It's Sunday excerpt time. This week, I'm posting chapters from my horror novella, The Walking Man. Available for Kindle.
Chris Peters is returning home from work one night when he glimpses someone watching him from the shadows. He's well aware of The Walking Man legend. It tells of a man who walks the roads in town looking for victims. A man who kills, disappears for years, and returns to kill again.
Soon the police uncover a series of gruesome murders. Rumors of The Walking Man begin to surface. Chris, his girlfriend, and the detectives working the case glimpse a strange, disfigured man lurking around their homes. Strange symbols are painted on their houses, marking them for death. As Chris and the others find out, there are truth to some legends, and the evil terrorizing their town is very real.
It was late summer when the Walking Man returned.
Chris Peters was walking along the road, parallel to the old Harwell estate, which had been sold to the state and converted to a park. It was a little after nine on a Saturday, and he’d just finished a shift at Tully’s, a little grocery/gas station out on old North road. He was in good spirits, just having gotten a raise. Mr. Tully was happy with him. He stayed late. Came in early. Did what he was told without question.
The sky was clear and he gazed up at the stars. A warm breeze blew in his face. To his right were thick woods, and beyond that, the park grounds. To his left were fields. He had another mile or so to go before he reached the outskirts of town.
He was well aware that he had to pass the house. His house. If you believed in ghost stories, the Walking Man lived there. Or at least returned every few years to haunt the town. Sixteen years ago, some kids had been killed. Others were taken and never found. People whispered that a strange man was seen at the time of the abductions. A man no one could quite describe or identify.
People said it was the Walking Man. The police had scoured fields, dragged ponds, set up roadblocks. They had brought in every known sex offender and pervert for miles and grilled them. Still they came up with no leads.
Chris passed the house, feeling like he’d been put in a freezer, the hairs dancing on the back of his neck. You could see the house through the woods, a crumbling mansion, once white. The paint had gone to gray. Big columns supporting the roof. There was a rusted, 1950s pick-up truck on blocks out on the lawn.
He hurried along, passing the house.
As he reached the edge of the property, he got the distinct sensation he was being watched. He glanced to his left. There was someone in a copse of trees. Someone tall. The wind blew and he caught the stench of something rotten.
He hurried down the road and didn’t look back.
“Great night for a run,” Stacey Mills said to Greg.
He was keeping pace with her, their footfalls slapping the asphalt path that ran through the park. They’d met at the gym, where the two of them had been on treadmills next to each other. Both of them worked in the IT field, developing software. They both loved action movies and Mexican food. They’d hit it off, and after two months, she knew she was falling for him.
“If you can keep up,” Greg said.
“It’s you that needs to keep up with me,” she said.
They came to a T junction in the path.
“Actually, quick break up here?” he said.
“I knew you couldn’t keep up,” she said, and gave him a playful swat on the arm.
They stopped at the junction, right near the woods that bordered Pruitt park. A bench with sun-bleached wood stood at the junction.
“Need to sit down?” Stacey said.
“Only old ladies sit down,” Greg said.
Something rustled in the woods. A large branch snapped. It was probably a deer. They’d seen six of them dart across the path at the start of their run. Still, her heart quickened a bit. Something unseen in the woods always gave her a little start.
Greg was stretching, one leg up on the bench.
Another rustling of grass and leaves in the woods. It was getting closer.
“Coming this way,” Greg said. “Loud.”
“A deer in the woods at night can sound like a rhino,” she said.
The noise grew louder, until Stacey thought a horned beast might actually charge out of the woods. It happened fast. A man strode out of the woods. He wore a long, duster-style coat. He stank like something rotten. He reached across the bench and pulled Greg over, slamming him to the ground.
She watched the man grab Greg’s head and twist. His neck snapped like dry kindling. Stacey gasped. The man’s head was down, still preoccupied with Greg, whose head was cocked at a sickening angle. He was gone.
The man took a long knife from under his coat. She was looking at the top of his head. Through the thin, greasy hair, she saw burned-scarred flesh.
With the knife, he began sawing Greg’s neck. She screamed.
She took off down the path, expecting the man to chase after. When she was about fifty yards away, she turned and saw the man dragging Greg’s body into the woods. In his hand, the man held Greg’s head by the hair.
Stacey reached the edge of the park, coming to the road that bordered the property. She had her iPhone strapped to her arm. When she ran alone, she took it and listened to music.
After taking the phone off her arm, she called 9-1-1.
“That’s a shit-ton of blood,” Maria Greco said.
In her ten years as a detective, she’d never seen that much blood at a scene. A tech from the county crime lab was doing his thing, taking samples near the bench.
Maria’s partner, Jenna Martz, was looking into the woods, hands on hips.
Jenna turned. “Like they dumped buckets of it.”
The ground around the bench looked as if it had rained blood and saturated the earth. A trail of it led off into the woods. They’d also found a set of size twelve footprints and drag marks.
The girlfriend, who’d called the cops, was standing off to the side with some of the uniformed officers. She was wearing yoga pants and a tank top. Looked like a gym bunny to Maria.
“Should we go chat with her?” Jenna said.
Maria had hoped to be home early with Tim tonight. They had plans to binge watch Game of Thrones and catch up on the series. Tim called it the “swords and boobies” show, which was fairly accurate. “Let’s see what she had to say.”
The detectives approached her. The young woman’s eyes were red and raw. She was hugging herself to stop shaking. It wasn’t working.
“I’m Detective Greco and this is Detective Martz. Can we ask you some questions?”
Maria said, “You called us. Tell us what happened.”
“Me and Greg were out for a jog.”
Martz took out a notepad. “What was Greg’s last name?”
“He live here in town? Address?” Jenna asked.
Stacey rattled off an address. Maria knew it. Quiet side street on the other side of the village. They would send a uniform to deliver the bad news to his next of kin.
“So you’re out jogging and then?” Maria asked.
“We stopped for a break. Near the bench.”
“You typically jog at night?” Maria said.
“Is that wrong?”
“Not wrong. Just wondering,” Maria said.
“Not usually. But we got out of work late. Thought it was a nice night. We were at the bench when I heard something in the woods. It got louder, then the man came.”
Her chest hitched and she sobbed quietly for a moment.
“Take your time,” Maria said.
Stacey wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. “He pulled Greg to the ground. He was really strong. Then he broke Greg’s neck.”
“We noticed the blood. How did that happen? I know this is hard for you,” Jenna said.
“After he broke Greg’s neck, he took out a knife and removed his head.”
The last part of her statement came out rapid fire: knifeandremovedhishead.
“I’m sorry, you said he cut off Greg’s head?” Maria said.
Stacey nodded. “Then he dragged Greg’s body into the woods.”
Hence the footprints and drag marks. “Can you describe him?”
“Long, dirty coat. His skin was kind of blue and gray, pale. He had a hoodie on under the coat. Long, stringy hair. I didn’t get a look at his face. I think he’d been burned in a fire. He came out of the woods really fast.”
Jenna said, “And you hadn’t seen him before? Wasn’t hanging around the park?”
“The first time I saw him was when he came out of the woods,” Stacey said.
“What kind of knife?” Maria said.
“Big. It had teeth.”
“Like Rambo used?” Jenna said.
“Who?” Stacey said.
“Never mind. You’re too young,” Jenna said.
They asked Stacey a few more questions and then she called for her parents to come pick her up. Maria told her they’d be following up at some point. After making some more notes and roughing up a sketch of the scene, they went off to the side, away from the commotion. One of the uniforms was keeping the first news van on the scene away from everything, a camera guy from Channel Two filming the whole thing.
“So what the hell just happened?” Jenna said.
“Well, a man was murdered, Detective,” Maria said.
“Smart-ass,” Jenna said.
“Something nasty. Who the hell shows up and cuts a guy’s head off?” Maria said.
“We haven’t had a murder here in what, fifteen, twenty years? And that was before we were on the job.”
“Yeah. The Lassiter killing. Old fucking farmer starts hearing the devil’s voice coming out of his tractor and takes an axe to his wife and three kids,” Maria said.
“There were those kids by the creek,” Jenna said.
“And the other missing kids,” Maria said.
“Presumed murdered. Good bet.”
Now a second news van was rolling through the park. It stopped short of the crime scene tape. Channel Four news. Two was already here. All they needed was Channel Seven for the trifecta.
“Don’t even start with that Walking Man bullshit,” Maria said.
“I’m not. But it couldn’t hurt to check out the house.”
“We’re not going to find the boogeyman there, Jen.”
“Our head chopper could be hiding there.”
“Fine. But no urban legend crap, huh?” Maria said.
“Best get home before it’s dark,” Jenna said. “Now he’s cutting heads off in the park. I made up that last part,” Jenna said.
The old kid’s rhyme. “You’re brilliant. I hate you sometimes. Let’s go check it out.”
Maria steered the unmarked down the twisting road that led to the old house. She got a glimpse of it through the trees; it reminded her of a plantation house plopped in the middle of suburbia. It reportedly had forty-some rooms. The last owner had died in the late sixties. A suicide. Set himself on fire. Everyone knew the story. Thomas Harwell, despondent over the murder of his daughters, decided to end it. There was supposedly still a scorch mark on the dining room floor where he’d lit himself up.
“I see the Walking Man. Look!” Jenna said.
“I really hate you. I mean it,” Maria said.
She stopped the unmarked short of the estate’s gardens, which were now a tangle of brown weeds. A rusted, fifties-model Ford pickup sat on blocks, the tires gone. A path led up to through the dead gardens, and next to the path stood a wooden sign on a stake: No Trespassing.
“Guess technically we’re trespassing,” Maria said.
“It’s abandoned. Don’t even know who wound up owning it after that guy torched himself. Probable cause? We saw someone hanging around, decided to look.”
“Sounds as good as anything. Let’s get this over with.”
Maria took a flashlight from the sedan, as did Jenna. They wound through the dead gardens and approached the porch. A strong, musty smell wafted out of the house. The house’s double doors hung like loose teeth. Some boards had been slapped up over the front doorway, but those would be easy enough to pry off.
“Wonder how strong the floor is. I’d hate to crash through it,” Maria said.
“Let’s have a look,” Jenna said, and approached the door. She shined her light inside. Maria followed the beam as it swept over the fat planks. They looked sturdy enough. Inside was a sheet-covered sofa and newspapers scattered all over the floor.
“You really think someone would come here to hide?” Jenna said.
“There’s a ton of rooms. It’s dark. A drifter might take refuge here,” Maria said.
“We going in?”
“Let’s go around back, have a look there first.”
They descended the steps and followed the long driveway along the side of the house. It wound around the back and ended in a roundabout with more dead gardens in the center. The remains of a hedge maze sprawled across the rear of the property before the grass sloped off into the woods. Two massive, rotting barns stood out back, as well.
“That’s a good hiding spot, as well,” Maria said.
A chill went down her back. She supposed abandoned places did that to you, and maybe it was the reason urban explorers sought out crumbling asylums and hospitals. For the scares.
Two sets of stairs led up to a back door, where they met on a concrete porch. The rear door had plywood over it, and it didn’t look disturbed to Maria. Some of the windows had plywood over them, while others were just plain broken.
Maria climbed the steps and tried the plywood. A few loose nails held it in place, which she was able to pry out with her fingers. She pulled the plywood away. Her flashlight revealed a large pantry, the shelves bare save for some jarred goods, each with a thick coat of dust on them. There was a counter and more cabinets with dusty, glass-paned doors. She thought this might be a butler’s pantry. A winding metal staircase led upward.
She entered, testing the floor as she went. The tiled floor seemed solid enough. She heard Jenna approaching from behind.
Maria took out her Glock, and Jenna did the same.
They moved through the butler’s pantry and into a dining room with a massive chandelier and a long table. The chairs were long gone. Dust motes hung in the air, visible in the moonlight.
“Have a feeling we’re going to come up with a goose egg,” Jenna said.
“Most likely,” Maria said.
Footsteps thudded upstairs.
Maria nodded. “Staircase in the pantry.”
They hurried into the butler’s pantry, Maria taking the lead up the stairs. Her footsteps clanged on the metal. She found herself in a long hallway with a dozen doors on either side. The hallway came to a T junction at the other end.
“Police!” Maria called out. “Come out now!”
No response. It was worth a try.
They moved down the hallway, guns drawn. Maria’s heart whammed in her chest. There were too many goddamned doors.
Maria spotted someone in a flash; a glimpse of a long coat, quick as a rattler’s tongue. Passing through the T junction.
“Hey!” Martz said. “Stop!”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and they came to the T junction and turned right, where a grand staircase led into a great room. The person fleeing them was nowhere to be seen. How could someone be so fast?
Clunking on yet more stairs. How many levels did this place have?
A door slammed and they headed in the general direction of the noise. They passed through the great room and to Maria it sounded like the noise had come from the kitchen. They found the massive kitchen, where rusted pots and pans still hung from racks. There was a massive gas stove and a wall of cabinets with glass doors. Inside were dusty dishes.
Maria spotted the door. She nodded to Martz, who stood beside the door. Maria took an angle on the door, her Glock aimed and ready. Jenna flung the door open. Her light revealed wooden steps and there was no boogeyman behind the door.
Opening doors was the worst part of being a cop. She’d known three cops who’d been cut down in doorways.
“Police! Come out! Show us your hands!” Maria said.
She was rewarded with the sound of wind whistling through a gap in the wall.
Maria debated calling for back-up, but if they waited for reinforcements, the mystery person could disappear in the labyrinth of the mansion. “After him.”
They crept down the stairs and ended up in a massive, open basement. At one end was an old coal furnace with arms that stretched like a squid’s. There was old furniture, other items draped in old sheets and even an engine block. No telling how the hell they’d gotten it down here.
“Jesus, there’s enough crap down here,” Jenna said.
“This place was in the family for over a hundred years. Not surprised,” Maria said.
A corridor led off of the basement, and once they’d swept the cavernous area, they approached the corridor. A brick archway led into the darkness.
They shined the beams into the corridor. Cobwebs framed the entrance.
“Only one place he could be,” Maria said.
They moved ahead.
“He had to have doubled back,” Maria said.
They stood before a brick wall at the corridor’s end and Maria could only conclude that they’d missed their chance.
“This is creepy. I feel claustrophobic,” Jenna said.
“Can’t believe we missed him,” Maria said.
They went back down the corridor, guns still drawn. The two of them made another sweep of the basement and found nothing. They went back upstairs and backtracked through the mansion. When they didn’t find anyone, Maria called it in and requested patrol cars to canvas the area.