I've been a small-town police sergeant for 30 years now, so I can say without a shred of hyperbole that I've seen some shit, and I mean real nasty shit, too. Things that'd turn your blood to ice in your veins. But the sum of all that doesn't compare to what I had to deal with on the night of October 16th, 2012. Until now, I'd tried my very best to blank it from memory.
Looking back, the beginning of that night was far from sinister. It was what I'd call a typical Fall evening: cold, maybe a little frosty, with blankets of dead leaves dressing the back roads in robes of yellow and brown. Nothing all that out of the ordinary for our charming little town.
I was driving with a rookie who had just transferred from a nearby precinct in the city (I'm gonna be sparing with the names here, us townies like our privacy). He was just like all the other rookies - young, fresh-faced, bright eyed and bushy tailed and all the other clichés.
That's always how they send us the trainees: straight off the factory line, just waiting to be field-tested. His neatly-combed chestnut hair and freshly-laundered uniform made me look like a sack of shit in comparison, and a particularly old sack of shit at that.
In spite of this, I guess you could say I liked the kid.
The little town I called home was flanked on all sides by swathes of dense forestry, deep and dark. Call me crazy, but I've always believed that old forests like those have a certain personality to them, a certain vibe, if you will. Plenty of people have gone missing in those woods over the years, and plenty of them have never been found.
Personally, I don't like the word "missing", there's a sense of passivity to it, like it's nobody's fault.
If you ask me, in this day and age you don't go missing unless somebody wants you to.
"You been here long, kid?" I asked the rookie. It was getting foggy out, so I switched on the low beams.
"Hmm?" he replied, so focused on looking alert that he got lost in his own little world, "Oh, uh, not long, Sir."
I chuckled to myself and took a sip of my coffee. I tell you, whoever decided that bitterness was a bad thing never took his coffee black.
"Cut the 'Sir' bullshit, kid, I ain't that old," I said with a laugh that became a cough. Too many Marlboros, probably, "You transferred from, uh...?"
"Dallas, Sir...I mean, um, just Dallas," he said, smoothing his hair over nervously. He must have been wearing enough lacquer to start a bonfire.
"Ah, I hear it's nice down there this time of year," I said, making a turn at Shrew Lane to head down into the back roads at Lowgate, my normal patrol route. "You worked in Narcotics, didn't you?"
"Yes," he paused, trying to stop himself from saying sir, "three years."
I noticed that he loosened up a little after that, matching my tone. I'd heard about the sergeants and captains down in Dallas, all ball-breakers, apparently. He'd probably get chewed out if his hair didn't resemble cheap plastic over there, like he was some kind of budget-store Ken doll.
Prim and proper has never really been my style, anyway. Practicality trumps all the bells and whistles in my books.
"You deal with any drug kingpins or anything like that? Texas' own little Pablo Escobar, maybe?" I asked, jokingly.
He laughed back. "No, just pushers, potheads and meth-heads, mostly."
"Meth-heads, huh? Sounds a little eerie." I chuckled, keeping my eyes on the winding road, bordered by looming, ancient oaks.
"Actually, I think the potheads are worse," he said, softening up, as though they'd finally issued him a sense of humour, "Don't get me wrong, they're docile and everything, but Jesus do they stink."
"Worse than meth-heads?"
"Well, a meth-head will gladly cut your eyes out with a piece of broken glass if it gets them another hit, but unless they've got bed sores or they've shit their pants they don't normally smell too bad. Weed stinks, but you never hear of Meth Breath."
I'll admit, that last one got a sincere laugh out of me. I don't know where the rookies get this shit from.
"You excited to start working here?" I asked, once the laughter had died down.
It may not seem all that funny now, but trust me, on late night forest patrols you take your laughs when you can get them.
"Can I be totally honest with you?" he said, his voice becoming suddenly solemn.
"I'm a little nervous, in all honesty," he said, turning towards the window out of what I assumed was shame.
"Hey, hey," I said, giving him a comforting pat on the shoulder with my free hand, "it's your first day on the job in a new place, everyone gets the shakes. Nobody around here expects you to be perfect."
"It's not because of that."
"Then what is it?"
He'd genuinely piqued what I thought was my very jaded sense of curiosity.
"It's all the stories, about this place."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend, forget I said anything."
"No, no, it's alright, son. Everyone who grows up around here hears them," I said with a sigh, checking my mirrors to see that absolutely nothing was behind us, "which ones spooked you, then?"
"The missing people. The mysterious deaths. The, uh, devil worshipping."
I gave a strained chuckle and sighed again, "Yeah, those tend to stick. It'll probably be another hundred years until we get over the whole devil-worshipping thing. I swear, an animal could have done that to those goats, and what happened to that little girl all those years ago was awful, truly awful, but it doesn't mean the goddamn devil was behind it, you know?"
"The little girl?" he asked, nervousness ringing clear in his voice.
"Oh, you hadn't heard." This was a story I didn't enjoy telling, "Little Mary Hathaway wandered off into the woods in the October of 1965, and didn't come back home. The next time they found her she was slit from neck to crotch, gutted completely."
The rookie shuddered and stared out the window again. He didn't want me to see the disgust in his face, and I couldn't blame him. He was new to all this.
We drove in silence for a little while, soaking in the atmosphere. The gnarled branches of the forest trees seemed to reach longingly for us as we passed, so desperate for good company. He seemed to realise this, and shrank away from the window, though it might have been for another reason.
"There are people in the forest," he said, sounding each word out as though he scarcely believed it himself, "lots of people."
"What?" I asked, sounding incredulous.
"No, seriously, there are people out there. They're wearing coats with hoods, or like, robes or something. Jesus Christ, there's so many of them, moving black shapes between the trees. I think they're looking at us."
Suddenly, a hump on the road was illuminated by the beams, and I slammed down on the breaks hard enough to give almost anyone whiplash. We both jolted forwards, me into the wheel and the rookie into the dash. Honestly, it's a miracle the airbags didn't deploy.
"Why the fuck did you stop?" he barked at me, before realising that it counted as insubordination.
"There was something in the fucking road, that's why." I growled back at him, unbuckling my seat belt and getting out of the car to investigate.
I paid no mind to his feverish rantings about hooded people in the woods. The kid was spooked, he didn't even know what he was talking about.
"Don't go out there!" he hissed through clenched teeth, I could see the fear in his wide eyes and knotted brow.
"Listen, kid, there's nothing wrong with being afraid," I replied, leaning on the roof of the car, "but fear is like faith, you've gotta make sure you invest it in the right things. Now get out of the car, we're safer in a group wherever we go, aren't we? Two heads, two guns?"
The rookie nodded compliantly and got out, circling the car briskly, a hand hovering over his holstered Colt Defender. We walked forward to the obstruction side by side, orange bars of light from the car slicing through the fog behind us.
"Is that..." he said, in disbelief, "a deer?"
"Well, it was a deer."
The ugly, broken carcass that lay before us was that of a young, starry-eyed deer, maybe about ten years old by the looks of it. The deer had its throat slashed from ear to ear, creating a red grin amongst the fur. The blood underneath it had dried. This was not a recent kill.
"What's that on its side?" the rookie asked, turning on his flashlight and aiming the beam at the deer's torso, "They look like runes or hieroglyphs, or something like that."
Someone had taken the liberty of carving arcane symbols into the deer's flank, saturating its fur with dried blood. The only time blood doesn't seem to dry brown is when it's in brown fur, then it goes a deep, ruddy black.
"No, no, this is the devil worshipping shit."
"Calm down, kid, it's probably just some of the local boys playing a sick joke. I mean, Halloween is coming up after all."
"How can you say that?" the rookie screamed at me, grabbing me by my lapels to make sure he had my undivided attention, "First it's deer, sure, but then it'll be a..."
The still, night air carried the sound of gentle sobbing. A cry unmistakably human, and undeniably young.
"A little girl."
The rookie stood frozen as she came staggering out of the fog, into the warm glow of our headlights, and finally into our midst. She was young, perhaps about nine, wearing a white silk dress that didn't look like it belonged to her. The girl's uneven gait gave the impression of injury, maybe starvation, and the livid bruises around her wrists screamed that she'd been kept in captivity.
"Help...me..." she whispered through broken sobs, and fell down to her knees, weeping. It was only then I noticed the glyph that had been crudely carved into the back of her left hand, and how it almost exactly matched one of the symbols that had been etched onto the deer.
The rookie ran to her and gathered her up in his arms like a doll, real fatherly-like. I ran to his side to take a look at the girl, only to notice he was crying too.
"What happened, sweetie?" I asked, frantically.
"They took me," she whimpered, "they took me and they were going to kill me. They showed me the knife."
"Who took you?" asked the rookie, "Who tried to kill you?"
The little girl wriggled an arm free from the rookie's bear hug and pointed into the distance, into the fog.
There was only one at first, then two, then three, until a small army of hooded men seemed to pour out of the darkness, muttering low hums and chanting incomprehensibly in dead tongues. They came from the trees, from the fog, they seemed to come from every angle, until their chanting mob formed a ring around us.
Once he'd composed himself from seeing them, the rookie drew his pistol and held it out defensively, yelling, "Stay back. Stay the fuck back!"
A single hooded figure stepped forward. It was clear upon closer inspection that he was different from the rest, his robe was a deep red rather than black, and a small, black sigil of crossed antlers was embroidered onto the chest.
Whether it's a badge, a uniform, or some archaic marking, one learns to recognise a symbol of authority.
"Give us the girl," the hooded figure asked, his voice masculine, deep and sonorous, as if somehow amplified by the cavern of his hood, "her flesh and blood is owed to the Horned God, who ensures safety and prosperity. You have no right to take her."
"Shut the hell up, you sick fuck!" The rookie cut in, pointing his gun at the hooded man's head, "you're fucked in the head if you think I'm giving her to you."
The rookie let go of the girl so she could stand independently, but held her by the shoulder. I could hear his deep breaths; they were desperate, using a facade of rage to conceal his terror. He was about to click back the hammer of the pistol - a rookie move, the kid had seen too many Westerns - but I stopped him, not wanting to escalate this situation.
"This Horned God," I asked, trying to sound calm and measured, "what have you people got to do with him?"
A collective hiss was issued from the crowd, but the hooded leader silenced them with an authoritative wave of his slender hand.
"We are the disciples of the Horned God," he calmly told us, "we do His bidding, carry out His will, and we pray to Him. But the Horned God cares not for words, our prayers to Him must be made through the desecration of innocent flesh."
I glanced over to the rookie, who was giving me a signal with his wild eyes, as if to say, "Keep him talking," while his finger crept towards the trigger.
"How much flesh do you intend to give to the Horned God?" I asked the leader.
He replied, "As much as we can give."
I sighed and unclipped the holster of my sidearm, taking it out and wrapping my index finger around the trigger.
"I'm sorry this happened on your first night, kid." I said to the rookie, who looked back at me, confused.
Before he could say anything I'd levelled the pistol and shot him through the kidney. The girl shrieked, and he collapsed onto the ground, moaning and whimpering. I aimed again and fired into the back of his head, blowing blood, skull, and glistening brain matter onto the asphalt.
God, that girl just wouldn't stop screaming.
"What a waste," I said with a miserable sigh, "I liked the kid. He had a good way about him."
"But," the hooded leader offered as he and his acolytes encircled the screaming girl and the rookie's corpse, "his flesh will make an ample sacrifice to the Horned God."
"You guys are getting sloppy," I scolded, staring daggers into them, "if you hadn't of let her go, I never would have needed to shoot him."
"The Horned God works in mysterious ways, my child," the hooded leader purred while the little girl was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the fog by his acolytes, until her shrieks of terror were indecipherable from a distant cicada's trill, "don't worry, I'm sure He won't allow it to happen again."
I sneered in disgust and started trudging back to my vehicle, not even turning around when I told them, "You better take his body too, all of it, and the fucking deer."
By the time I reached my cruiser they were all gone. The disciples, the deer, the girl, and the rookie. I don't think anyone has seen them since.
Of course, I told the captain what happened and we gave some textbook excuses to family members. Killed by a bear, died bravely, tried his best to save the girl, et cetera et cetera. It'd been decades since anyone had needed to kill a rookie because they stumbled in on something they shouldn't have, and I took no pleasure in bucking the trend.
I'm not a religious man, never have been, but I've always believed in the idea of necessary evils.