Excerpt from the Forthcoming Vampire Thriller NIGHTWALKERS

The light Henry had seen from outside came from an oil lamp sitting on a table in the center of the large kitchen. It brightened the room for a few feet around the table, but left the walls and corners draped in shadow. Still, the lamp provided enough light for him to see that the kitchen was empty.

To his right, the door of the pantry lay open. Looking that way, Henry saw something on the floor at the pantry entry, a darker shape in the gloom. He retrieved the lamp and stepped cautiously that way.

As he crossed the kitchen he heard a wheezing, whimpering sound, and as he neared the pantry he realized that he was making the sound, that his every breath was laced with dread, emitted as a whispered scream. He was so afraid, but he could not stop, could not turn back, and could not run away. Her eyes still pulled at him. He had to see, because he was supposed to see. He had to know, because he was supposed to know. She wanted him to see and to know. Henry wondered if this was the way that the devil tortured souls, by revealing the horror to them before delivering it upon them.

He stepped only close enough to the pantry door to allow the lamplight to reveal the horror: Peg lying on the floor, her upper body sticking out through the pantry doorway. She lay on her back, with her neck broken so severely that the back of her head rested on her collarbone. The skin and flesh at the base of her neck had ripped away from her shoulder, exposing the separated vertebrae in her neck. There wasn’t much blood, so Henry figured that Peg had died quickly.

Over the course of his life, when he’d thought about ghosts or discussed them at all, it had been more about whether the spirits of the dead were real rather than how they might kill. If he’d had to state an opinion, he would likely have said that a ghost killed by frightening a poor soul to death, and therefore didn’t need to lay hands upon them.

The girl from the woods had killed Peg, he was certain of that. She’d either struck Peg with brutal force or yanked her head so violently that she’d nearly torn it off.

Wheezing and whimpering, Henry turned away from the pantry and Peg’s corpse and made his way out of the kitchen, toward the front of the house.

He found Glenwood Johnson’s oldest son Whit next.

=====

Whit Johnson lay in the entrance hall, near the bottom of the front staircase. Whit’s skull, from his hairline down to his left eye, was crushed in. The force of the blow that killed him had left his eye bulging from its socket and laying on his cheek like a raw egg yolk.

A shotgun lay near his body, and the acrid odor of gunpowder hung in the air. Henry saw blood on the stock of the shotgun, and determined that the shape of the gunstock matched Whit’s fatal wound.

From the look of things Whit had come down the stairs armed with the shotgun after hearing Peg’s screams. He’d managed to fire a shot before the weapon was taken from him and used to club him in his head hard enough to cave in his skull.

Henry held the lamp out and looked around the room. If Whit had fired the shotgun and missed, there should be damage from the blast somewhere. He didn’t see damage in the walls, ceiling, floor or furniture. He looked down at Whit’s body. He looked at the closed front door, and thought that Whit would have been better off running out the door and running away than trying to stand and fight.

Henry wanted to run out that door. All of his fear and awareness told him that he had to run, had to get away from this place or he would end up dead, like Whit.

He looked down at Whit again, looked at his crushed-in skull and his egg yolk eye lying on his cheek. He and Whit were the same age. When he was a boy even younger than he’d been when he first saw the girl from the woods, he and Whit had been friends. They used to play together. They used to take their fishing poles to the creek in the woods beyond the graveyard to fish. But their favorite thing to do had been to race. He and Whit were faster than the other children, and he was faster than Whit. He always won their races. And then one day after he’d won yet another race and was dancing and shouting over his victory, Whit had punched him in his nose so hard that it drew blood. And then Whit said, “You ain’t ‘sposed to beat me,” and walked away. After that day, whenever they raced, Henry made sure that he let Whit win. And not long after that, even though they were boys of the same age, he’d had to start calling Whit Mister Whit.

Looking at Whit lying dead on the floor, a part of Henry felt sorry for him. They couldn’t help the circumstances they had been born into. Whit couldn’t help being born the son of a slave owner any more than Henry could help being born a slave. They’d lived the lives they had to live. And so a part of Henry felt bad for Whit that he’d had to die so young. But another part of him didn’t feel bad at all. No matter the circumstances of one’s life, you always had a choice. Sometimes doing the right thing—the good thing—was the most difficult thing to do. Sometimes doing the right thing comes at a terrible price. But there is always a choice.

Well, not always.

Henry looked at the front door. He wanted to run away. But he remembered moon-silvered eyes. He felt their pull, urging him to go another way. He stepped over Whit’s body and went up the stairs.

=====

Whit’s younger brother Wyatt lay in the upstairs hall, a derringer clutched in his right hand. Wyatt lay on his stomach, but his head was twisted around backward so that he stared with dead eyes up at the ceiling. Henry didn’t think that Wyatt had had time to fire a shot. He was pretty sure that it wouldn’t have mattered if he had. He continued to the bedroom at the end of the hall. He had never been past the kitchen or the front porch of the big house. But he knew without ever having been on the second floor before that the bedroom at the end of the hall was where he would find Glenwood Johnson, the man who had killed Oscar, and Miss Wilma, his wife. When he stepped through that door he saw that he was right.

He also saw that Glenwood Johnson didn’t have a head.

=====

Or rather, what was left of his head had been crushed to a mass of jellied bone, blood and brain matter. Looking at the body lying spread-eagled on the rug, Henry groaned and leaned against the door jamb so that he wouldn’t collapse to the floor.

Looking at Mr. Johnson’s body and destroyed head, he thought about what Sue had said as they’d listened to the screams coming from the house. She’d said that the girl from the woods was mad about Mr. Johnson killing Oscar. Glenwood Johnson had struck Oscar in the head with a hoe, killing him instantly. It appeared that Mr. Johnson’s head had been struck many times, and with terrible force. It appeared that whatever had killed him might have done so in a fit of murderous rage.

Sickened by the sight, Henry turned his eyes to the bed. Miss Wilma lay on her back on the bed with her head hanging over the side and her hair flowing to the floor like a yellow waterfall. Her upside down eyes and mouth were opened wide, as if in the moments before death she’d witnessed the most horrible of horrors. Maybe, Henry thought, she had watched her husband die his terrible death.

A thin stream of blood extended from Miss Wilma’s nose, over her mouth and to her neck. At first Henry thought that the woman had bled from her nose before falling to the bed. Then he saw the wounds on her throat.

Lamp extended in front of him, Henry eased closer to the woman. The glow of the lamp revealed that there were actually two wounds on the woman’s neck, two small punctures that looked like they might have been made by the point of a knitting needle. The blood on her face had come from those wounds. As she lay with her head hanging upside down over the side of the bed the blood had flowed from her throat down over her mouth and into her nostrils.

Looking at the wounds in Wilma Johnson’s throat, a chill that felt like a bucket of cold water tossed against his back shook Henry’s body. Suddenly he wanted to be out of that room and out of Glenwood Johnson’s house. Suddenly he felt as if he’d been released from something that had had a grip on his spirit. He had seen what he’d been meant to see, and now he was free to escape, if he could.

Henry hurried from the room and down the upstairs hall. The lamp swinging in his fist cast weirdly flying shadows against the corridor walls, shadows that seemed anxious to take solid form and reach out to grab him. Keeping to the center of the hall and out of their reach, Henry hopped over Wyatt’s body. The hairs on his nape bristled at the expectation that the dead man would reach up and grasp his leg and drag him down. But nothing grabbed at him.

He reached the upper landing with his fear so bright that he was ready to take the stairs with a single leap. He looked back down the hall. Nothing pursued him. The shadows were stilled. Wyatt Johnson remained dead and unmoving on the hall floor.

Henry took a deep breath to calm himself, and stepped down onto the top step. Then he froze with his foot on that step, listening. Beneath his own ragged breathing and pounding heart he heard another sound, a faint creak…creak.

Henry’s first panicked thought was that it was Wilma Johnson, that perhaps he’d been mistaken about her condition. Perhaps she wasn’t dead as a result of those punctures in her throat, but had merely been unconscious. Maybe the sound he heard was the creak of the bed as now conscious, she’d sat up.

Creak…creak.

There was a rhythm to the sound.

Creak…creak.

Henry realized that the sound wasn’t coming from the bedroom in which Glenwood and Wilma Johnson lay. It came from down the stairs.

He remembered the child’s eyes again, and let out a trapped animal moan as he felt their pull return. Lamp in trembling hand, he descended the stairs.

As he neared the lower floor Whit’s body in the vestibule came into view, and then beyond the dead man, the front door. Henry muttered, “Sweet Jesus, please help me.”

When he’d gone upstairs, the front door had been closed. Now it stood wide open.

Creak…creak.

The sound came from outside, from the front porch, and now he recognized it: the porch boards creaking under Miss Wilma’s rocking chair.

=====

Henry wanted to believe that the wind was pushing the rocking chair back and forth, but there was no wind. The night still held its breath.

Creak…creak.

He took slow steps across the foyer, reached the open door and stepped over the threshold. Something on the porch just beyond the door slipped under his foot, and he drew it back inside and bent with the lamp to look.

A scattering of lead shot lay on the porch, just outside the door.

Henry remembered the shotgun blast they’d heard from the cabins. He remembered the smell of gunpowder from Whit’s very recently fired weapon. He examined the front door, and saw that like the walls inside, it showed no damage from a shotgun blast. And yet now here was the shot from a shell on the front porch.

Henry looked closer, and saw that the lead pellets gleamed wetly. They looked like they were coated with –

Creak…creak.

More carefully this time, Henry stepped out onto the porch.

The little girl from the woods was sitting in Miss Wilma’s chair, rocking slowly back and forth and gazing out toward the main road.

Without looking his way she asked, “Did you love them?”

Henry felt the pull, but it was different now. Rather than urging him toward something, toward her, the feeling surrounded him. It was as if in her presence he was basking in the warmth of a fireplace on a cold winter’s night. He was still afraid, but an odd sensation of comfort had taken a seat next to his fear.

“The Johnsons?” he asked.

“Yes. Did they hold your affection?”

“No.”

“Oscar was my friend,” she said. “He held my affection.”

Henry detected sadness in her voice.

She slid off the seat of the rocking chair, and standing, turned to face him on the porch.

Henry saw a hole the size of a fist in the front of her dress, at her stomach. The cloth around the edges of the hole was charred as if burned, or as if it had taken a shotgun blast at close range. Henry held out the lamp so that he could take a better look. Through the hole in her dress the girl’s dusky skin was smooth and unmarked.

Henry looked down at the porch, at the bloodstained shotgun pellets. He remembered the sound of the gunshot, and the smell of gunpowder. He looked at the child again, at the hole in the front of her dress. She bore no wound. There was blood on the lead shot, but she wasn’t bleeding.

COMING IN 2013

Nightwalkers 2013 Cover-250

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