The husky deputy knocked on the door causing it to open slightly into the dark office. Many different types of meetings took place in this room. Very few of them were pleasant.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” Deputy Reed inquired.
“Ah, yes,” rang the voice of Jessie McGee from the darkness. “Please have a seat.”
Deputy Allen Reed wasn’t just loyal to his superior, he idolized him. He’d been hired by the Myrtle County Sheriff’s Department when he was fresh from the police academy. He immediately fell in love with the idea of working for a man as powerful and feared as Sheriff McGee. Deputy Reed emulated the man he so wanted to be with every action he took in the field and every word he spoke to a citizen or unfortunate inmate. The bold, black line that separated right and wrong in his conscience became very blurry shortly after his hiring. He’d been McGee’s ‘go to’ guy on many occasions and carried out his most heinous orders without question. Sometimes it meant inflicting pain or death upon those who most law enforcement officials would consider innocent. Sometimes, it meant arresting a dissenter on some fabricated charges and keeping them locked up until they were ready to fall in line. Sometimes, incarceration was totally out of the question.
“Would you like a beer?” the Sheriff offered, pointing to the mini-fridge which sat just to the right of his enormous oak desk.
Reed nodded with a smile on his pudgy face. He immediately jumped to his feet to claim his reward for loyalty. None of the other deputies held the same degree of favor with McGee and this made Reed feel very superior. Like the citizens of Twin Oaks, the deputies were ruled with an unforgiving fist. They worked in a meticulously cultivated environment of fear. Reed again took a seat in one of the Sheriff’s chairs and faced his hero. The young deputy tuned out everything around him and prepared for another one of their private discussions. These discussions usually consisted of McGee handing down some top-secret instructions meant to serve the greater good of their community.
“I paid a visit to Mrs. Jessica Liberman today,” McGee began.
“How did it go? Any signs of her lunatic husband?” Reed asked between sips of the cold beer.
McGee let out a sarcastic laugh, “I’m not sure. She’s trying to convince me that she’s neither seen nor heard from him since the night he slaughtered the kid and the ambulance crew. Personally, I think she’s lying. Once a lying, cheating whore, always a lying, cheating whore.”
Reed was aware of Jessie McGee’s dalliances with Jessica Liberman. He was surprised by McGee’s insulting statement about the woman but didn’t dare disagree. It’d been easy to see that he loved her very much and had done so since his childhood. Despite McGee’s comment, Reed knew deep down, when the Sheriff’s anger subsided, he would again be obsessed with his one true love. The Sheriff continued.
“On top of that, she’s the only girl I’ve ever allowed into any of my private affairs, and now that little business operation has been burned to ashes. Conveniently enough, her husband is on the run, hiding, and has it in for me. The only plausible explanation for him knowing about what went on at that old farmhouse is that she told him.
Allen Reed did his utmost to maintain an outward air of callous indifference, but he was truly shocked by the deaths of the men at the farmhouse. Being so close and loyal to the Sheriff, he’d been let in on that secret long ago and had come to know several of those men. The people of Twin Oaks knew absolutely nothing of those buried inside of the nameless tomb below the old house. Since they couldn’t be given a proper, public burial, the bodies remained there, still smoldering where they had fallen.
“I just wish we could give those guys a funeral or something, Sheriff,” Reed spoke candidly. “I would hate to think I was going to be haunted for the rest of my life by some of those men because we didn’t allow their families to pay their last respects.”
“Don’t worry, I feel the same way,” McGee faked some concern. “But if their families knew they were dead, they would want to know where and how it happened. You know as well as I do, we have to keep that information classified. Doing otherwise would put a damper on our extracurricular activities. I kind of like my extra income, don’t you?”
“Yeah, you’ve got a decent point there,” Reed agreed as he processed the realization. “I hadn’t thought about that yet. Hell, I guess I can put up with a few ghosts for the money.”
“Lucky for us there’s no such thing as ghosts!” McGee smiled as he threw Reed another cold one.
For a few moments, there was an uncomfortable silence between the two of them the likes of which Allen Reed had never before experienced in any meeting with the Sheriff. McGee just stared at him blankly as he was chugging his own beer. When he could take no more, his deputy broke the silence.
“Well, what are we going to do about it? Jessica, I mean?”
“That’s a great question, Mr. Reed, and one I’ve been pondering up here in the lonely confines of this office for several hours now,” McGee rose to his feet and continued. “The one thing I keep asking myself repeatedly is, do I love her too much to end her life?”
Reed felt his heart fall to the floor. He was almost sure the Sheriff heard it from across the room. He’d carried out many an execution order for Jessie McGee over the years but always rationalized they’d been trash and deserved it. None of them were ever women. There was also something in the back of the deputy’s mind which told him if the order was given, a similar order involving a child would soon follow. There was no way the Sheriff was going to kill his beloved and allow her smart-mouthed daughter to go unharmed. The chilling realizations just kept coming to the dimwitted deputy. He also knew if he showed the slightest bit of hesitation, the Sheriff would take his life and then carry out the horrible deeds himself. Regardless of how he truly felt about what was being discussed, the outcome which included him keeping his life and position within McGee’s inner circle was always going to be the preferable one.
“And which resolution are you leaning toward?” the deputy inquired, hoping nervously the answer didn’t involve severing their relationship for good.
“Allen,” McGee became informal. “She told me tonight that she didn’t love me anymore and that she never did. She told me the only reason she ever had anything to do with me was for the drugs. After that, I don’t know if I can even look at her again for fear of that cold expression returning to her face. It hurt.”
“Well, sir, you’ve got a hundred other women that will do anything at all for you at the drop of a hat. I wouldn’t worry so much about Jessica. Move on.”
The Sheriff continued as though he hadn’t heard what Reed said. He’d obviously made his decision before the man even entered his office.
“I think I would much rather remember her at peace with her arms folded across her chest at her funeral, and then in her flower-draped coffin as they slowly lower her into the ground next to her smart-ass brother and soon-to-be-discovered dead husband. That ill-behaved daughter of hers would just be a bonus prize.”
For what seemed like an eternity, the two of them sat in dark silence with only the occasional sound of the beer being slowly sipped from its aluminum can. The deputy could tell his friend and boss was embroiled in deep thought and terrible personal trauma. Over the years, many of the town’s long-time residents shared stories with Reed about the suffering of the Sheriff at the hands of Toby Liberman and Johnny Haynes during their school days, but he’d never personally witnessed any weakness in him. McGee never demonstrated the slightest bit of indecisiveness when it came to the cutting of heads in his town, but the incidents of late left him freshly scarred and had obviously opened some old wounds. The Sheriff broke the silence and changed the subject, much to the relief of the young deputy.
“How are all my boys doing downstairs?”
“They’re as good as criminals can be, I guess,” Reed answered. “They all want to talk about God when they’re locked up, but they don’t give a shit about him when they’re back out on the streets robbing old ladies and raping unsuspecting women. There hasn’t been a single peep from any of them since the Liberman incident. I think they can sense the tension in the air down there, and they all know better than to fart in your general direction for fear of what you might do to them.”
“And what about my boys on the other side of the bars? How is my posse holding up?”
“Tired,” Reed answered again. “They’ve been combing the woods night and day to try and get a clue about the whereabouts of our new celebrity fugitive. They’re having to babysit the townsfolk that are running all around, trigger-happy, and I think it’s beginning to wear on their morale. I just hope we catch him soon.”
“Don’t worry, my friend,” McGee assured him. “We’ll find him. I don’t think he’s run very far at all. He’s probably right underneath our noses, and we just haven’t taken the time to look down. I need the people of this town to rally behind us because, let’s face it, there aren’t enough of us to go around and be everywhere at the same time. Besides, if one of those goons shoots him instead of one of us, think of the paperwork we’d miss out on!”
Deputy Reed laughed with the Sheriff, but in his mind he was dreading the moment when the conversation would again turn to the disposal of a woman and a child. He’d pulled the trigger without hesitation many times under the Sheriff’s orders, but he wasn’t sure he had it in him to add women and children to his list of victims, even if they were helping an escaped murderer. The women and children rumors always belonged personally to McGee. The beer was helping and he gladly slammed back the remaining contents, hoping to wash away some of the nerves tormenting his stomach.
“I think I’d do paperwork to last me the rest of my life if we could just get this crisis over with, Sheriff,” the deputy said as he retrieved another beer from the mini-fridge and handed a second one to McGee. “I just want things to quiet back down to the point where everyone loves us because we’re keeping them safe, and no one wants to cross us because they’re scared to death of you.”
The Sheriff’s face began to fill with blood and rage.
“You know, Mr. Reed, that’s the issue isn’t it? I’ve worked damn hard to be who I am and accomplish what I have over the years and so far, most everyone has been loyal to me. They all know what I’ll do for them if they support me and what I’ll do to them if they defy me. Right now, there are three people that don’t fall into either of those categories, and I don’t like it one bit. One of those people we can’t find, but I’ll definitely deal with him harshly when we do. The other two? I know exactly where to find them and, if we’re lucky, the lost one will come running when he finds out they’ve been dealt with.”
The loyal deputy knew this moment was coming; there was not enough beer in the Sheriff’s mini-fridge to make the order any less horrible. At times like this, he wished some of the other guys down in the jail or on the streets could be Jessie McGee’s henchman instead of him. There would come a time at the end of days when he would have to answer for all the blood spilled in the name of the law. Following orders would not be a viable defense and he knew it. It didn’t work well for Eichmann, and it wouldn’t work any better for him. Murder of innocents was murder of innocents. He wondered if he were really any better than Adolf Eichmann. His thought was interrupted.
“Deputy Reed,” McGee spoke sincerely.
“Yes sir?” Reed answered, nearly choking on his beverage.
“I want you to pay a visit to the Liberman home tonight. Wait until after the lights have gone out, and they’ve gone to bed. Take out the daughter first. She’s the crafty one. Then, go take care of Jessica. If, by chance, that murderous husband of hers happens to be there, take care of him, too. If he’s not, then he’s the perfect scapegoat for getting two more bothersome people out of my town for good.”
“Yes sir,” Reed answered as an unseen tear fell in the darkness.
McGee continued. “I don’t want you to make it messy because I will have to be present at her funeral and a closed casket service is out of the question. I want to see her at peace one more time. I couldn’t care less what you do to the daughter because I’ve hated that little bitch since the day she was born. That should’ve been my kid! If it was, she’d think twice before ever spouting off some of the smart-ass things she does at my expense. Why don’t you cut out her tongue so we can show the world how much of a sick and twisted bastard Toby Liberman really is? Hell, we can tell the press that we found it in his stomach during his autopsy!”
Deputy Allen Reed stomach lurched, but it wasn’t due to the conversation. It was the knowledge that if he chose not to follow every detail of the orders he’d been given, all these things would be done to him, instead. Rumors circulated from long before Deputy Reed’s time about what McGee would do to those who refused to do his bidding. He didn’t want to become fodder for a future rumor. On the positive side, the Sheriff seemed to be in a better mood.
“Anything else, sir?” the trembling deputy inquired, praying that no answer would follow.
“No,” McGee shot back quickly. “I think that about covers it. Kill the brat, kill the wife, kill the husband if he’s stupid enough to be there. And don’t let anyone see you.”
“Just out of curiosity, what do we do about him if he’s not there?” Reed asked instantly. “I’m a little worried about repercussions when he finds out what’s happened to his family. It seems like he must have snuck up on the farmhouse lab like he was a damn Green Beret!”
“No fears, Mr. Reed, I’ve got that possibility,” McGee explained as though he’d spent significant time mapping out the deed. “The Myrtle County Fair begins in a few days, and it’s no big secret that I’ll be right out in the open, shaking hands and kissing babies as always. I’ve got a feeling that he’ll try to move in on me then. We’ve got something for him when he does.”
With his anxiety firmly twisted into a nervous pulsating bundle inside his stomach, Deputy Reed left the Sheriff’s office and headed for the department’s weapons locker. Before he could get there, he made a quick detour into the employees’ locker room and violently released an uncomfortable amount of nervous thoughts and beer.
Deep down, he knew he would carry out Jessie McGee’s orders without question, because that was what he’d done since the day he received his very own tin star. It never meant that he had to like it. He was certain, once in the heat of the moment, his instincts would take over and the situation would be no different than any of the others. Unfortunately, this newest assignment required savagery he hadn’t carried out before. He would part ways with the last of his innocence the moment he did this bit of Jessie’s dirty work. After that, there would be no excuses when choosing his targets. All were fair game.
The temperature had fallen with the night at the Liberman home. The moon through the open window illuminated the shadows of the reunited couple as they lay close to one another in a bed reclaimed by love and tragedy. At first, Toby was hesitant to enter the room, remembering what he witnessed there so recently, but the love between he and his wife was more powerful than her drug-induced indiscretion. He couldn’t foresee his future. He was very content just soaking up the present.
The act of intimacy ended nearly an hour earlier, and the spent woman lay nearly lifeless in his arms. It’d been ages since the two of them shared a tender moment. The hardest part wasn’t getting over the affair she had but explaining that, for Katie’s safety and her own, he couldn’t stay long. For the first time since they were teenagers, she cried during their lovemaking. He wasn’t sure what brought it on. Was it the knowledge he was alive and finally home, or the fact he had to leave soon and try to evade every gun within the city limits?
Toby chose to keep nothing from them. The charges against him were still a haze so there was little convincing that could be accomplished. The revelation of his newly obtained curse sent Jessica reeling more than once. He’d briefly transformed for both of them so they could have a clear understanding of what happened. More importantly, so they could trust they had nothing to fear. Unlike her mother, Katie thought it was the coolest thing she’d ever seen. Before he kissed her forehead and sent her away to bed for the evening, he turned down several requests to allow her to braid his fur.
“Katie, that’s just plain sickening!” he tried to explain. “I’m your Dad, not the family dog!”
Neither of them was frightened. Their fear was inspired by something much deeper and darker.
There wasn’t much time before someone discovered his presence at the home, and he had no choice but to return to the crypt in the cemetery. It was completely out of the question to pack them up and bring them along. The last place in the world he wanted his impressionable daughter to stay the night was a frigid, uncomfortable mausoleum surrounded by the skeletons of the town’s founders. It would be an interesting history lesson, but he wanted to make sure Katie was a little older before she started hanging out in graveyards. Toby hated to break her heart again by leaving but it was the only way to ensure his family’s safety.
“Daddy,” she said. “I know you didn’t hurt Ryan. You could never kill anyone.” She then raced up the stairs to her room.
Toby wished that statement was true, but over the previous couple of days, he’d killed many men and there was no way back. If he had anything to do with it, he would take that secret to his grave before allowing his daughter to know.
It was Jessica who couldn’t accept his leaving. She insisted the three of them pack up, drive as far away from Twin Oaks as possible and never look back. In most fairy tales, this would’ve worked. In reality, they’d make it nearly to the county line before the three of them were gunned down by Jessie McGee, his goons, and a mob of crazed townspeople. They were just dying to squeeze off a few rounds had all been given a free pass to do so. Jessica’s other plan was for her husband to stay at home, out of sight, and hide whenever the authorities came looking for him. Toby explained that he refused to live his life like a child’s toy which could be taken out of the closet and played with whenever it was convenient. His only chance at a normal life was to fight for it, and not get his family more involved than they already were. Somewhere along the line, the argument turned into make-up sex and all was forgotten, at least by her.
Slipping silently out of their bed, he donned the new, clean clothes he’d grabbed from his closet after a much-needed shower. The moonlight pouring in through the open window illuminated Jessica’s peaceful face. The image almost brought Toby to tears. He didn’t want to leave either of them, but it was the only way for a possible happy ending. He reached down and gently pulled the blankets up over his wife. Quietly, he tiptoed over to his bedroom door and entered the main hallway. It was deathly still in his home, except for the soft breathing coming from Katie’s room. His enhanced hearing reassured him there was nothing amiss. There were several occasions in the night when he’d been awakened by paranoia, but the silence returned quickly and he’d drifted back to sleep.
He stopped by the bathroom to grab all the first aid supplies he could stuff into his pockets, trying desperately to prepare for anything that might happen once the bullets inevitably started flying. He knew for a fact the Sheriff would be an open target at the upcoming Myrtle County Fair, and that was going to be his best opportunity to take him out and get away with it. The fair was always a scene of constant activity. He hoped he could use that to his advantage.
Every year, the duplicitous Jessie McGee presided over the festivities, meeting and greeting the public and snatching up anybody in attendance who had an outstanding warrant. All Toby would have to do would be to camp out in the wooded area behind the fairgrounds and take McGee out the minute he paused underneath the canopy. Granted, he knew it wasn’t going to be all that easy. It was a given security would be beefed up because there was a killer on the loose, but it was his best chance for redemption in one swift stroke. His mind turned to contingencies. If the shit hit the fan, he could create a distraction large enough to draw the fairgoers’ attention away from anything which might become testimony in a criminal trial. Apart from walking directly into the Sheriff’s Office and committing what the media would report as suicide by cop, this was his only choice.
He made his way down the darkened hallway to Katie’s room. The walls in his daughter’s sanctuary were covered with posters of emo vampires and feminine-looking male “rock” stars who appeared as though they got their wardrobe from Charlotte Russe. Despite all these pouting images, he knew he was her true hero. He knew because she’d told him so repeatedly during dinner. It was the first real food he’d eaten for several days, but it didn’t quite hit the spot the way a home-cooked meal usually did before all the weirdness began. Perhaps Kurt was right from the beginning. Even though Toby could never imagine killing a person for a need such as hunger, what if he didn’t take out an animal for fresh blood and the primitive instincts took over? What if Toby killed someone he cared about? What if he hurt Katie or Jessica? There were so many questions lingering in his mind, but no answers available. Kurt Jimmerson left town and journeyed back to New York to live another year of his life. Unlike Toby, Kurt didn’t have to live in hiding, and there were not hundreds of people trying to kill him.
“I have to leave you now,” Jimmerson explained to him. “I’ve got a life to live back home. This is your fight and your life. I wish I could’ve taught you more and spent more time with you but, when in doubt, trust your instincts.”
What if those instincts were to slaughter his young daughter? That was exactly why he couldn’t stay.
“That’s just like a typical werewolf,” Katie joked at the dinner table. “Just bite you and leave!”
It really wasn’t all that far from the truth.
He watched as his angel lay only five feet away, sleeping soundly for the first time in nearly a week and dreaming about who knew what. If anyone was foolish enough to put her anywhere near harm’s way, they would pay dearly. One of his worst fears was that Jessica and Katie would ultimately be used as bait to lure him out into the open. He knew Jessie McGee, fueled by the deep-rooted hatred resulting from Toby’s youthful bullying ways, was not above concocting a sinister plan along those very lines. Nothing was more important to him than the safety of his family.
Jessica informed him Katie hadn’t returned to school because she feared the hazing would begin the minute she walked through the doors. Kids today were so cruel, but it wasn’t the fear of any type of physical harm being done to Katie, it was what Katie would do to the kids involved that kept her safely tucked away at home. Toby heard on numerous occasions that the apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree. It never made much sense in his case or Jessica’s. He’d never been much for fighting and didn’t particularly care for the sight of blood due to things he witnessed during his military career. Oddly enough, when it came down to survival, killing came naturally with his new alter ego. Had those abilities and feelings been there all along, just lying dormant? Was this where Katie got her short fuse, or was it from her impressionable years being spent with her Uncle Johnny?
Horrible temper or not, she now lay in silent, peaceful slumber, smiling occasionally in her sleep as if she no longer had a care in the world. Toby knew better. Katie may have been oblivious to the many horrible eventualities which could shatter her little world, but Toby could think of nothing else. He’d been fortunate enough to have a decent childhood, with both of his parents deeply in love from the time he was old enough to know what love was. He never worried about divorce or walking in on his mother doing unthinkable things with one of his father’s friends. They’d both been in it for the long haul, and he hoped he and Jessica weren’t far away from committing themselves to that kind of steadfast relationship.
Even when his parents weren’t around, he’d always had Johnny to fall back on. When Jessica wasn’t there over the past few months, Katie discovered a best friend in Becky, who had moved on. She’d been through so much that it pained Toby to think of the anguish that must have all but consumed his little girl when she should’ve been thinking about kid things. He couldn’t erase her past or take away the bad memories of infidelities, mistrust, and deceit, but he would try his best to make sure she didn’t have to endure these traumas much longer, even if it meant sacrificing his own life in the process. He owed her as much.
Backing away from her door and heading down the hallway to give his beloved yet another kiss goodbye, his eye caught a series of framed photographs lining the walls from Katie’s bedroom to his own. The first depicted their happy family with Katie as a newborn. Further down the wall, the photos were hung in chronological order from year to year as Katie grew from a baby to a toddler and from a kindergartener to a young lady resembling the angel who was fast asleep, dreaming just a few feet away. Just as the photographs chronicled the growth of his daughter, they chronicled the failure of his relationship with Jessica. It was evident by her fake smile in the more recent photos.
Toby only noticed it now after a decade of passing these photographs daily. Had he been that hard to live with all this time? Was the wolf an outward projection of what lived inside him, only seen behind closed doors by the woman he once considered his closest friend? Too many realizations swam through his already flooded mind, and it caused him to go weak in the knees momentarily. Perhaps the next photograph would be different.
Sneaking in on Jessica and pressing his lips to the overpowering smell of her lavender scented hair, he turned his back one last time and headed down the stairway to the back door. From there, he would have no problem scaling a tree, hopping the roof, and heading back into the forest. If, by chance he could conjure up the spirit of Johnny again, the two of them had much to talk about. Granted, it felt a little disheartening to have a ghost as his only confidant, but under the circumstances, a ghost was better than no one. Toby Liberman’s life was now full of macabre realities which would more than likely be shared with his loved ones until the end of his existence. Even though Jessica would probably learn to live with it, Katie would eagerly embrace it to the point it made him nervous. Werewolves, ghosts, and perhaps even other supernatural entities to which he’d not yet been introduced would be a part of their daily lives. He battled to remain optimistic, but there were moments when he shuddered to think about what was to come.
He was a simple click of the doorknob away from leaving the house when he heard an unusual rustling taking place on the front porch. Quickly sniffing the air with his head held high, he knew for certain it wasn’t a stray animal or the tree limbs scraping against the side of the house. This was human.
Johnny was dead, Becky was gone, Kurt was headed home, and the only two other people in his world he wouldn’t shred to pieces for the intrusion were sleeping upstairs. Dropping the handful of belongings he’d collected, he turned sharply, transforming into a more formidable adversary for the fool who dared mess with his family. He crouched low in a defensive stance, ready for anything, and extended his razor-sharp claws to their maximum length. Finally, they’d brought the fight to him.
The time for hiding was over.
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.