sister wept. Ray wrapped his pillow around the back of his head and pressed its ends hard against his ears. All sound muted.

"Stop scaring the kids," mother demanded, Ray deciphering her words through moving lips. But father continued the summoning.

The words were spoken. Ray slid the pillow off his head. It was safe to hear again. The room was silent and his father waited. Did he think the summoning would work? Why would he want it to?

A breeze came; a draft from an unseen open door. It was cool and sweet smelling, like a field of lilacs. Then there was warmth and the scent of vinegar.

Father's head pulled back far and when his neck snapped the sound echoed through his gaping mouth which stretched open until his jaw dislocated. Eyes bulged and arms pinned to his sides. He was lifted, feet dangling inches from the dark blue bedroom carpet. Father was dead when blood sprayed from his face. A large lump swelled within his throat, moved upward, and pushed blood and clear liquid out the sides of his mouth. Ray cringed when he recognized the fleshy lump, suspend in air, above his father's head. It was his heart. Impressions formed in the left ventricle. Teeth marks. Sinews separated, smashed together and shredded. An invisible beast devoured the heart. When the last blood-soaked bits disappeared from view, father's body tumbled to the floor, limbs folding over and under each other like a tossed bag of bones.

Mother and sister were next. Their deaths were quick and painless. Two more hearts devoured.

Ray spent the next several years hunting the keqk. But how could he kill that which couldn't be seen?

Ray figured a way. Not how to kill a keqk, but to see it. The sigil in his chest made it possible.

He tended to his wound. The markings were right. It worked. It worked too well. After pressing a thicker stack of bandaging to the sigil, he taped it in place, buttoned his shirt, and started the car.

Ray shifted the stick into reverse and looked through the rear view mirror. He'd spent the past several hours peering through it; always weary the keqk would catch up. He backed up, shifted into drive, and stepped on the gas pedal. He reached the end of the lot and turned left onto Main Street. It was the only street in town, unless you counted the unmarked dirt roads. He turned right to enter the westbound interstate-eighty onramp. It took time for the Civic to reach the seventy mile speed limit. He needed a faster car. Something with more than four cylinders. Something that responded when he slammed his foot down.

When he peered through the mirror again the miles of road behind him were clear. He was relieved. No dark figure in the distance. He knew it still followed him. The sigil made it so, but he was far enough ahead to relax a little while longer.

Music would help, he thought. He reached for the stereo power knob, pressed it in, and then turned it to raise the volume. It played AC/DC. Ray opened the Mountain Dew bottle, drank, and sang at the top of his lungs. He grabbed a few pieces of jerky and shoved them in his mouth. He chewed some before singing again. Faster vehicles passed him. Other drivers mistook his singing for jubilance. Ray was trying to stay awake. Trying to stay safe.

He kept the Civic at five miles over the speed limit. He couldn't risk the time wasted if pulled over by highway patrol. The Civic had California plates, which put him at risk. Californians wouldn't take the long trip to a Nevada court house just to appeal a speeding ticket. Nevada Highway Patrol banked on this nuisance.

The squad car came out of nowhere, lights blazing. Ray pulled to the side of the road, hoping the lights were for a real emergency. But they weren't. They were for Ray.

When the officer approached the driver's window Ray spun the crank to move the glass down.

"Good morning, officer," Ray said, squinting in the morning sunlight.

"Do you know why I pulled you over?" he asked, eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses.

"Do I have a taillight out?" Ray asked, prepping for the ludicrous accusation that he'd been driving too fast.

"You were fifteen miles over the speed limit."

Liar!

Ray remained calm. He knew playing it cool and accepting the ticket would be the best move to get out quick and get back on the road. But Ray laughed instead.

"Fifteen over?" Ray mocked, "You'll need to recheck that radar of yours. This piece of junk can't hit eighty without shaking to pieces."

"Luckily I'm using the department's first Lidar gun. Much more accurate than our radars. License and registration, please."

Ray was pushing his luck. He kept his mouth shut and reached for the glovebox. The latch lifted and the door opened. He shuffled through papers, found the registration and insurance card and presented it to the officer. Then lifted his butt to reach down and remove his wallet from his back pocket. He opened it and removed his California driver's license.

When the officer reached for the license, his short sleeve lifted on his right arm. Ray noticed the bottom quarter of a tattoo. It was an anchor. The officer was a former serviceman in the U.S. Navy. That much was certain. But which part of the Navy? Most of their insignias used anchors. Too much of the tattoo was obscured by the officer's sleeve. Ray wondered if a trident crossed the anchor, half way up the insignia. If it did, this officer was a former SEAL and not one Ray would trifle with.

"Wait here a moment," the officer said and turned back to his squad car. Ray watched from the side mirror. As the officer walked the length of the Civic, he paused to peer through the back window.

Keep walking, Ray thought, before gulping hard and closing his eyes. The bandaging! I had left the bloodied bandaging on the back seat. Or the gun! Did the gun slide out from under the seat when I reached for the med kit?

The officer turned back to Ray and unbuttoned the strap that held his Glock in its holster. He rested his right hand on the back of the gun's grip frame. "Sir, I need you to exit your vehicle. Place both hands out your window and with your left hand open the door from the outside."

He was good. Thorough and considerate of every possible move I could make to disarm or assault, Ray thought.

The officer maintained a twenty-foot distance. Ray couldn't close that range without the officer pulling the gun and getting a shot off. And those dang aviators. Ray could predict someone's movement from the slightest muscle twitch, but their eyes would telegraph sooner.

The officer took one step back and Ray took one step closer. Ray could see through the Civic's rear side window. The bloody bandaging and handgun were in full view.

Ray kept his hands in front of him. "I know how this looks, but I have a permit for that gun. A conceal carry. It isn't loaded." Ray lied, thrice.

"Sir, step back and lay face-down, arms extended across the hood," the officer ordered, his voice calm and confident.

Could a keqk break through steel bars? It could bend a man in half.

Ray sidestepped right and looked beyond the officer and his squad car. A mirage on the horizon? Or a dark spot on my retina? The rising sun struggled to frame the blotch. Heat off the blacktop? The darkness moved down the distant hill, shifting along the side of the interstate. He's here!

The officer knelt to set his clipboard on the road, keeping his eyes on Ray. "Sir! You need to step back!"

Ray did as told. It was the only way to create an opening. To cuff Ray, the officer would need to get in close.

Ray pressed his face against the warm hood and turned his head right to watch the officer's approach. The Officer favored his left leg. Perhaps an old injury. Nothing severe. Nothing Ray could use. He saw that the holster was left unlocked. The officer pulled his hand from the Glock's grip and unbuttoned a pouch to remove the cuffs. Ray's left hand was pulled hard to the small of his back. This gave him his opening. The officer placing pressure on Ray's left side, allowed momentum on the right.

Ray pulled his right elbow back and into the officer's right temple. This set the officer off balance and Ray slid his right hand down the officer's side until he reached the Glock and removed it from the holster. Ray jerked the pistol upward and into the officer's head. The hit was clean. He cradled the officer's body as it fell, avoiding further damage and hoping the officer would somehow understand this consideration and be more forgiving, once all of Nevada's law enforcement rained down on Ray.

Luckily, no one saw the officer go down. No other car in sight. The interstate was clear. No sound. No wind. If no wind, then what carried the keqk's foul stench? Was this the keqk's doing? They have an otherworldly power. Father explained them as best resembling djinn.

Ray slipped on the leather gloves he kept in his pockets and after handcuffing the officer, pulled him into the squad car. The Lidar gun sat on the dash. Ray took it and looked it over. The display still registered the last hit. Seventy-four miles per hour. Liar. California hater.

It was as easy as firing a gun. Ray pointed the Lidar at the keqk. It had a three hundred meter range, but required a reflective surface for the laser to bounce back and register speed. Ray fired, but got nothing. He fired again. Nothing. There has to be something! Something he's wearing! A button, buckle, or ring! The keqk drew closer. Ray fired a third time. Nothing. Two more shots before the sixth connected.

37.4 miles per hour. Faster than any man could run. Ray checked his watch. 7:16am.

He leaned into the squad car and pulled up the officer's sleeve. The trident was there. Ray must've caught him on an off day. This proved Ray's years of training had paid off. But now he was in a world of hurt. He'd assaulted a cop.

The scent of vinegar got stronger.

He covered his tracks as best he could; removing key strokes from the officer's computer and tearing written notes.

Ray returned to the Civic, started the engine, and watched the keqk slip back into the horizon.