Brilliant flashes of bright green and white broke up the usual darkness of the woods. Fleeting images rushed past him as he ran with the speed of his newly found, powerful, canine-like legs. Running on all fours seemed odd at first, but after a few minutes, it was as though he’d been doing it his entire life. His senses were alive in ways beyond normal human comprehension, and his muscles pushed harder than he’d ever dreamed imaginable.
The sharp aroma of Bud’s Backwoods Bar B Q drifted by on the wind; a restaurant he knew was a good five miles away seemed as close as if he was waiting in line to grab a plate. The rain stirred up sweet and rotted sensations foreign to man, but he was man no longer. His animalistic instincts, which probably lay dormant inside every man, woman, and child, had defeated the simplistic abilities of Toby’s body. He found that he loved it.
As a man, his first inclination would have been to find his family and friends to keep them safe, or to gain their assistance in dealing with the current crises. As an animal, the will to survive was far stronger. He knew the only way to ensure his safety was to hide out for the time being. After all, that’s what his cellmate advised him to do. The last thing he wanted was to piss this guy off and be ripped into a million fur-covered pieces atop the forest floor. Kurt Jimmerson seemed like he was a pretty serious person after all. Johnny and Becky were more than capable of holding down the fort long enough for him to get a total grasp on things. Besides, how would Katie react to her father barging in the front door as a wolf monster wearing tatters of his human clothing? With a shotgun. That’s how!
From what precious few morsels of information he’d gathered from Kurt Jimmerson while locked up, Toby understood he was still just as mortal as a frail human, even though it felt like he could take on the world. All he had to do was think about the nasty, evil images he’d witnessed the night before and the transformation took effect. The emotional pain somehow triggered the change, and things began to get a bit hairy.
The physical pain of his first conscious transformation had been enough to make him want to vomit. His big toe shot inwards in a reverse direction, his ankle grew a good three inches, and it was more excruciating than anything ever experienced. After that, his shoulder blades narrowed causing all pain to shoot from his lower body into his chest area. Finally, his jaw unhinged with a violent snap and grew outward, revealing sharp fangs and the snout of an animal. When the pain ceased and he opened his eyes to a strange new world, he was human no more.
Within seconds, he’d burst through the cinder block wall of the jail, crossed two lanes of traffic, and disappeared into the night before any of Jessie McGee’s mindless minions knew what hit them. His first instinct was to take down the door to his cell and slaughter everyone who wore a badge, but what remained of his humanity told him to take the safer route and avoid the men with guns for as long as he could.
Zigzagging in and out of the trees and fallen foliage of the forest canopy, he sprinted across the rain-soaked terrain with almost effortless ease toward his destination. It was the last place in the world anyone would look for a living person—a gathering place for the dead. The old mausoleum at Clark Cemetery on the outskirts of town was the first safe haven which came to mind when he’d broken away from his keepers at the jail, and it was only a couple of miles ahead. Normally, his out of shape body would’ve failed him by now, but with about eight miles already behind him, he felt alive. Stopping momentarily, he held his head high to gather his exact bearings.
With his new sense of hearing, Toby heard the planes at Ellen Air Base, the rumbling of the passing trains, and distant music and television broadcasts coming from homes beyond the range of his vision. Turning his concentration behind him, he heard the sirens beginning to wail, which confirmed he was still headed away from the jail. Confident he was headed south toward the graveyard, Toby realized he needed to get moving before Myrtle County’s finest caught up with him. Not wanting a confrontation before consulting with his mentor, he resumed his run toward what was to become his new, temporary home away from home.
He still had no recollection of any involvement in the murders of the previous evening, but it was beginning to get easier to see how he could’ve accomplished those things. His newfound strength and agility felt so natural that he took little notice of the running and high jumping going on as he headed for his freedom. There had to be more to it, though. Not once since he’d transformed did he think about stopping by some stranger’s house for a quick bite. This seemed to discredit the plot of every werewolf movie ever watched. As a matter of fact, the thought of eating human flesh still repulsed him, werewolf or not. Maybe it just took time. Kurt said the hunger built up to the point he had to leave the city to tackle wildlife, but thinking about tearing up rabbits with his pointed teeth and eating them raw sickened Toby. Multiple questions raced through his frantic mind as fast as his legs raced toward the cemetery. Hopefully, he would have answers soon. His unsolicited mentor promised to find and enlighten him. Just in case Kurt Jimmerson forgot, Toby raised his head high and sent an ear-piercing reminder toward the night sky. This was another part of the transformation he was going to have to get used to.
Obviously, his human vocal cords were something that didn’t work at all, because he’d tried saying things aloud to himself as he ran for his life. The noises which emerged only came out as little barks and howls. When that happened, he heard dogs barking in response. A few lighthearted thoughts battled their way to the forefront of Toby’s consciousness. What if his would-be captors could subdue him by simply throwing a ball? What if they could scare him into a corner with the threat of a vacuum cleaner? He laughed at himself and it came out as a curious howl. Toby was pretty sure he wasn’t the king of the canines or anything and that these scenarios were not plausible. He based this conclusion on the fact he’d yet to experience the desire to sniff crotches. It still seemed like traces of human instinct remained inside him, just intensified as though he were hopped up on some psychotropic drug. Despite his intensified awareness, the thoughts of murder charges, separation from family, and the loss of his job plagued his mind.
All that mattered at this exact moment was not getting caught. As he passed under the iron, arched gateway to the cemetery, he quickened his pace a bit to reach the doorway of the ancient crypt that symbolized some much-needed safety.
He paused silently in the shadows of the weathered stone building, listening to the night. The sirens had silenced, probably a tactical move to cover up their ongoing search, but he still knew exactly where they were. If the police officer’s playbook was still being followed, they were all in his neighborhood expecting him to show up at the house. They probably had Johnny’s house covered as well. Temporarily, this would have to be home. There was a stairway inside leading to an underground chamber which housed the bodies. Down there, he would be partially protected from the Autumn Texas cold and driving rain that seemed to come and go so often lately. Nudging the double doors gently with his nose to avoid making any audible noises, Toby stepped inside to hide his presence from the cloud-covered moonlight that would give him away.
The smell of death was evident, even though the bodies housed there had long ago become bone and dust. Granted, their resting places caused them to decompose less quickly, but the last person secured in the mausoleum had died over a hundred years earlier. The crypt belonged to the Clark family, the original founders of Twin Oaks. Their last remaining descendant lived just long enough to see the dawn of the 20th century before succumbing to an epidemic which swept through the town. As children, he and Johnny never possessed the nerve to come inside, not even on a dare, because it was long-rumored to be haunted. On this night, ghosts were the least of his worries. Carefully descending the stone stairway below the main floor, he realized the crypt held nothing more than six very well-preserved wooden coffins, a stone table in the center of the room, and silence.
Without any effort, Toby jumped onto the table and laid his weary head atop of crossed arms like some old lap dog awaiting his master. The sounds of pursuit had faded away. All that remained was the still air of the underground chamber, which made him very aware of just how tired he felt. His eyes grew heavy. His new fur coat was warm against the cold darkness. Soon, the night vision glow of his surroundings vanished behind eyelids, and all was peaceful. For two days, he’d been bombarded with nothing but shock and chaos. Even the heartbreaking misery brought on by seeing his wife in another man’s arms wasn’t enough to fight the overwhelming need for sleep. His new senses confirmed he was secure in his current environment and safe enough to rest. His immediate fear of Sheriff McGee and his posse breaking down the door to invade his sanctuary was an unlikely eventuality, at least for the moment, but he remained at the ready. Exhaustion conquered him to the point where no dreams came to bother him, at least not right away. His body slept but the wheels of his consciousness kept right on turning.
Outside of the mausoleum, it was business as usual in the forest. The wind whipped through ancient trees as rain fell once again. Families slept safely in their warm houses, blissfully unaware that a homicidal maniac escaped the custody of those in which they placed so much faith. At least, that’s how he’d be referenced in the news reports. All of that would start with the new day and his enemies would multiply. Soon, everyone would look for him, even those who didn’t sport badges. They would search high and low. Rewards would undoubtedly be offered, and every gun-toting hayseed would comb the back roads of Myrtle County in search of Toby Liberman, the crazed lunatic. The opposition was staggering. Photos and exaggerated stories would flash across television screens throughout the region along with footage of the jail’s damaged outer wall. Bearded men with hound dogs and flannel vests would likely be interviewed by some reporter. It always seemed inevitable when anything newsworthy happened in Myrtle County. The news outlets would seek out the least educated residents to interview on television. Why should this time be any different?
Further down the road was a confused teenager who didn’t know what to believe. At least she hadn’t the slightest idea that her father was some kind of dog. For now, he was just somebody wanted for murdering one of her classmates and a couple of ambulance jockeys. With any luck, she wouldn’t believe a word of it. Jessica would be a different story altogether. Her frame of mind was the hardest to decipher. For as long as memory served, her loyalties lay with her husband and family, but lately, nothing was certain. The battle between what was real and make believe raged in her troubled mind. The shattered remnants of family littered the floor of her consciousness like shards of glass. Every thought led to one of these painful realizations, cutting her deeply with each step taken in either direction.
Then, there was Johnny Haynes.
Johnny would follow whatever he believed in his heart. He’d known Toby long enough to hopefully realize he wasn’t the cold-blooded killer everyone made him out to be. He would see things for exactly what they were. Short of witnessing his best friend in the act of murder, nothing could convince Johnny that Toby was guilty. Until then, he was probably going to be one of very few people who would remain loyal to Toby, trying to assist him in his time of need. Johnny would search the woods for the true perpetrator and/or any evidence which might exonerate his friend. Trying to explain the whole ‘animal’ thing to him would be the hardest part. No matter how dire the situation or how limited their time might be, Johnny would be unable to resist launching into an endless barrage of snarky comments. Right now, those flea jokes would be welcomed conversation over a beer or two, which Johnny would probably pour into a dog bowl for Toby. That thought brought something that vaguely resembled a smile to Toby’s animal face.
As he lay in the frigid darkness, curled into an oversized ball of fur and nerves, those happy thoughts of Johnny being a smartass were the only sense of normalcy Toby possessed.
Johnny closed his eyes tightly against the sting of the blood slowly flowing from his forehead. Pain radiated throughout his nearly lifeless body and he found himself unable to move. He tried as hard as he could but, somewhere in the darkness of the forest, the lines of communication between his brain and limbs were severed by a blow to his head. To his recollection, there had been a phone call followed by a bunch of yelling…and then nothingness.
Attempting again to open his eyes against the blurring sensation which distorted his vision, he found he was bound to a wooden chair in a small room with stone walls. This was not a place he recognized. As Johnny tightened his muscles, trying to break out of captivity, a familiar voice rang out from a dark corner, assuring him such attempts were in vain.
“Johnny Haynes, you are a worthless, lowlife son of a bitch.”
The increased blood flow stimulated by Johnny’s wriggling caused the cut on his head to bleed faster, making him drift toward unconsciousness. He relaxed immediately.
“You know, McGee, that’s exactly what my mother used to tell me at bedtime every night before she’d go out to hit the bars and try to find me the daddy of the week. After a while, you begin to believe it.”
Jessie McGee was now in total control of the situation and this scared Johnny. Not once in the long history of their acquaintance had Johnny been on the losing end of the ongoing conflict between himself and the good Sheriff. McGee stepped into the light. Johnny was unsure of what was to come but he knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. Twenty or so years of making McGee the victim of his taunting ensured that. He thought to himself that if he lived through this encounter, perhaps he would think twice before riding someone to the point of utter humiliation. He never knew when one of those people might knock him over the head and tie him up in a basement.
“I figured, given your current state of affairs, you’d choose not to shoot off at the mouth,” McGee spoke calmly.
“Well, you know me,” Johnny attempted. “I’ve got to be charming to the last drop.”
“Indeed,” the Sheriff replied, taking a long pull off a cigarette. “With any luck, that last drop will be falling soon.”
Johnny was worried before the utterance of the last comment, but having heard it, panic began to set in. As he silently resumed his attempts to wiggle his way out of the ropes, he could hear a chair being dragged out of one of the room’s corners. Placing it about five feet from Johnny, the Sheriff, gun in hand, took a seat. Finding himself in the most precarious position of his life, Johnny used the only weapon he had at his disposal.
“You know, I told you years ago that this would be the only way you’d ever get to sleep with me, McGee. You’d have to tie me up in a dirty basement. I guess you were listening after all.”
“Cut the bullshit, Haynes,” the Sheriff commanded. “How did he do it?”
Confused now, Johnny searched his captor’s eyes for answers Eyes that were now level with his own.
“What are you talking about?” he inquired sincerely.
“All of my deputies are now searching their little hearts out for your best pal and butt buddy, Mr. Liberman, because he broke out of my jail.”
Despite the pain coming from the wound on his head, Johnny’s eyes grew wide in excitement and wonder.
“You got to be freaking kidding me! How the hell did he do that?”
“Don’t even begin to play dumb with me, Haynes. You got me away from the building just long enough to set your little plan in motion. You had me walking around the damn woods in the rain while someone snuck up there and blew out the wall.”
Johnny was really confused. If Toby had the ability to obtain explosives all this time and was holding out on him, he was going to hurt him severely for cutting him out of all the fun they could’ve had!
“Explosives,” he chuckled. “Yeah, you know we just keep those lying around the house for such occasions.”
McGee knocked Johnny hard against his head with the butt of the pistol, causing the already excruciating pain to intensify.
“Playtime is over, Johnny. This is my playground, and these are my monkey bars. You have no power here.”
“Obviously,” Johnny replied, attempting to shake the pain from his ringing ears. “Why don’t you untie these ropes and we can see who is king of the playground?”
Jessie McGee’s laugh echoed throughout the shadows, chilling Johnny to the bone. This situation was yet another answer to one of the Sheriff’s twisted prayers which drove his life down the course of fate. At the beginning of the day, he’d captured Toby Liberman. Now, he had his best friend. When this deed was finished, he’d have Jessica Liberman in his arms as well. The question of Toby’s freedom would be answered in time, and once again, all good things would come to those who waited patiently.
“The negotiation of your freedom will commence as soon as you tell me exactly what I want to know.”
It was easy to see that no matter what type of answer Johnny gave, his well-being was in serious jeopardy. The truth of the matter was he knew just as much as anyone else involved. Absolutely nothing! His only hope was to stall the Sheriff until he could get free. The ropes remained securely tied and the look on McGee’s face indicated his patience was beginning to wear thin. The worst he could do was get bored and leave. Johnny didn’t think for a moment that the Sheriff intended to use his gun for anything other than a power-trip prop, and the occasional blow to the head. Not even the Sheriff was that stupid. He hoped.
“Sure McGee, I’ll play along,” Johnny began. “What do you want to know?”
“Good choice, Mr. Haynes,” the Sheriff replied with slight shock. “How did this all begin?”
“Oh, hell, that’s the easy part,” he started. “Me and Toby were at the Legion having a few beers and picking on Archie Weldon. Weldon needed some ammo in the conversation, so he ratted you out by telling Toby you were screwing my sister, you nasty bastard.”
“Well, it would seem as though I can’t trust Mr. Weldon with my secrets anymore,” McGee laughed. “Go on.”
“Then Toby drove home and busted you with your pants down,” Johnny smiled.
“Keep going,” McGee said as he moved his hand in a circular motion as if to say he wanted to hear more of the story.
“And that’s it,” Johnny concluded. “You chased him out the door and the next thing I knew, that tubby deputy of yours called to say Toby was in jail.”
McGee grew angrier as it became apparent he was getting nowhere with Johnny. Desperate times were calling for desperate measures. Somewhere out there, his enemy was gaining strength and had the advantage on him. It was easy to determine where a Sheriff would be most of the time, but Toby Liberman was nowhere to be found (as of yet he thought to himself), and there were a lot of people looking for him with orders to shoot on sight. It was time to try some bluffing.
“Johnny, I know you truly believe in your sick little heart that your best friend is incapable of doing what I’m charging him with, but I saw it with my own eyes.”
“All you saw was the blood,” Johnny interrupted.
“Either way, I’ve got enough evidence to put him away for life, if not kill him, and I’ll make damn sure you rot in jail right beside him as an accomplice if you don’t start filling me in on more. Now, who helped him? Becky? One of the guys from the air base?”
“Look, jackass, I’ve already told you! We went from your office to the damn woods where I got to watch you stumble and step into every mud puddle for two hours. You know damn well I don’t know anything at all!”
McGee sighed in disappointment and looked Johnny in his eyes.
“Haynes, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. I was hoping when all of this was said and done that we could be friends. After all, we’ll be family soon.”
Johnny began to laugh hysterically although tied to a chair facing a man with a gun. McGee just told him what could only be considered a joke. No matter what occurred, Johnny had no intention of ever being related to the individual sitting before him. He’d kill his sister first if it ever came down to anything of that nature.
“Oh my God! You’re serious? You actually believe my sister is going to dump Toby and put up with your microscopic little pecker for the rest of her days? Dude, you need to go and take a nap or something because the stress of this job is getting to you!”
To McGee, it was officially the last straw. Realizing Johnny Haynes would never roll over on his best friend, even if he was telling the complete truth, it remained a threat to his plans with one Jessica Liberman. With any luck, he could create a believable story about the two of them locating Toby in the woods after his jail break. He’d say the crazed psycho, Toby Liberman, could no longer tell the difference between right and wrong, friend or foe, and attacked Johnny Haynes. Convincing Jessica and Katie would be difficult, but the media would eat it up. It was the kind of story that sold newspapers and cheap paperback novels. Pulling back the hammer on the weapon, securing a round, and pointing it directly at the still bleeding forehead of Johnny Haynes, Jessie McGee gave his final ultimatum.
“Mr. Haynes, I’m going to give you until the count of three to tell me everything you know!”
Johnny knew the Sheriff was serious. There was nothing in Jessie McGee’s eyes indicating he was bluffing this time. This was the end. All he could do now was try his best to protect his family. If he absolutely had to go out, he was going to do so in a verbal blaze of glory. Becky and Katie would never have it any other way.
The Sheriff began the count.
“One. Tell me what you know that I don’t, Johnny Haynes, or I’m going to shoot you right between the eyes.”
Johnny looked at him angrily and imagined giving him a sort of virtual middle finger with his right hand.
“McGee, you know damn well that you’re not going to shoot me. You said you were going to count to three, and I happen to know for a fact you can only count to two.”
Just then McGee removed the safety switch from the weapon.
“Two, Mr. Haynes. You’re running out of time here. Tell me what I want and you live. Keep screwing around with me and you die. It’s simple.”
“Okay,” Johnny gulped a little. “Toby was abducted by aliens. They’re probing his anus right now because you’re too busy here with me. They said they’d be back for you later.”
Unfortunately, Jessie McGee thought to himself, it had come to this. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d killed a man in cold blood, criminal or not. For years now, he’d taken many an innocent soul to this very room and handled his dirty work. In the big picture, the death of Johnny Haynes would result in nothing more than an adjustment to the town’s population count on the city limit signs posted proudly at the border of Twin Oaks. Johnny was the best friend of his sworn enemy, the brother of his bride-to-be, and one of two uncontrolled variables which could stand in the way of his plans.
Johnny was surprised by the look of sincerity in McGee’s eyes. He’d never seen it before. McGee finished his count.
“Three, Mr. Haynes. This is your last chance.”
Johnny closed his eyes tightly against the barrel of the gun. Thoughts of Becky, Jessica, and Katie flashed like scenery through the window of a speeding car. This was real, and there was no way out. Even if he wanted to betray his best friend, he still hadn’t the slightest idea of his whereabouts. No matter what his final words would be, cynical lie or truth, his game was over. He spit out the only thing that came to mind.
“He’s hiding out in the basement of the Clark Mausoleum and eating the remains of all their dead children, or at least the ones you haven’t eaten yet.”
Sheriff Jessie McGee reached slowly down with his free hand and removed his badge from his duty uniform.
“Now that’s just plain ridiculous, Haynes,” the angered Sheriff spoke through clenched teeth. “I believed the alien story more than that.”
“It was all I could come up with,” Johnny spoke sadly with sealed eyes. “At least we both know that you can actually count to three.”
The gun shot rang out into the town beyond, echoing into the night. Frightened by the sudden noise, a flock of pigeons took flight from their nocturnal nest inside the church belfry. Every dog in the city sprang to life, startled by the sound. Nearby, the darkness was briefly broken by a spattering of lights flipping on from inside some of the houses. Just moments later, those same houses would return to darkness as the stunned, half-asleep townspeople found nothing amiss within their immediate boundaries. This was not so very unusual in the small town, and most of the residents accepted it as a normal occurrence. The city would awaken to headlines of death and an escape from their secure incarceration facility. It wouldn’t be long before the media from the big cities would arrive and Sheriff McGee would once again have control. With no one left to oppose him, he could spin whatever yarn the people would believe. As it stood, he planned to blame four deaths on Toby Liberman, and the townsfolk would get behind just about anything he suggested to bring peace back to their community. That objective, at least the way he would tell it, would likely be achieved by the death of Toby Liberman. He’d already proven that a simple jail couldn’t hold him long enough to quench his thirst for blood. Capturing him would no longer be an option. The town’s people would want a body.
Winner – 2011 Reader’s Favorite Award
Toby Liberman is nearing the end of his rope. After a fateful confrontation with his wife’s lover, he is chased into the woods only to be discovered by an unidentifiable creature. He is attacked and rendered unconscious. Upon waking at the scene of a gruesome triple homicide, Toby is arrested as the sole suspect and thrown into a jail cell with a strange man that knows way too much about his predicament. The stranger reveals to Toby that he now possesses the curse of the werewolf. Using his new-found strength to flee his captors, Toby begins to discover that things are not what they seem in the sleepy town of Twin Oaks, TX. Now hunted by law enforcement, as well as the town’s gun toting civilians, Toby seeks vengeance against his false accusers and embarks upon a quest to clear his name once and for all.