Toby returned to his human form as he neared his destination. He burst through the gates of Clark Cemetery screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Katie! Katie!” he yelled into the darkness.
Knocking the door from its ancient hinges, he took the steps of the old mausoleum in two giant leaps down to the basement.
“Katie, honey, come out! We’ve got to get the hell out of here!”
Katie Liberman was nowhere to be found.
“He took her, Toby,” came a familiar voice from behind him. “She was kicking and screaming as he took her away, and there was nothing I could do to help her.”
The specter of Johnny Haynes sat in the corner, hiding his face. For a moment, it almost seemed as though he was crying. Toby and Johnny were friends since childhood, but Toby had never seen his friend so distraught.
“Do you know how hard this is for me, Toby?” Johnny continued as he rose to his feet. “Can you even imagine the heartache I go through not being able to physically interact with anyone or anything?”
“Who took her, Johnny?” Toby growled at the sobbing image of his friend. Johnny ignored the question.
“Sure, it was fun at first,” Johnny carried on. “Hanging out in women’s bathrooms and listening to people’s conversations without them even knowing I was there, but I think I’ve forgotten what it’s like to touch someone or be touched.”
Toby was frantic with worry and had no patience for Johnny’s supernatural sufferings.
“Johnny, we don’t have time for this right now! Who took her?”
“I mean,” the upset ghost continued. “I can’t even take my pants off because I died in these clothes, man. I’m not even sure if I have a dick anymore.”
Toby had heard enough.
“Damn you, Johnny Haynes!” Toby’s eyes burned with indignation as he interrupted his friend. “We don’t have time for this crap! Who took Katie?”
The desperate urgency in Toby’s voice finally silenced Johnny’s whining. He replied with the one name neither of them wanted to hear.
“McGee,” Johnny said sadly. “McGee came in here about an hour ago and took her.”
McGee’s disappearance from the fairgrounds now made sense to Toby. At first, he’d thought the Sheriff would’ve waited for his return to the graveyard to force a confrontation. Not once had it crossed his mind that McGee would search the cemetery until he found a hostage. True, the final confrontation was about to take place, but on the Sheriff’s terms. Once again, Jessie McGee possessed the upper hand and in it, he held the keys to Toby’s fate.
“I tried everything that I could think of to stop him. I tried as hard as I could, but I just kept passing right through the both of them. I’m sorry, man!” Johnny said. He hung his head low, feeling he’d failed his friend and his own beloved niece.
Toby took a deep breath and attempted to clear his head. He sat at the edge of the stone table where he’d left Katie sleeping when he departed for the fairgrounds. If only he hadn’t taken that detour through the airfield.
“It’s not your fault, Johnny,” Toby comforted his friend. “There was nothing you could’ve done to stop him. I should’ve known this would happen eventually, and I guess I might as well get it over with tonight. The hard part is going to be figuring out where he’s setting his trap for me.”
Johnny nodded in the direction behind Toby and hung his head low again. Toby turned and noticed a sealed envelope sticking out of one of the cracks in the old stone foundation. He immediately ripped it open.
“He came back in here about ten minutes after he took Katie and stuck that envelope there. I would’ve opened it before you got here but, you know, ghost crap. I can’t even…”
Johnny’s anguished voice began to fade away. Toby’s hand trembled as he read the message left for him. His fear wrestled violently with his anger as he read.
Dearest Mr. Liberman,
As you can plainly see, you’re not the only one capable of writing letters. No, the dim-witted reporter didn’t run to tell me everything. It’s just that some people talk way too loudly when they’re on the phone. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. Talk about being at the right place at the right time! Please don’t go off and kill the poor guy. I don’t have time for the cleanup, or the paperwork involved. Be aware that your run for freedom has been postponed indefinitely. I’m sure you’ve figured out that I have your daughter. I intend to keep her in my custody until you personally come and get her. She’s a cute little girl, Toby. I have no doubt whatsoever that she’ll become a very beautiful woman. I can see so much of her mother in her. I look forward to learning much more about Katie as we wait for you to come and retrieve her. She’s pretty well-developed for her age.
Anyway, now that you’re good and pissed off, I’m terribly sorry that I missed all the fun and games you had with my men on the midway tonight. I’m certain it was a sight to see. They tell me you’re quite the little runner and pretty tricky. Well, so am I. I don’t quite understand why you didn’t kill any of them. It’s not like they’re going to bring you back to life and execute you again after your death sentence is carried out in prison, or the zoo, wherever they take you. That was very civil of you, though. I hate funerals. You’re not going to have to worry about any more of them gunning for you because I’ve sent them all home. Tonight, it’s just you and me.
Funny, that’s what I used to say to your Jessica whenever we were together. She got excited when I said it. Are you getting excited? I am! This is going to be so much fun, Toby. Just like old times, except now, I’m the one in control. This is no longer your game. It’s mine. I make the rules, and you better play by them. I’d hate to have to ruin your only daughter long before she’s ready for it.
This is it, Mr. Liberman. This is the exact moment that I have dreamt about night after night since we were teenagers. You and I will return to the fairground’s midway this evening and settle this, once and for all. I’m not intimidated by you when you get all big and hairy, so I’ll come alone. After all, I wouldn’t want any witnesses to what I’m going to do to you if you show up or what I’m going to do to Katie if you don’t.
See you soon.
Toby was so overwrought with fear that he was unaware of the transformation in progress. Johnny was standing over Toby’s shoulder, reading the letter. They were both silent in their acceptance. This was the end.
Toby Liberman’s alter-ego, the majestic wolf, sat defeated and staring at the floor of the Clark family crypt. The street of dreams, once paved with shimmering gold, was suddenly turned into an impassable muck which swallowed up anyone who ventured down it. Nothing beautiful remained in his world. Horrible images of Katie’s demise flashed in his troubled mind. He could imagine no means by which to achieve a happy ending to this dire situation. Finally, Johnny spoke.
“Well, what do we do now?”
There was no answer. Toby did not even attempt a reverse transformation to be able to answer the question. It would’ve been wasted energy. There were no choices left, except for self-destruction. The death blow was delivered, and it was as though he waited for his physical body to catch up. Tears formed in his glowing eyes. Katie…
“Look,” Johnny started again. “You don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to, but we both know what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go save your Tiny Dancer. If I could, I would run out and do it for you, but I can’t. You have ten times the power of any other man in this town, and you can’t let that prick win!”
Unmoved by Johnny’s encouragement, Toby continued to stare into nothingness. Johnny persisted.
“Even if he is lying to you and has gathered a small army at the fairgrounds, you still have to show up and try. You did nothing to create this horrible situation. You were dragged into this by the people you love. You need to get up off your hairy ass and go get Katie! Every second that you sit here moping is another second this lunatic has to prepare himself for your arrival. You know this already.”
Toby remained motionless, refusing to even acknowledge Johnny’s words.
“And if you don’t, she’s going to become one of two things. She’s either going to be a corpse like Jessica, or a shiny new toy for McGee to play with.”
Toby’s right paw immediately struck at the image of Johnny’s head, passing right through it.
“Oh yeah, asshole,” Johnny taunted. “That’s it. Why go knock the hell out of the guy that’s got your daughter when you could stay here and shadow box with a ghost? Yeah, I’d say you’ve got your priorities in good order. Douche bag.”
Toby heard every word Johnny had spoken, and he knew his friend was telling him what he needed to hear, but an immeasurable frustration was building within him. From the moment he’d been able to process the Sheriff’s written message, he knew what needed to be done even though it seemed to mean certain death. He had to at least show up for his own grand finale. Katie needed to know he tried. There was no way he would let anything happen to his little girl. Not without one hell of a fight. He just needed some silence to prepare for the end. That’s what he’d been trying to do, despite Johnny’s well-meant pep talk. Even in death, Johnny insisted on having the last word.
The two of them were jolted by the sound of someone taking very cautious, deliberate steps on the cold, stone stairs of the Clark mausoleum. Instinctively, Toby leapt down from his seat on the stone table and assumed a crouching position at the door. He was ready to strike the intruder who was approaching the entrance to his hideout. Had McGee already grown tired of waiting on him and brought the fight to the cemetery? Had one of the deputies who endured humiliation at the fairgrounds come to exact revenge and play the hero of the great Twin Oaks crisis? Toby wasn’t waiting around to find out. Snarling ferociously, he charged up the stairway to meet the challenge head on.
As he reached the outside, a flash of lightning illuminated the night. The light lasted just long enough for Toby to see the shadow of a man running desperately, darting around the headstones of the old graveyard. Toby gave chase. Gaining quickly with every powerful stride, he grew closer to the fleeing prey headed in the direction of a familiar looking van. Jim Savage had arrived.
Catching him would be the easy part. Convincing him to stay and listen to everything Toby had to say would be a slightly more difficult task. Fear was a great motivator, and Toby possessed the means to strike fear in the heart of any man. He was quite certain the reporter would prefer not to be ripped to shreds in a graveyard. This would be his bargaining tool. As far as Toby Liberman was concerned, Jim Savage owed him one.
“Get him, Toby! Get him!” Johnny yelled from behind.
The wolf was already way ahead of Johnny’s words. Having knocked Savage to the ground with such force the man struggled to breathe, Toby rested one paw on his pounding chest and stared into bewildered eyes with a renewed sense of hope. He returned to his human form right before Savage and pulled the man back up to a standing position.
“Sorry for tackling you,” Toby apologized, gently brushing the debris from the man’s clothing. “But I’ve got a story to tell you, and I don’t think it can wait much longer.”
Katie fought hard against the chains that bound her to a solitary pole amidst the colorful trailers of the fairground’s midway, but it was no use. She’d already come to the conclusion several minutes earlier that any attempt at escape would be completely futile. Still, she continued to struggle. Sheriff Jessie McGee made certain his new prized possession wouldn’t be going anywhere until he said so. Any other teenage girl would be frightened and panic-stricken, but not Katie. She had unwavering faith in her father. She knew he was coming, and he would bring Hell with him.
Earlier that evening, she’d been startled awake from an exhaustion-induced slumber by the slamming of the mausoleum door. Thinking the noise heralded her father’s return, she’d rushed out to meet him. She knew her mistake as her mother’s former lover grabbed her ferociously and placed restraints on her tiny wrists. Her future seemed more and more precarious of late, and even when she allowed herself to dwell on the most dreadful “what-if” scenarios, she’d never imagined it would’ve turned out this way. It didn’t take a genius to see she was being used as bait to bring her savior out into the open.
The rain blurred her vision, and she didn’t have a free hand to wipe it from her face. She knew her captor wasn’t going to venture too far away. She also knew any attempt at getting out of there would be thwarted immediately, even if she could somehow manage to break free. Katie didn’t need to see when the man was near. She could feel his presence. At that exact moment, he was creeping up behind her. Thunder boomed in the near distance as if to warn her of his arrival.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. This will all be over soon, and we can get out of here.”
She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t fall victim to his false charms the way her mother did. She was much more intelligent than Jessie McGee believed her to be.
“This will all be over soon. That much is true,” Katie snapped defiantly. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going anywhere with you.”
Jessie McGee laughed. He was so self-assured of his impending victory.
“You’re very self-confident for someone your age,” he said. “You’re a lot like your mother.”
If only she had a dollar for every time she’d heard that comment. It was time to finally prove them all wrong.
“I’m nothing like my mother, you freak!” she argued. “You better start counting the minutes until my dad gets here.”
The laughter from the Sheriff intensified as he adjusted the locking mechanism on the chains, making sure they were still tightly secured.
“Oh, my dear, I am!” he continued. “I’m counting every second until he arrives. I’m going to put an end to all of this tonight!”
Toby repeatedly told Katie the stories about Jessie McGee whenever they happened to cross paths with him in town. She’d always found it amusing to know one of the most respected and feared men in Twin Oaks was once a sniveling creep who used to stalk her mother. Unfortunately, the man who now held her captive was much different than the individual she imagined being held upside down with his head in a locker room toilet. Throughout her young life, her father and uncle had inadvertently given her tutorials on how to thoroughly agitate anyone who thought themselves in charge.
“Are you still so much of a wimp that you feel like you have to take revenge on a person who bullied you twenty years ago?” she began to dismantle his confidence. “If you live through tonight, you should find a good therapist because you’ve got serious issues!”
“Why do I get the feeling that you are going to continue to be charming until your last breath, Katie?”
“My last breath?” she questioned. “That’s a pretty bold choice of words coming from someone who’s about to square off with my dad. You don’t actually think that you’re going to win tonight, do you?”
“Oh, I don’t know. The thought may have crossed my mind a time or two, but now that you mention it, yes!” he spoke surely. “Before the sun rises, I will make your father beg for his life.”
“Well, for your sake, I hope you’re right!” she smarted off again. “I’d hate to think that you’d done all of this planning and preparation just to get your ass whipped again for old time’s sake. That would suck for you!”
“Yes it would, dear!” he snickered. “Yes it would.”
Jessie McGee grew weary of Katie’s attitude and smart mouth before they’d even reached the fairgrounds. Her resemblance to her late uncle, Johnny Haynes, was undeniable, and she’d inherited the smartass gene. On more than one occasion over the past several years, he’d allowed himself to imagine driving past the city park and gunning down the little girl as she climbed the monkey bars. True, there were things about her which reminded him of Jessica Liberman. Specifically, her beauty and her stubbornness, but that mouth of hers seemed to speak with a voice he thought he had permanently silenced the moment his bullet pierced Johnny’s head. It was taking all his self-control to resist acting on his vengeful impulses. Katie began her taunting again.
“You know, there is a bathroom right over there. It may take him a little bit longer to lift you than it did when you guys were kids, but I’m sure my dad will have no problem putting your head in a toilet again!”
“Dammit! Shut up!” Jessie barked at her, as civil pretense toward his prisoner melted away. “Shut up, or I’ll fucking kill you before he gets here! I wouldn’t want to deprive him of that, you little brat!”
Katie was unfazed by his threat.
“Now, now. Temper, temper!” she poked. “If you kill me, then my dad won’t have a reason to come here at all. Where would you be then? All disappointed and unfulfilled, just like my mother was every night in the months before her death.”
The playful words were slapped from her mouth with one sound blow from Jessie McGee’s open hand. Her head jolted hard against the back of the wooden pole sending a searing, throbbing pain deep within her skull. There was uneasy silence once more.
The thunder rumbled again in the distance as a single tear rolled down Katie’s cheek. It was completely camouflaged by the rain. A rage was building inside her. The charges against her father, the deaths of her mother and uncle all paled in comparison to this burning feeling. She looked up at the Sheriff with a seething hatred that seemed to strike out at him from her eyes. At the moment, all she wanted was to be the one to end her captor’s miserable, pathetic life once her father arrived.
“Now you’ve gone and fucked yourself. If my father doesn’t kill you, I sure as hell will. Mark my words.”
Jessie couldn’t help but notice the seriousness in her voice, but he dismissed her threat. She was just a child lashing out in desperation.
“Young lady,” he spoke, looking deep into her eyes. “I can almost assure you that the only people dying tonight will be those named Liberman. Consider your words marked and ignored.”
With that, he quickly turned and headed toward his squad car. Another flash of lightning reminded Katie just how exposed she was in the openness of the midway. She struggled against her chains once again only to confirm what she already knew; they were still secure. She obviously wasn’t going anywhere unless it was with the man who’d tied her there, or with the man coming to set her free. All she could do was wait for the events to unfold, events over which she had no control, events which would define the rest of her life. It hadn’t been difficult at all for her to maintain a brave face in the presence of Jessie McGee. Her rage left no room for intimidation. Still, she understood completely he’d not been exaggerating when he threatened her life.
The rain began to come down harder on Katie’s exposed face. She was so far past soaked that she no longer cared. It occurred to her she couldn’t recall ever having seen so much rain in one week. The area creeks and lakes dying earlier in the year jumped their banks. No evidence remained of the North Texas drought normal for this time of year after a grueling, hot summer. It was during those summers she always wondered if she’d ever feel rain on her head again. For weeks on end, she, and most every other North Texas resident, would pray for it to fall and cool the sultry air. When autumn arrived and those prayers were answered, all was right with the world. She wondered if tonight would be the last night she’d ever feel the angels’ tears on her skin. Had it not been for her dire circumstances she would have rejoiced in the wonder of the glorious precipitation.
Her rejoicing was cut short by imaginings of her own demise. Empty suicide threats, petulant outbursts of “I wish I was dead!” and stupid cutting sessions notwithstanding, no adolescent truly wants to die. Young Katie Liberman underwent so much in the previous week, and there had been moments, albeit fleeting, which found her wishing death would come and meet her at the wooden pole. She closed her eyes tight against the falling rain and imagined a world where she could once again be together with her mother, uncle, and father.
Overcome with exhaustion, she began to drift off to sleep even as the rain continued to beat down. She dreamt she was with all her loved ones. Her mother was alive and well, sitting in her favorite chair reading some ridiculous book about people who spent their evenings in cemeteries and old buildings looking for signs of the afterlife. In the living room of their old home, her father was laughing hysterically at some adult-themed cartoon making fun of just about everyone and everything the network censors would allow. Finally, she heard her Uncle Johnny’s familiar voice whispering and assuring her everything was going to be all right. He said everything happened for a purpose. She could almost feel the squeeze of his arms around her as he repeatedly stated the unfortunate situation would all be over soon and that her father was on his way.
Physically and emotionally drained, hypnotized by the rhythm of the rainfall, and currently experiencing a pleasant reunion created by her own subconscious, she believed with all her being it was really happening. Without warning, a cruel crash of thunder catapulted her awareness back to the real world as it shook the ground all around her. Katie was immediately aware there were no whispering ghosts and she was tied to a pole in a rainstorm. Perhaps, the deafening crash of thunder was an invitation to the final chapter in the book of her life. In despair, she found another reason to be grateful for the rain. She didn’t want to give the bastard Sheriff satisfaction of seeing her cry.
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.
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