Jensen “Kit” Carson sat in the patrol car and tried one more time to decipher the message from dispatch. He stared at the old rusted fence, hanging ajar while a storm moved across the distant horizon. Static, steady but unhelpful, filled the patrol car.
“Enter at Your Own Risk,” the sign read.
The first night of his solo patrol with the Texas Department of Public Safety Kit was already on edge. He’d been with DPS six months, and during that period, the disappearances of three patrol officers added to the six in the previous twelve months had every one of the peace officers spooked.
Off the beaten path, deep in the piney woods of East Texas, Kit pulled up to the gate of an abandoned game preserve. Someplace he vaguely remembered from childhood. He stopped his patrol car and set the emergency brake. He sat and observed the scene. The gate hung slack and useless, but open when it should have been secured.
Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!
Kit fumbled with the radio attached to his shoulder. It relentlessly fed him erratic noise and static most of the night. “Carson to dispatch.” He released the button and waited, lightning flashing on the horizon. No response. “Carson to dispatch, do you read?”
Every effort met with silence, the only noise the rumble of distant thunder. Kit sighed, pulling the over-sized mag light from his belt. He depressed the button once more; perhaps the third time’s the charm? “Dispatch, this is Carson, go ahead.”
Exiting the patrol car, Kit used his light pushing the gate farther open, activating the scream of rusty hinges. The lock was missing, and tire tracks in the old dirt lane led into the game preserve. In the distance, Kit heard the yowl of a night creature, a pitiful and yearning sound from some unidentifiable animal causing a shiver to skitter down his spine.
The flashlight spread a narrow beam of light down the old path, muted by the headlights of his cruiser. He debated returning to the unit to request and await backup but was sure when he found nothing, he’d never hear the end of it from the guys in the barracks.
Eighteen months in Afghanistan had taught him to be cautious of the most innocent things. But after six months back home in Texas his greatest fear was not measuring up to his parents’ ideals. What they thought he should be doing with his life.
A soft breeze pushed the pine needles against each other in the still night, creating a ghostly whisper. The rustle in the brush alerted him to the stirring of more night creatures, causing the hair at his nape to stand.
He paused on the dirt road, cocking his head listening to the sounds of the night and the forest, but suddenly the world around him went still. The silence was broken by the creak of the gate closing, the grind of rusting metal and the clang of chain and lock slamming into place. He turned, sprinting back to his unit while drawing his weapon. The area of light thrown by the headlights of the cruiser retreated into the background, finally fading as the patrol unit moved away from the gate. “Damnation!” Kit kicked up the dirt on his side of the gate, cursing both his luck and his momentary stupidity. Still thinking it might be a joke by the other officers, Kit shouted after the retreating headlights, “Stop! Wait!”
He repositioned his weapon and even though he knew it was useless, pulled at the gate. The lock and chain were secure. The gate definitely wasn’t locked when he’d first arrived. Although his light revealed an ancient and rusting gate, the newly acquired lock and chain were both shiny and sturdy. Short of kicking down the gate he was stuck inside the wildlife preserve until someone came looking for him. The fourteen-foot fence with a wrap of rusted out razor wire deterred him from attempting to climb out of the park.
Might as well follow the road and see what’s down there, he thought. He hadn’t passed any buildings on the road leading to the game preserve. And hadn’t planned to exit the unit until he saw the gate ajar. Who knew what lurked behind the abandoned game preserve fence. The thought gave him an eerie chill.
Unlike the more experienced officers, he was not familiar as he would have liked with this part of the county, much less the state, and didn’t remember the park had ever existed until he was well off the main road. What was going on?
Perhaps this was a prank by his fellow officers, a “Welcome to the Barracks” for the rookie?
The night sounds made a gradual return as he trudged down a steep incline and up the next rise. He felt rather than saw the night stalkers following along as he traversed the old road. The sense of eerie observation permeated the night air, and Kit slowed to a crawling pace at the rise of the next small hill. He turned in a slow circle, his Mag light beam cutting a swath of light around the edge of the road. When he returned to his starting point, his light beam bounced off the tip of rugged work boots. Holding his breath, hand on the butt of his Colt revolver, safety snap off, he quickly drew his weapon.
Kit moved his light up over the hem of worn jeans, ragged with wear, over the denim, soft and dull from repeated washing, over the delicate fray of cotton threads baring some thigh, to the curl of a worn leather belt below an abundant abdomen. The light traveled further up, across fading flannel and mismatched buttons to the snatch of a dirty white tee-shirt, onto a stubble of beard. The smirk and the thinning hair scraped back by elegant fingers in a bony hand-made him draw in a sharp breath.
“I- I, ah, I know you. Aren’t you Emory Watkins? The famous horror author? I thought you were dead.” Kit was ashamed of the tremor in his voice, grateful for the darkness to conceal the flush rising on his cheeks.
“Reports of my death…” The scruffy old man gestured with a skeletal hand, looking off into the woods as if he could track the night visitors even in the darkness.
“I’m sorry.” Kit straightened up and moved the light from the other man’s eyes. “I didn’t mean I wished you were dead, you know, really. You’re one of my favorite authors.” He slipped the over-sized flashlight to his left hand and extended the right to shake hands with his horror fiction idol.
“This is a real thrill for me. I never thought anything like this could happen. I’ve read every one of your books at least twice while I was in Afghanistan.”
Kit saw the glaze of indifference flow across Watkins’ face, the slacking of the jaw muscles followed by the weary, almost inaudible sigh. He immediately regretted sharing his admiration with the author.
This wasn’t how he wanted his idol to see him. He was a veteran–a cop– with a job to do. He needed to step up, get back in control of himself, if only it weren’t so dark, so isolated and so creepy.
“I stopped because the gate was hanging open and dispatch told me all the animals were not extracted when the property was sold.” He looked around once again caught by the sudden stillness of the night. The eerie unnatural quiet.
“Most of the wild things are locked up here.” Watkins’ eyes continued to roam the horizon, and his evasiveness caused alarm bells to ring in Kit’s ears. He’d half turned away staring into the woods.
“Sir, I need to know if there’s anyone else on the property, besides you.” Kit tapped the Mag light on his own shoulder, and even though he towered over the 5’11’ Watkins, he somehow felt small. Ignored. Unimportant.
The sound of rustling in the brush had both men turning toward the noise. Kit looked up into the tall pines set close to the road. Sounded like something was climbing one of those trees.
He turned back to Watkins, “Sir?” He stepped closer, “Is there anyone else on the property?” Kit noticed the sheen of sweat on Watkins considerable forehead, the flexing of his fists at his side, but still, the writer didn’t make eye contact.
“Well, my wife Carina lives here with me, of course.”
Kit began to shine his light around the periphery, feeling the seep of Watkins discomfort ebbing into his personal space. He didn’t know what to be afraid of, but he felt it in his gut–it was time to be very afraid.
“About the animals, is that right?”
“Are all the exotic animals accounted for? When the park closed, did you send all the animals to other locations?”
“All but one.” Watkins’ voice was barely a whisper.
Kit noted the haunted look in the writer’s eyes. He also remembered when he returned to the states he’d read somewhere Watkins had been in rehab, some kind of “accident’ brought on by drug and alcohol abuse. Of course, Watkins demons were also the source of his success, so why would he ever let the demons go completely?
“Perhaps you’d like to join me up at the house? Watkins waved a hand toward the largest copse of trees Kit saw on the horizon. The sweating increased, and Kit noticed a distinct tremor in the older man’s voice. Some side effect of withdrawal? DT’s? He wasn’t comfortable following this man further into the woods.
“I need to get back up to the gate, see about my cruiser.” Kit turned his back, very briefly on the author. “Do you have the keys?”
“No, Carina keeps the gate keys.” He gave a weary sigh. “No one here now but the two of us, since the children are grown and gone off on their own.” His shifting gaze added to Kit’s discomfort and once again he waved Kit towards the house. “This way.”
Kit was not happy. He wanted to turn and bolt off the property, but he knew he’d never make it to the gate, and he remembered the razor wire scrolled along the top of the fence. Even if he could climb out, the hike to the nearest phone was, at least, ten miles. He chided himself for leaving his personal cell phone on the seat of the cruiser. But this wasn’t helping. He couldn’t go back, he couldn’t go out, and he needed this man’s cooperation to get off the property. Sweat trickled down his back, as he reviewed his viable options. He turned toward the house, following carefully in Watkins footsteps.
Each step drummed a beat of tension, the sixth sense Kit believed had kept him alive in Afghanistan, was humming a crescendo now in his soul. He swept his gaze and his light off to the sides of the road but other than the gut feelings he had no warning of impending danger.
At the top of the rise, they reached a shack-like structure, built in the style of the old dog run homesteads, with two sides separated by a wide porch where several canines lay, apparently awaiting their master’s return. Soft light glowed from inside the cabin, and Watkins pushed back a rickety door, waving Kit forward into the room.
Kit hung back, regretting his decision to exit the cruiser and explore on his own. “You first.” He followed Watkins inside stopping after closing the door. Watkins settled himself in a rocker and waved to another chair for Kit. Kit visually marked the perimeter of the room. Only one way in or out, Kit thought to stand in front of the door. He watched as Watkins leaned forward in his rocker pulling an aging enamel coffee pot from the top of the pot-bellied stove and wagged it in his direction, “Coffee?”
“What I really want to know is what you’re doing out here all alone. Are you alone? Who else is on the property? And most of all, why?”
Both men were startled by a sound on the roof and looked up. Kit was surprised by the look of total terror crossing Watkins’ features. This was a scary place and the middle of the night was no time to be messing around, but other than the dark and the night sounds this wasn’t as bad as some of the back streets of Houston, or even riding patrol along the Mexican border. Drawing his weapon from its holster he flew out the door. He turned back to the shack and dropping to one knee he raised the gun to fire. No warning left his lips.
At the moment right before it hit him, he thought, you should never draw a weapon unless you intend to shoot.
He didn’t shoot.
A magnificent black panther landed in the middle of his chest forcing the air out in a whoosh. The cat swiped a paw across his neck opening four gashes each six inches long. The roar of the beast proclaiming victory rent the night air.
Watkins stumbled down the steps of the porch, “Please, don’t shoot!” He slouched forward holding an upturned palm to the beast.
The animal gave him a look of total disdain, and Kit, shock abating, felt the rip across his vulnerable neck along with the weight on his chest. His weapon had flown from his grip. He sucked air past his damaged throat and began to scream.
The cat put its snout right up to his face and sniffed in two sharp breaths before huffing into his open mouth. The tail whirled, and gigantic paws settled on his shoulders. His entire body quaking in fear, Kit tried to dislodge the cat from his body.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Watkins crawled to where Kit lay on his back in the dirt.
“God dammit help me, get the gun.” Kit felt the warmth on his crotch where his bladder had released when the cat jumped him.
“Don’t be such a baby,” Watkins smiled scornfully. “I think she likes you.” He pulled the gun from the dirt and released the barrel emptying the ammo onto the ground.
“This is my wife, Carina.”