Hale County Chapter 1
‘We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell’– Oscar Wilde
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
The road was winding and narrow twisting through a wild and overgrown forest. The gravel of the unkempt road spun out from beneath the speeding sheriff’s Chevy Truck as the siren echoed hauntingly off the thick greenery of the Tennessee hills. Mud and grime caked the lower chassis in the sparingly washed vehicle. The sheriff wasn’t known for his cleanliness nor his friendliness for that matter. He had a mean streak and didn’t hide it. The cowboy hat he wore on his shaggy dark hair hid the tell-tale lines on his forehead as did the dark shades that covered the crow’s feet around his eyes. The scruffy growth on his face couldn’t quite be called a beard which added to his sour appearance.
His boot mashed the pedal clean to the floor sending the truck into overdrive. The truck made an angry lurch forward, the engine growling in protest. The sheriff’s lips curved into a slight smirk as he closed in on the champagne colored Crown Victoria. It took a lot to get him excited about anything anymore. This was one of those things.
The Crown Vic wasn’t slowing down so the sheriff decided the driver might need some incentive. With a casualness that most people use to breathe the sheriff nudged the cars bumper with the iron cage attached to the front of his truck. One warning, that’s all he would give. The driver of the car must have sensed that as well for he immediately pulled to the side of the narrow road leaving half of the car on the pavement while the rest was resting in the grass.
The sheriff parked directly behind the Crown Vic and thoughtfully rubbed a hand across the stiff stubble on face before stepping from the truck. The driver of the freshly polished car, a tall well-dressed black man, stepped from the car visibly angry. The large muscular sheriff never hesitated as he walked towards the furious man that was shouting at him.
“What the hell, man?! You know how much this paint job cost me?” The man appeared well cultured, even handsome. Right then though he just looked pissed. “Give a cracker a badge and they think they can do anything.”
“License and registration,” the sheriff said, never breaking stride.
The angry man walked towards the sheriff, not intimidated in the least. “I got your registration right here,” he said defiantly, flipping the sheriff off.
That stopped the sheriff. His smirk turned dark. He took off his shades, dark eyes glaring into those of the brown skinned man before him. The sheriff’s hand suddenly snapped down towards his hip. In the blink of an eye he whipped the .357 Magnum from its holster training the barrel on the startled man who reflexively went for his own gun only to realize he didn’t have one.
“I still don’t see how your old ass draws that heavy piece of iron so quickly,” the man said, his expression softening into a hearty grin.
The sheriff smiled back and just as quickly re-holstered the pistol. “Feels weird without one on your hip doesn’t it Marcus?”
“It really does, Jake. But hey, it was time I traded one uniform in for another. Mayor has a much nicer ring to it than deputy…and the pay’s better.”
“You’re not Mayor yet.”
“Give it time, give it time. The election is almost upon us. How have you been brother?” Marcus said, pulling the sheriff in for a quick hug.
“I’m good. Just out patrolling” Jake replied with a smile as he released the hug.
“Uh huh,” Marcus responded slyly, “I know what you’re patrolling.”
Jake gave a slight chuckle. “Yeah, well, that’s the least I can do for the son-of-a-bitch.”
“Chief Malone is going to catch you banging his wife one day then all hell is going to break loose.”
“After what they did to Cutty…” Jake frowned, letting his voice trail off.
Marcus clasped him on the shoulder, “I know brother, I know. Those crooked city cops think they can do anything.”
“With the current Mayor in office they can. That’s why we are all counting on you my friend.”
Marcus’ jovial attitude turned serious. “People are scared, Jake. That whole mess with the Donaldson’s…” The Mayoral candidate could only shake his head sadly. “Any leads?”
Jake kicked the loose gravel in frustration. “None. They are just gone. Nothing packed, both cars still in the garage. It’s like they vanished off the face of the damn earth.”
“Been a lot of that going around.”
The sheriff could only nod his head in agreement. The tension in Hale County was palpable. The fear was so bad that people only spoke of it behind closed doors. A rumbling broke the silence. Both men looked up past the canopy of tree limbs into the grey skies.
“We haven’t had sunshine in a week. It’s depressing” Marcus said as he moved towards the back of his car. “And speaking of depressing. Man, seriously, I just got this paint job.”
Jake bent down and rubbed his hand over the small black mark where his grill had tapped the bumper. “It’ll buff out. Take it to my cousin, tell him to put it on the county tab.”
“The county is broke.”
“Even better,” Jake replied with a half-grin. He put his shades back on and walked back to his truck. “Come over for a beer sometime. You haven’t been around in a while,” he said over his shoulder.
“You got it. And Jake…”
The sheriff stopped and turned back to his friend.
“…be careful man. Malone is bad news.”
“Careful? Yeah, that’s not me” Jake said with a laugh and hopped in his patrol truck.
Marcus watched him speed off as the rumbling overhead grew louder.
It didn’t take a smart man to see something bad was coming. Everyone knew it. Everyone except Jake Hooks. The sheriff didn’t have a superstitious bone in his body. The man only knew what was right in front of him. He was reckless to the point of stupidity. It was one of the reasons Marcus quit the department though he would never tell his friend that. That recklessness was also the reason Jake was perfect for the job. But even Jake wasn’t invincible. Sheriffs in Hale County didn’t have a long tenure and Jake was well past his shelf life.
Drops of rain speckled the car. Marcus ran to the driver’s seat and strapped himself him. Change was coming. Whether good or bad was anyone’s guess. One thing was for certain, fall was almost over and bitter days were on their way with his best friend right in the middle of it. Marcus peered down the now empty highway. “Be careful brother.”
A dilapidated computer sat on an old Formica kitchen table.
A pale hand reached out and hit the power button on the old box shaped monitor, which blared to life with a tired whine. The long, narrow fingers drifted across the keyboard, typing an address into the URL. The old computer processors began their search and began loading the page; which seemed to take forever due to the outdated software. The hands, however, hovered over the keyboard with patience until the page finally loaded.
The web page blared to life with some eerie X-Files type music playing annoyingly in the background. The page was a jumbled mess of pictures from just about every myth known to man. Bigfoot, vampires, UFO’s, ghosts; they were plastered all over the site in a way that could only make sense to a schizophrenic. The page header explained it all very simplistically with its bold, in your face, header that seemed to jump out of the screen in an electric blue glowing old English font.
The Dark Truth
Conspiracy theories revealed!
The ghostly hand grasped the mouse and moved the cursor over the link that read “Web Streams.” A drop down menu gave a listing of all the web streams that were archived. The mysterious hand clicked on the latest link. After a few moments of loading, and without any preamble, the screen was filled with the image of a scrawny, long bearded man with piercing blue eyes that shined as brightly as the wild look that flashed from them.
The man was disheveled and unkempt. If there was ever a picture of insanity, William Tyler was most certainly it. His age was hard to tell because of his state of cleanliness, as well as the bandana he wore that covered his mouth like an old timey bank robber. Only his eyes, which looked sunken and bloodshot, gave any indication of what he might look like underneath his disguise. William wore an old toboggan that stretched over his ears, hiding much of his head. He could have been 25 or 35, maybe even 45. But whatever his age, William looked unhealthy. His hands shook visibly and out of sync with the nervous twitching of his head. But if any of that bothered William, it didn’t show as the weird man peered into the camera.
William began to speak. Whatever preconception his image seemed to convey, the passion and intelligence in his voice spoke of something else entirely. When William finally spoke it was with a quick broken rhythm, as if at any moment he would be out of time and desperately needed to say what was on his mind.
“I’m just going to jump right into it. William Tyler here, insanity survivor, local expert on strange and forbidden lore, the kind that seems to permeate our poor county, man. I keep my identity concealed because if they knew who I was they would throw me back into that Hell I finally escaped from. Ain’t nobody sending me back there, man, nobody. I tell you up front that I’ve had psychological issues but I ain’t crazy, I ain’t crazy at all. They messed with my brain, man. I don’t hide from my past like so many others Hale County. There have been many topics covered on this website from werewolves to UFO’s but there is one subject that has been taboo.”
A large thud echoed from somewhere behind William. He turned to listen, head cocked at a strange, unnatural angle. When he was convinced that nothing was going to come out of nowhere and attack him, he continued. William took a slow, steadying breath.
“The subject I want to talk about is our own Hale County, and that illegal mental institute that hides way back in those dark haunted hills, man. You see, there are evil forces at play people, creeping in the background, unseen by the few good people left in this county. Real shit, not that hokey made up garbage you see on those specials of the week, man.” His eyes darted all about the room he was in, once again in expectation of something waiting to get him. His hands kept fidgeting around his chin as if they moved of their own accord. When William finally spoke, his voice and manner seemed to change dramatically. There was an anxiety he could no longer hide.
“That’s right my friends, I’m talking about the thing we are all afraid to speak out against; that vile evil that resides in the form of science! Except, it’s not science. It’s Frankenstein butchery! The horrific experiments of Dippel, Aldini, Brukhonenko, Mengele, and so many others are NOTHING to what happens up there! I know! I’ve seen it first-hand!”
Tears glistened in William’s eyes as his passion overwhelmed him. He stuttered for more words, fought to control himself. His voice came out in a whisper. His eyes grew distant.
“What they did to me…”
A large thud, much larger and far closer than the one before, startled William. Genuine fear washed through him. He turned to the camera in a hurry, half-standing as he did. He leaned in closely, voice suddenly becoming clear and purposeful.
“They are everywhere, the eyes and ears of the darkness that resides in Hale County…” William gave a quick look around as an even louder, more emphatic sound echoed through his room. He stared once more into the camera. “Oh shit. Have to hide. I’ll continue this later if I can.” He squinted at something off screen, his posture becoming statuesque as he strained to hear what he imagined was out there. He suddenly turned back to the screen “Protect yourselves.”
William reached towards his own computer and the feed went dead. The ghostly hand stretched out its boney fingers and did the same.
“Stop!” a deep baritone voice commanded loudly.
Steven James ducked into an alley, even in the cool October air his hair drenched with sweat which was plastered to his head. His clothes, a dark green hoodie and khaki pants, looked as if they hadn’t been washed in weeks. That was the least of his concerns. He ran down the narrow alley in a panic, tripping over various debris in an effort to get away from his pursuers. Steven could see the opening of the alley looming closer. He could see the grass and daylight on the other side.
Small town alleys weren’t like their big city counterparts. These were simply tiny walkways unintentionally made because someone didn’t want to extend their property another five feet and join another tiny row of small businesses. Kids walking home from school used it frequently as a pass through from the Shell gas station on the one side to the four screen family owned Tobie Theater on the other. To Steven, it was his opportunity to escape.
He managed a quick look over his shoulder. His red, tear stained eyes grew wide at what they saw…two very large sheriff deputies entering the alley behind him, looking very pissed. Steven felt a bit of renewed hope as his feet hit the grass and he raced out of the alley, the shouts of the angry deputies calling out after him. He couldn’t afford to be caught again.
Archibald Brubaker was a mountain of a man. He had a promising football career until he broke the jaw of an assistant coach who tried to make him run sprints for being late to practice. Two years after getting kicked off of the University football team for disciplinary reasons, the former defensive tackle landed on the sheriff’s department. No one but the Sheriff dared to call him by his first name, everyone just called him Bru; and Bru hated to run.
His partner, another large beefy man named Rodney Hankins, was two steps ahead of him and exited the alley first. Bru could see they were losing ground to the tiny dope head they were pursuing. The punk was heading towards a creek. If he made it to the other side before them then they would lose him. There was good money in catching these guys. It was THE reason they hadn’t called for backup. That thought spurred him on.
Steven saw the creek before him. This was his chance at escape, the only one he would get. Unlike those muscle bound jerks chasing him, Steven was light on his feet and the creek had to only be about eight feet across. He could clear it and not break stride. The deputies would have to slow down to get across. That would give him a huge lead. After that, he could get lost in the jumble of houses, schools, and trees that made up the small community of Hale.
He gave one final look back as he neared the creek, almost as a snub to the living mountains that pursued him, then he leapt. There was a moment of sheer exhilaration and freedom in his flight across the creek. For a brief second, the world around him slowed, then suddenly seemed to fast forward as he crashed in a loud splash in the half empty creek. The shock of the cold late fall water caused the Steven to momentarily pause from its bitter bite. He recovered quickly but not nearly fast enough.
Bru saw the punk crash into the creek and begin to frantically drag himself out on the other side. Rodney didn’t hesitate and jumped into the muddy water.
Steven felt a large hand grab his hoodie and swung wildly, connecting solidly with Rodney’s chin.
The deputy only stared at him with cool amusement.
Steven turned to flee and caught a crushing fist to the face from Bru.
The only thing that kept him upright was the massive paw of the deputy that had just hit him. Steven was sure his face was destroyed completely as the copper taste of blood filled his mouth, his lungs were stinging from the chase as they drank in the chilly air.
Rodney searched the dope-head roughly, pulling out a few small bags of marijuana that were ready to sell as well as a wad of twenties that were secured with a rubber band. “Payday,” he said as he smiled at Bru, flashing the wad of twenties at his partner.
“Please, please,” Steven pleaded through broken teeth and a crushed nose, “no jail…no jail.”
Bru pulled the junkie in close, menace filling large man’s voice. The last thing Steven heard before unconsciousness took him were Bru’s foreboding words.
“Don’t worry, jail ain’t your destination.”
Then, blackness took him.
Hale County Mental Institute sat way back in the deep wooded hills of Hale County Tennessee. It was haunted, if you believed the local legends. It had been a prison back in the early part of the twentieth century. But much like everything else in the county, its distance from a main highway, as well as its location in the steep hills, made it a liability. So the state government decided on a new prison three counties over where the interstate ran through, leaving a bunch of people jobless.
A couple of decades later, it was turned into a mental institute for the criminally insane; although criminals weren’t the only ones treated there. The government called it a mental institute, the county called it the asylum, and the inmates…they called it Hell. Rumors of all kinds, from the silly to the frightening, became associated with the place the past few years. But whether any of them were true or not, the very appearance of the asylum was enough to ignite a primal reaction from even the bravest souls.
Amanda Richardson wasn’t a believer in superstition, fantasy, or fairy tales. She was a hard-nosed investigative reporter that dug into the most controversial, and sometimes dangerous, stories with unbridled tenacity. The truth was her religion. Yet even Amanda, long dark hair pulled back into a tight bun, gave a start as the long drive opened up into the parking lot of the mental institute.
The walls were tall, made of a dark grey stone that had been worn and mildewed from decades of weather damage. There were guards stationed in the guard towers, as if it were still a functioning prison. She hadn’t realized the asylum, even one for the criminally insane, had that kind of protection. She was glad to see the front of the institution contained an office area, obviously a much more recent addition. She parked her car in the nearest available space and gathered her things: tape recorder, notebook, pen, .38.
She paused before putting the gun in her bag. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to take it into the building, not that she was expecting something to happen in there. Finally, giving a sigh, she tucked it into the glove box. Amanda didn’t like leaving it behind. She had been in some rough places over the years and it had come in handy. Although she never actually used it, it was enough just for it to be seen, especially when some cocky low-life, who thought she was some dainty female, pegged her for easy prey. One look at her gun and none ever dared to actually try and find out.
Amanda gave the glove box one last look then stepped out of her car, locking it up tight. She stepped into the nippy wind and pulled her coat tighter. She headed for the office building, her high heels clicking on the pavement with each step, echoing off the old stone walls. She understood the reason for the rumors. She glanced up at the ominous walls one last time, reached for the door handle automatically and paused against her will, transfixed by this place.
Get a hold of yourself, Amanda, she chastised herself silently, you’re a professional. Still, she couldn’t quite shake the unease that the asylum seemed to cast upon her. Her hand slowly released the handle and went to the bag she carried on her shoulder but stopped halfway there, remembering she had left her gun in the car. Dammit.
Her attention was drawn to the tree line that surrounded the entire property. Someone was watching her. Amanda couldn’t see them but she was sure they were. Her gut was hardly ever wrong. She gave the area a quick glance then took a deep breath.
This time there was no pause. She quickly grabbed the door handle and entered the asylum, determined not to look back.
The eyes that watched her from the forest edge were blood red, mesmerized, and curious by the dark haired lady. As they watched her disappear into the asylum, the eyes were full of something else…hunger. Sweat poured down the dirty, bearded face of the impossibly large man, his long stringy hair dangling like moss over a tattered orange jumpsuit.
A meaty, grime covered hand reached down, without looking, eyes still fixated on the door the reporter had just disappeared through, and latched on to the lifeless mass lying in the damp leaves beside it. Giving an inhuman grunt, the large man gave a quick, powerful tug, moving further into the forest.
A groggy human moan came from the form he was dragging. Without looking, the man gave one giant powerful swing that connected with a sickening thud. Then…silence. He continued his purposeful lumber deeper into the forest as a trail of blood soaked the earth behind him.
Hale County Community College was small, even for a junior college. It was, however, the closest one for a hundred miles. Kids from all over the northern part of the state attended it, at least the kids who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. The college itself was old, just like the rest of the county, but the teaching curriculum was one of the best in the state. That distinction did little to help the enrollment grow as the rest of Hale County’s reputation tended to disparage a greater portion of potential students from visiting the campus.
“Papers are due Monday! I’ll be in my office til 3!”
The halls crowded with students rushing from their classrooms, ready to get the weekend started. In their midst, a thin, dark haired man was jostling papers into a leather satchel as he walked along the hall. He seemed barely into his thirties, horned rim glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose. He gave a nod to a few students as he passed and was soon standing in front of an office door. The title on the placard read: Professor Jason Locke, History Department, Office 319.
Jason shook his head as he fished his office keys from his pocket with a half-hearted chuckle. Six months after he first saw it and it still made him laugh. He never considered himself a professor. His background was archeology, although he rarely went on any digs. I’m a historian more than anything, he thought dejectedly, yet they only want to learn about bones. I’m not a damn paleontologist. What the hell is wrong with kids wanting to know their history…any history?
Working at the junior college in Hale County required teaching more than one subject and left little time for excursions. He preferred human history, it was one of the reasons he took the job. The nearby Cherokee Reservation was a gold mine of artifacts but he had yet been able to get out there. Jason stepped into the office, locking the door behind him. He cursed himself for the thousandth time for not accepting those offers from Yale, Harvard, hell, even Tennessee State would have made more sense. Still, he had to admit this area intrigued him.
The whole mystery of Hale County pulled at his inner-most curiosities. Very little was known about the area, even by local standards. The locals, rather the elders, were very tight lipped. It was almost as if talking about the past would call forth some dark plague. Superstition and folklore were very much the foundation for the way urban development had avoided Hale County. Alternate roadways were created to steer well around that part of the country. That was what intrigued Jason. He needed to know all he could about his new home.
Jason sighed as he slung the satchel onto a shelf. I’m my own worst enemy.
The office was small, bordering on claustrophobic. There was just enough room for a desk, his chair and a couple of chairs on the opposite side. A trip to the Lowes in Nashville provided him with enough shelving to house his book collection, which reached the ceiling of the tiny room. He was promised a much bigger space once the renovation on the new wing was done. In the meantime his office kept piling up with clutter. Organized chaos is what his wife had called it.
His stomach grumbled. The coffee he had for breakfast wasn’t going to sustain him. He needed food. A greasy burger from Homer’s Hamburger Haven would hit the spot. Jason usually ate fairly healthy, his wife saw to that. But she was out of town, so it was time to indulge. He would simply call in his order and by the time he got across town to Homer’s, it would be ready. Now, all he had to do was find his menu.
Jason began shuffling through the papers on his desk until a small brown package caught his attention. He picked it up, and examined it carefully, a leery look upon his face. He gave the little box a light shake. Whatever was inside was solid. There were no markings of any kind on the package, just his name typed in a typical Arial font. He took a letter opener from his desk and expertly cut the package open, revealing a plain white 6×6 box.
His neck began to tingle, a small feeling of foreboding creeping through him. Jason suddenly didn’t want to open the box. How had it gotten there? Who was it from? His office had been locked, hadn’t it? He quickly put the unopened box back on the desk.
You’re being ridiculous, he chastised himself silently. While he knew that his reaction was unfounded, there was still that sense of dread. Why?
Jason shook off the feeling and picked the box back up. His fingers hovered over the lid for a moment, breathing becoming labored.
“Ridiculous,” he said out loud to break the awful silence of the office.
Fingers grasping the lid with a firm grip, he took a deep, steadying breath. His breathing became more shallow with each little movement of the lid. Why was this affecting him so much? Where was this sudden dread coming from? Jason shook his head, the lid was almost clear of the main body of the box. His eyes narrowed in anticipation…
RING! RING! RING!
Jason jumped at the sudden noise. The box slipped out of his grasp, bounced off the desk, and fell underneath it.
“Damnit…” he swore, trying to calm himself.
The phone was ringing insistently.
He tried to see where the box landed as he groped blindly for his cell phone. Where could it have fallen?
Jason tapped the answer button on his phone, never taking his eyes off the box as he knelt down behind the desk.
“Hello?” he asked, breathing heavily as his hands reached out for the box.
He sat the box on the desk, sliding into his chair as he did so, listening to the voice on the other end of the call.
“Oh, hey honey. No, I’m fine…you just startled me.” That was an understatement, he thought to himself, eyes glued once more to the box.
Slowly and intently, he began to take the lid off again, only half hearing the conversation.
“No, no, I wasn’t expecting anyone else. I meant that the phone startled me. You know me, buried in my work. How’s Rome?” Usually her playful attempts at jealousy were cute, but this box from an unknown sender had him curious.
With one simple jerk, the lid came free. The furrow in his brow deepened at the sight of the object. It was a small pouch made of deer skin tied off with a worn leather string. A shiver of trepidation shook through his fingers as he began carefully untying the pouch string. His eyes went wide, an expression of disbelief and panic flooded over him.
BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM!!
The pouch slipped from his grasp and fell to the desk once more with a heavy thud, the loud knock on his door startling him once again.
“What the hell??”
The knock rattled the door once more.
Jason realized his wife was speaking to him.
“What? On no, sorry hon. I have an emergency, student conference. Call you later.”
His eyes went to the object that spilled out of the pouch and was now rolling across his desk. It came to rest by his mouse pad. He was transfixed by the sight of it.
The rapping at the door continued.
Jason reluctantly pushed himself away from his desk. He opened the door, a familiar face staring concernedly back at him.
The young man, who was clean cut save for the shoulder length hair and the heavy metal T-shirt, gave Jason a measuring look. “Are you ok, Prof?”
Jason glanced at his desk then back to the young man in his door way. “Yeah, yeah JC, I’m fine.” He left the door open and went back to his desk, casually sliding some papers over the object. “What can I do for you, Mr. Michaels?”
“Mr. Michaels?” JC asked quizzically, “Are you feeling okay?”
Jason gave a quick laugh. “Sorry about that. Crazy day. What’s going on?”
“Heading out to get some lunch, want anything?”
Any hunger Jason felt earlier was gone. He glanced down at his desk, the object of his sudden loss of appetite hiding under those papers. “No thank you, I’m fine.”
“Alright Prof.” JC began backing out of the door, closing it in the process.
A thought occurred to Jason. He had to tear his gaze away from the desk and back to JC. “How did the auditions go?”
“It probably sucked,” JC said with a shrug. “Ashlyn is coming over later to find out with me. They are supposed to post the cast list sometime this afternoon. I’ll probably end up getting an ensemble part.”
Jason looked at his young friend. “All roles are important.”
“So says the man over the entire History department.”
JC shut the door, leaving Jason alone in the room once more. He reached for the papers and removed them from covering the object. It had his attention, mesmerizingly so. He took a steadying breath, reached across the desk and pulled the object towards him using the paper it had landed on. Jason examined it disbelievingly.
It was just slightly smaller than a billiard ball, made of granite, mostly covered in a red swirling pattern. Almost, that is, with the exception of the snow-white owl on one side and the brownish cougar on the opposite. The images were slightly faded and weather worn but there was no mistaking them for what they were. His heart beat faster.