When my boy Henry was killed, I tracked a pooka through the deep wood for three days with no food in my gut and only my daddy's hunting knife for comfort. Was what got me into the monster killing business, that pooka, and I ain't regretted a single day of it since.
The day I stumbled on a four-legged critter with human eyes, the rightness of my revenge begun to unravel, leading me to a clan of two-natured shifters what'd been living under my nose the whole time. And when the two-natured started showing up in odd places, stalking humans in a very unnatural way, weren't nothing I could do but dig to the bottom of it.
And what I found turned my world and ever thing I knowed upside down.
Copyright 2017. Published by Bone Diggers Press.
Excerpt from The Deep Wood
paint·er (pānt'-ǝr) n.
Slang used in the Southern Appalachians
to describe a panther or mountain lion.
Wind whipped around me, blocked none a’tall by the man steering the motorcycle I was on. When David Eckstrom invited me out for a ride, I couldn’t hardly turn him down. Me and him was friends of a sort, and my friends was few and far between.
‘Course, that weren’t the only reason. I was partly responsible for David’s current emotional slump. A coupla weeks back, we learnt David’s significant other, Gregory Hightower, fell in with a business venture led by Phillip Oliver and Belinda Arrowood, joined by Hal Woodrow and Faith Renault. Together, the Greenwood Five, so called as they all owned homes along the shores of Greenwood Cove on Lake Burton, was now under investigation for dumping industrial waste into the local streams as part of that venture.
Gregory swore up one side and down the other he knowed not one speck about them illegal activities. He was a good sort, a right stand up guy, so I believed him. David didn’t, and therein lay the problem.
Couldn’t argue with a broke heart. I tried cajoling instead, first by pointing out how much Gregory loved David and vice versa, then by simply coaxing him into talking about it, hoping he’d figure out on his own how much they needed each other. Weren’t working, what I could tell, but I kept trying anyhow. I knowed what a broke heart felt like and I sure didn’t want one of my friends falling under the same spell.
David slowed his Kawasaki KLR 650, a monster of a motorcycle. I peeked around him, sucked in a breath, and tightened my hands on his waist. The road ahead rose sharp and steep, then curved outta sight, and in between, worn ruts deeper’n the bike’s tires pitted the packed dirt.
I closed my eyes tight. What’d ever possessed me to get on the back of this thing anyhow?
“Hold on, Sunshine,” David said softly right in my ear, and I flinched. First time I ever wore a helmet. Took a bit of getting used to, ‘specially with a mike system wired into it. Them was too fancy for me and my daddy way back when I was a kid and he used to take me out riding on the back of his old beater, a Yamaha Enduro Daddy bought off a desperate neighbor for fifty dollars and a cord of split firewood.
I smiled as memory woke. That thing was older’n me when Daddy got it, but man, did he love that bike. He tore the roads up with it, half the time with me on the back and neither of us wearing a helmet or protective gear of no kind. I smiled into the memories, of Daddy’s laughter mingling with the air roaring past my ears, of burying my face in his back when I was scared and wallowing in the scent what was his alone. Laundry detergent, Old Spice, and love. That was my daddy, and about the only thing I had left of him besides his IROC, a stand up LP collection, and the hunting knife I wore strapped to my right ankle under the stiff leather of my boot.
The motorcycle lurched upward. I leaned forward into David and bit my tongue, holding back the curses popping into my mouth. I done give the church as much cussing money as I intended for a while. The last gallon jar full I give, the quarters, one for each dirty word, was changed to pearls by a minor deity going by the name of Abercio Okeanos, Teus to his friends. He seemed to’ve taken a liking to me, more’s the pity. Last time we met, he left me with a redecorated home, eyes the color of the ocean, and eight marks of service circling my left nipple, each one a multi-colored swirl matching my new eyes.
My cheeks heated, and for once, I was glad of the helmet’s coverage. Them marks was embarrassing. Thankfully, nobody’d seen ‘em right yet, but with the rate me and Riley Treadwell was stepping out, them being discovered was just a matter of time. Him and me went way back, but it was the here and now what concerned me. What was he gonna do when he discovered them marks?
Likely have a conniption, judging by how he reacted ever time he thought another man wanted me. Which was plum ridiculous. Me and him was a-courtin’, and he was as much man as I could handle. About the only one I wanted to handle, truth be told, and he knowed it.
David revved the motorcycle’s engine, and we crested the hill onto a plateau. “Uh-oh,” he whispered.
I peeked around his helmet and frowned. A black painter lay partway across the road, a big’un, too. I glanced up. Three turkey buzzards circled overhead, their wings spread. They’d be down here soon, pecking away like the carrion they was. Best take a quick look-see before that happened, in case that painter run afoul of something in my line of work.
Monsters made just as good food for buzzards as wildlife, and got rid of some bad in the world at the same time. Two birds, one stone. Hard not to admire nature’s efficiency.
I patted David’s waist and said, “We need to stop.”
The motorcycle slowed immediately, gearing down in a muted roar as David eased it to a stop in front of the painter. I got off and fumbled with my helmet, and side-stepped outta the way while David slung his leg over the bike and dismounted.
“Here,” he said, then his hands brushed mine away and the helmet’s fastening give way under his nimble fingers.
I slid the helmet off and muttered a brief thanks, walked toward the painter and sniffed. The air was pure, tinged only by the faint odor of rotting leaves and an even fainter hint of water. A nearby creek, like as not. Water run plentiful amongst the rolling hills. It was the painter what was outta place. The Eastern cougar, locally known as a mountain lion or painter, went extinct decades back. Some Western cougars had showed up since, a distinct subspecies if them in the know could be believed, but they was shy critters. Hardly nobody ever spotted one, and when they did, it was the common tan furred’un they seen, not the rare black painter like the one me and David stumbled upon. Far as I knowed, the so called melanin painters was considered to be a product of folklore. Nobody’d ever done more’n spot ‘em outta the corner of their eye or whatnot, let alone examined one up close.
First time for ever thing.
I knelt beside this’un and eyed the carcass. No bullet wounds, no claw marks, not on the up side nohow. The fur was unruffled and gleamed blue-black under the sunlight streaming through the autumn touched trees.
I poked gently at one massive paw with a gloved finger. It was stiff, ungiving. First frost hadn’t hit yet. The nights was cool, but not yet cold. Probably hadn’t died of exposure, ‘less it’d got disoriented and lost its way. How could a creature of the deep wood do that, though, ‘specially one as fit and young as this’un seemed to be?
David’s feet scuffed across sparse gravel through fallen leaves. He knelt beside me, pulled off a glove, and run a bare palm across the painter’s fur. “Still warm.”
I sat back on my haunches. Rigor mortis had set in, yet the body was still warm? The hairs on the back of my neck tingled and my shoulders hunched under the armored mesh jacket David forced on me before we set off. I weren’t no mortician, but even I knowed that weren’t right.
I snagged his elbow and tugged. “Don’t touch it no more, ya hear?”
David withdrew his hand and rested it on his jean-clad thigh. “Foul play?”
“I don’t know.”
But I knowed who might. Riley worked with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. Patterson Gap Road cut through national forest, outside of Riley’s jurisdiction, but he probably played nice with the forest rangers and had contact numbers and whatnot for ‘em.
I fished my cellphone out of a jacket pocket and waggled it at David. “Gimme a minute.”
David tilted his head toward me and smirked. “Tell Ranger Rick I said hello.”
I snorted out a laugh, then stood and paced away from him. Riley liked David well enough, ‘cept when I was around. For some reason, he had this notion planted in his head that David wanted me, which was plum crazy. David was gay. I was a woman. He was a big flirt, sure, but that was all there was to it.
Just to be on the safe side, I put another dozen feet between me and David, then punched the preset call button for Riley. Five rings later, an automated message played and I was dumped into his cellphone’s voice mail. Weren’t a huge surprise. It was Sunday morning. Riley’d be in church with his mama, just like he was ever Sunday morning. He tried talking me into it, but I parted ways with the Christ child when my boy Henry died, God rest him, and ain’t found my way back since.
I outlined what we found, hesitated a bit. Me and Riley been dating nigh on a month now and it was still a mite awkward, for my part anyhow. I glanced over my shoulder. David had his back to me, so I made a soft kissy noise into the phone and hung up with my cheeks flaming hot.
This dating thing was tough going sometimes.
I shoved my phone into my back jeans pocket as I shambled over to David, still crouched beside the fallen painter. “Left a message for him.”
David glanced up at me, his eyes squinted against the sun hanging in a pure azure sky. “Should we move her out of the road?”
I shook my head reflexively, paused. Not a lot of traffic out here, what with the road being so bad and all, but if a Jeep or truck topped that hill near dusk, the driver might miss the painter. It was big enough to cause a vehicle to flip or otherwise do real damage.
I sighed. “Yeah, we better. I got the front paws.”
David nodded and stood, and I bent over. On the way down, the painter’s eyes, permanently open in death, caught my gaze and I stopped in mid-stoop. Human eyes stared back at me, deep brown, round of pupil. Eyes about like I had before that no good scoundrel Teus changed ‘em blue.
Well, crap. This weren’t no painter after all, not a natural one nohow, and I had no idea what to do about it.