I'm an associate editor for Airstream Life Magazine by day, and a novelist by night. I just finished my first book, "The October Abduction of Thomas Martin." I'm offering it FREE to everyone at Amazon.com for the Kindle. Click here to download it. You don't have to sign up for anything. No strings attached. It's just a great free read. It's also available in paperback and that will be up in a week. (400 pages!! Summer reading! Start NOW to finish it by August! :-D ) But seriously. I hope if you have a Kindle, or a computer (Amazon/kindle readers for your computer are FREE), you'll download it. If you can't read it right away, that's okay. At least you'll have it!
What's it about?
Reporter Becca Lamb lives in an Airstream trailer and works for a small town newspaper. She's called out on what seems to be a story about a coyote killing some livestock. Then it gets really interesting. Here's the Prologue and first chapter. If you like it, please download it at Amazon.com for FREE until March 5.
The day “Thomas Martin went missing,” as people say, Evan Ridder opened the flap of his fleece-lined denim jacket with his left hand. With the middle finger and thumb of his right hand he reached into the left breast pocket of his red buffalo plaid shirt and pulled out a soft pack of cigarettes with the cellophane removed–Marlboros, because as a kid he liked the cowboy in the ads.
Now, he cursed the cowboy every time he tried to quit smoking and failed. The pack was without cellophane because the crinkle might, or would be heard by an enemy. It was a precaution he’d learned in Vietnam, although he wasn’t sure how far away a person would have to be to hear the cellophane, he never took chances. He still never took chances.
He tapped the pack against his left palm exactly three times to pack the tobacco before shaking the pack up once, twice, in the smoker’s ritual to free a single cigarette clear enough to grasp it with his mouth and pull it free.
He would remember every detail of his actions for the rest of his life, running them over in his mind every night before he went to bed, and wondering if there was something he could have done differently.
Leaning back slightly he propped up one cowboy booted foot—his left one—placing the ball of his foot on the boulder in front of him. He tucked the cigarette pack back in his shirt, tapped the top to seat it squarely in the pocket, and then pulled the jacket back over his chest. Only then did he dig into the right back pocket of his jeans with his right hand and pull out his lighter.
He had silenced the sharp metallic snap of the Zippo years ago in Vietnam, now relying on the weight of the top against his index finger to tell him when the lighter was open. The lighter, the memories and the nightmares were all he’d brought back from the jungle. But it was enough to remind him how he would feel when he did what he was about to do.
He felt sick to his stomach and started to dry heave into the dirt beside the boulder he was sitting on, but when he thought about his “happy place,” as his therapist often encouraged him to do, he was able to push those thoughts out of his mind.
His happy place was back in Vietnam, wrapped in a damp poncho with the promise of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep and an armed guard standing over him after his first mission. He’d smoked two pipes of opium for the first time and was feeling no pain, no fear, no panic. After the mission where they’d run into aliens loading human body parts into oil drums, it was the only time in his life he could remember feeling safe.
“What did the aliens look like?” his therapist had once asked. He shrugged.
“How did you know they were aliens and not Vietnamese?”
He had stared past her, back to Cambodia and the path, back to the day.
“Snakes with legs. Lizard men,” he’d said.
She paused, studying him carefully before she spoke. “The mind will do strange things like superimpose images on memories, or use metaphor for realities that are too much for—”
He’d cut her off.
“No, my mind wasn’t messing with me,” he said flatly. “They were not of this earth. They were aliens. We killed some of them and they killed some of us. And then the Army put us all in a room and when I came out I didn’t remember anything. It’s only been the last two years I remember. But I remember.”
His tone had let her know in no uncertain terms that the topic wasn’t up for discussion, let alone debate. He remembered being able to smell her fear at the time and he felt bad. He wouldn’t have hurt her. He just knew that the world as he had known it the day before he walked into that mission in Cambodia was gone forever. And he missed that innocent, predictable world terribly.
There had been at least four crewmen, all strapped into their seats. Their eyes had been removed and there were holes, great gaping holes in their stomachs, but no blood. He remembered being surprised that there was no blood anywhere as he wondered, “Where are their insides?” The Viet Cong were prone to mutilate bodies—that much he knew. But this was different.
The plane, a B-52, was sitting in the jungle as though someone had set it down, like a toy a child is tired of playing with. There was no crash path, and no indication the plane might have come screaming to its final rest after cartwheeling through the jungle. Trees were bent outward to each side from under the plane, not forward. The trees around the plane had not been broken or scarred in any way, also indicating that the plane had dropped vertically into its resting spot. There was no evidence of fire. Very odd.
The squad’s patrol leader took in the scene before something else caught his eye. Then, he’d raised his two fingers in a “V” to his eyes and pointed to movement on the far side of the plane, silently directing his men’s attention to where he was pointing. Someone was moving, maybe a Viet Cong. The squad crept up close enough to see what he could only describe later as aliens cutting up and sorting body parts of American soldiers into bins like meat going to market.
A firefight had ensued, with Evan and his men killing more aliens than they had killed men. The survivors ran back into the jungle, dragging their dead and wounded, and radioed frantically for help while the wounded screamed in horror, fearing they’d face the same fate. Evan had messed his fatigues out of sheer terror for only the second time since he’d been in the country.
After the unit was retrieved and held for debriefing they were all hypnotized and given cover memories. The cover held for almost 20 years. However, once he’d found the dead animals on his ranch last week that protective cover mysteriously disappeared. Now, Evan remembered everything, even the face of the man the preacher called a “messenger.”
Evan scanned the mountain range to his left, which was usually dusted with snow this time of year. He noted that this year’s dusting was unusually heavy, perhaps a foot or more. It was only October, a good sign for next year’s crops if it kept up. He hoped he would be around to see it.
Against the backdrop of the mountains a vein of Aspen trees ran down through the thick stands of pines, still brilliantly golden, even if they were fading from their peak colors. By week’s end rain and strong winds would strip the trees naked and the color would line the forest floor, turning the path he’d ridden in on into a sort of yellow brick road, only without Oz or the Emerald City at the end. He smiled slightly at the image, recognizing the connection.
Cupping his hands out of habit to shield the light of the flame from unseen enemies, he also shielded it from the wind that was beginning to pick up from the valley. The flame caught the tobacco and the thin paper flared briefly, glowing in the shadow of his hands. He drew deeply through the unfiltered end, inhaling until he felt the harshness of the smoke inside his lungs.
The heat warmed his mouth as he continued to look over the valley. Blowing the smoke out in a blue swirl he scanned the area around him. The smoke was quickly caught up in the breeze and disappeared. He coughed and hacked, startling a bird, which flew up suddenly from the brush below. Its flight drew his eyes upward.
Squinting at the sky he spat and cursed. The scattering of mare’s tail clouds across the ridge were a sure sign hunting season would dawn wet and cold. He hoped he wouldn’t have to return.
Thomas Martin was not a creature of habit and there was no guarantee he would show up to scout and set up his hunting camp. Rider could sit here all night and miss him, or not. Many hunters often set up camps a day or two early, returning with guns and gear on opening day. Martin was one of them. Evan dragged on his cigarette again, knocking the ash off with his scarred and calloused pinkie finger as he cupped it in his hand.
Beside him his horse whinnied, lifting his head from the scrub grass and perking his ears forward before dancing back against the reins to pull away. He smelled something that scared him. Coyote? Bear? Cougar?
Ridder stood up cautiously and crouched by his horse to study the trail below. A small spot stood out as he scanned the area. A grizzly was prowling the bald, downwind a mile or more away, but close enough to be a threat if the wind shifted and he decided to explore. Ridder reached for his saddle and pulled out his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle. Chambering a round, he sat back down, one eye on the bear, the other on the path. He laid his rifle across his thighs and waited.
Four miles away, Sarah Martin was looking out the back door at a bear too―a black bear. Thomas had been gone for more than an hour. He’d left to meet someone about some cattle and then scout his hunting camp he’d said. She’d been watering the baskets of hanging flowers off the deck when she saw the bear. He was feeding on melons at the end of the garden, 100 yards away.
The boys hadn’t gotten home from school yet and she was alone. As she watched the bear, she backed into the kitchen and reached for the 12-gauge clipped in a stand in the corner of the kitchen. She racked a handful of 3-inch mag slug shells mixed with buckshot into the chamber and felt better at the sound of it. She hoped the boys didn’t come home—not yet. Not before she dealt with the bear.
Now armed, she pushed the screen door open with one bare foot and stepped back out on the deck. She couldn’t see if the bear was the garbage bear Rick Lennox, the county extension agent, had warned them about or not. His left side faced Sarah. He hadn’t seen her yet.
“White paint on his right side where he’s rubbed up against the Jordan’s newly painted shed,” Rick had said.
“Shoot him if you see him. He’s nothing but trouble and he’s already attacked and killed two horses and chased the Jordans into their shed. He’s not afraid of people. You know the rule—a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Sarah had nodded. Garbage bears lost their fear of humans quickly, especially in rural areas where garbage was easy to come by and human populations weren’t dense enough to be a threat. One well fed garbage bear could become a human threat fast, and this one apparently had.
Thomas wouldn’t be back tonight, but she could handle a scruffy little garbage bear. She looked up at the darkening sky. That was unusual, she thought. Those clouds hadn’t been there 10 minutes ago.
Fat drops of rain hit the green mason jars on the deck rail, making them rattle against each other with a tinkling sound like wind chimes in a morning breeze. She looked back at the bear, which turned to look at her. The rain turned to hail and the bear charged, the white paint on his side now clearly visible.
She remembered feeling stunned at how fast the bear was able to cover the distance from the garden to the deck, and she wondered if he would swallow the barrel of the rifle before she could get a shot off. His eyes, yellow and mean, not brown and dark, stared at her with an unexpected intelligence. She hesitated for a second, thinking for an odd, frantic, uncertain instant that the bear was human. Her finger curled around the trigger of the gun and instinctively she aimed and pulled.
In a flash of cosmic coincidence Ridder’s finger was curling around the trigger of his rifle at the same time. But he wasn’t shooting at the grizzly. He had a human target in his sights. Bang! The sounds of both rifles echoed through the valley, rumbling and fading into the sudden hailstorm that had literally blown up from out of nowhere. Ridder fired once and then grabbed his horse’s reins. Turning, he tried to take cover under a rock overhang on the bluff behind him as the figure down below fell and the brunt of the first wave of golf ball-sized hail hit him.
In The Beginning
“The past is never dead. It isn't even past.”
~ William Faulkner, 1897–1962
TRAVELER COUNTY, VIRGINIA. 1981 — Jackson County farmer Nick Edwards reported that two of his cattle were killed over the weekend. Edwards said the deaths were the third in a series of attacks on his livestock. “We had a calf killed last week and a donkey two weeks before that,” Edwards said.
Jackson County Deputy Sheriff, Franklin Smith reported that an unknown predator or predators probably pulled the cow down or attacked it while it lay injured on the ground. “We’ve had problems with coyotes, packs of wild dogs and attacks on livestock in the area for a while now, but this is the first instance of any deaths,” Smith said.
“We’re advising farmers in the area to report coyote or bear sightings to either the sheriff or the Virginia State Wildlife Commission, and to not leave small pets or children unattended.”
* * *
Being a city girl and all, the lack of blood was the last thing I would have noticed, but it was the first thing that sent chills up Nick Edward’s spine.
“Ain’t normal,” is all he said. And he said it over and over and over.
“Ain’t normal. Ain’t normal.”
I’d wandered the acre of back pasture with him for more than an hour as he scratched the back of his neck and muttered to himself. He was growing more agitated by the minute.
“Well, maybe whatever killed it licked it up?” I suggested.
“No! No!” he shouted, almost hysterical.
I stopped and took a good look at Nick. He was a dairy farmer. Dairy farmers got angry over dead livestock. They did not get hysterical. They did not freak out. Dead animals and loss of livestock to predators, even on farms within a few miles of a city, were part of the cost of doing business on a farm.
What should have happened was Nick should have called the sheriff, filed a report, gotten a copy of the report, filed the report with his insurance company and waited for a check to arrive so he could buy another calf or cow or donkey. What should have happened is that I never even got wind of this, let alone got called out to do a story on it. I was a small-town newspaper reporter, not an extension agent or a deputy sheriff.
Instead of what should have happened, Nick had decided to call me instead.
“I heard you used to be a cop,” he said.
I did complete the police academy and walk around a community campus for several months rattling doorknobs to make sure doors were locked. And I almost had my degree in Criminal Justice. I was only one semester shy and had reminded myself that it was never too late to change my mind.
But my police career wasn’t Adam-12. And Kent McCord I was not. My life as a campus cop was more like that of Gunther Toody or Francis Muldoon in the comedy sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You? Still, I did graduate seventh in my class and had my eyes set on being a detective. That was before the reality that cops didn’t like women on the force set in. I didn’t tell Nick about all that.
“What’s being a cop have to do with a dead donkey and a dead calf?” I asked.
“I don’t think it was predators,” he said.
“So what was it? Vandals? Kids? Pranksters? Why not call the sheriff?”
“He won’t believe me.” Now Nick was chewing on a knuckle.
“Believe what?” I asked.
“Maybe you won’t believe me either,” he said, his breathing getting shallower and shallower. I knew the signs. He was winding up for something.
“I might. Give me a chance,” I said, trying to soothe his agitation.
“What or who do you think has been killing your livestock?”
He stared at me for a long time, chewing on one knuckle as he considered whether I’d believe him or not. Then he suddenly put his hands in his pockets and started back towards the dairy barn.
“Nick! Wait up!” I ran to catch up with him.
“Seriously, who do you think killed your animals?” I asked him again.
“I… I don’t know, “he stammered. He was lying. He had an idea.
“Really Nick? I don’t believe you.”
He looked down at the ground. Embarrassed.
“I’m going to write someone I know in Colorado and find out first,” he said.
“Colorado?” I asked.
“Yes, a man I met there last year. Said to call him if… if I found something like this.”
“Like what?” I asked.
I looked over at the dead calf. It looked like a dead animal to me. I hadn’t gotten too close, afraid of the smell, but it didn’t seem to smell much—maybe a little like cleaning fluid or something, but not like death. I’d smelled dead things before and these either hadn’t been dead long, or I was standing far enough upwind not to catch the unique odor, which was fine with me.
“Well,” I hesitated. “Then is it okay if I just report this as predators to Eddie?”
Eddie Decker was the managing editor of the Virginia Monitor and he’d agreed to let me come out and hang around Nick’s place, hoping for a story. It was a slow news week. If I didn’t come back with something today, I wouldn’t get to come back out then the Colorado mystery man appeared.
He nodded quickly.
“Just don’t say nothing about the details,” he pleaded. “Just say they was dead.”
I nodded, got in my truck and headed back to the office. It didn’t feel like police work and it didn’t feel like reporting to keep going out on dead animal calls. I wasn’t sure what it felt like. I began to wonder if I’d made the right decision to leave police work after all.
The donkey and the calf weren’t enough. A week later I was called out to Nick’s farm again, this time to investigate what he described as a cattle mutilation. Now, in 1981 I was a shiny new newspaper reporter. I had never seen a crop circle or a cow mutilation, but I’d heard about them three years earlier. I’d been exploring a career as a police officer and was halfway through a 12-week police academy training program. The highlight of one particular day was an FBI seminar on satanic sacrifices and animal mutilations. The FBI instructor had one thing to say about mutilations in rural areas:
“If you’re working in a rural area, expect that you’re going to go on calls where animals, sometimes people, have been killed and then dismembered or mutilated,” the instructor said matter-of-factly. Judging by his confidence and tone of voice, he’d obviously encountered a lot of these mutilations, or wanted us to think that he had.
“People are going to tell you these are satanic sacrifices or aliens, or demons or voodoo ceremonies. They are not. There are no such things as aliens. There are no such things as demons. There are no such things as ghosts. These people or animals are most likely the victims of drug dealers trying to scare people into staying away from their crops, drug house or stash. When you encounter these you’re better off not bringing up the subject of satanism because it gets the media all riled up. It gets people all riled up and it creates a lot of paperwork for you. The minute someone mentions satan, voodoo or aliens, you tell them that it’s simply a drug dealer protecting their turf.”
My instincts said otherwise, and I remember thinking to myself that the instructor was a lying son-of-a-bitch who was hiding something about those so-called mutilations. Not only was he hiding something, he was scared of what he was hiding. He wanted to believe what he was saying, but I could tell that he didn’t.
“The drug dealers come from Mexico and Third World countries where religion and sacrifice is a big deal. So yes, they will write some words in blood, put candles and decapitated chickens, and other crap around the scene to make it look like a sacrifice. But it’s all about drugs,” he said.
I felt like we were being brainwashed.
“Cadet, you have a question?” He’d glared at me.
My face has always given me away. It’s impossible to hide what I’m thinking or feeling and he knew I wasn’t buying his story. So, I scrambled to come up with an inconspicuous question. “Sir, do these things happen often?”
He continued to glare at me. I could see the gears turning in his head as he contemplated his response. “They only happen once or twice in a career, but you need to know how to respond when they do happen.”
That ended my questioning about mutilations, but not my curiosity. Eventually, my curiosity made me unfit for police work and better suited for journalism. Looking back, I can say that the time I spent in the academy and in the criminal justice program was the best alien-chasing education a person could have.
Admittedly, my career as a police officer was too short-lived to have encountered even one cattle mutilation, but it seemed that my career as a journalist was beginning with one. It goes without saying that if there were two careers, three, counting ranching or farming where people encountered mutilations, there had to be more. I had struggled to remember what else the instructor said, but by the time I arrived at Nick’s farm I’d exhausted any memories I had.
I got out of my pickup truck and walked towards Nick, feeling a twinge of guilt for not having followed up on the last two livestock deaths. He didn’t seem to remember, or didn’t seem to care. He did seem kind of happy to see me though.
There was a tall dark-haired stranger standing beside him, and two dead cattle were lying on the ground nearby. This was the third time I’d been called out to his farm and I knew what to expect.
“Stinks, doesn’t it?” I was holding my nose, anticipating the stench.
The tall stranger was watching me. He was dressed in black, from his tabbed pastor’s shirt to his cowboy boots. The only color on him was the silver of a belt buckle the size of a bagel, and the white square of his cleric’s tab.
He laughed at me and then inhaled deeply. “No smell here.”
I let go of my nose and sniffed tentatively. He was right. There was no stench of rotting flesh like I was expecting. This odor was like the last time I was out here, only more like an odd chemical smell. I pulled my notebook out and fumbled for a pen. My world was about to change and I didn’t even know it.
“Hi Nick,” I nodded, and then introduced myself to the stranger. “Becca Lamb,” I said, holding out one hand. “I’m with the Virginia Monitor. Nick called me.”
“Jackson Black. People call me the preacher,” he said, ignoring my hand.
He crossed his arms and tucked his hands under his armpits, returning his attention to the dead cattle. Maybe Nick was happy to see me, but this guy wasn’t. I wondered if Nick had mentioned the last time I came out to investigate the dead calf.
“Hi Becca.” Nick wasn’t smiling, but he was courteous enough to wipe the grime from both palms on his overalls and stick out his right hand. “Thanks for coming out again. This is the man I was telling you about before.”
I shook his hand. “No problem, Nick. Sorry to hear about your animals.”
I nodded towards the cattle. “Coyotes again?”
“It wasn’t coyotes. It was aliens,” Jackson interrupted.
Nick nodded quickly, as if to convince himself that this was the truth. Slender and nervous, Nick seemed even more agitated than the last time I’d been out to investigate his dead livestock. Of course, up until that precise moment, whenever someone mentioned aliens, I believed they meant the illegal immigrants who worked the tobacco fields. Without them, Virginia agriculture would be in the toilet. Most people looked the other way and pretended not to care too much about legal status until someone committed a crime.
“Why would migrant workers kill cattle?” I asked.
Jackson laughed long and loud, and Nick blushed. Nick was my age (late 20’s), born and raised in Virginia. Married with no kids, his life had been focused on his growing dairy operation—since high school I guessed. Several migrant workers had worked for him and his family for years. I even knew several of them.
“Aliens, honey. Like extraterrestrials. UFOs,” Jackson said with obvious animosity.
I speak sarcasm fluently and knew that the emphasis on Jackson’s words was fed by anger. It wasn’t directed at me, nor was it an attempt to act superior. Recognizing that made a difference; we were on the same side. His response told me that he had been personally affected by aliens somehow.
I studied him as he rocked on his boots. If he’d been feeling arrogant he’d have just put his hands on his hips and cocked them like a loaded weapon. His boots were well-worn, with scuffed heels and dinged metal tips on the toes. It was obvious he rode, walked and worked in those boots. They weren’t just ego-boosting boots he wore while pretending to be a cowboy. Based on his jeans and the wear marks on his butt and inner thighs, he was the real deal. Police work had been a great training tool for me; it taught me to notice these subtle details.
But something still didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the clerical tabbed shirt that threw me. His leathery brown tan and the wear marks on his right thigh (from resting his hand while holding the reins) sure screamed cowboy. There was probably a worn circle on his back pocket from a Skoal can too. Never knew a cowboy who didn’t chew tobacco. He wasn’t from Jackson County either, because he had to listen carefully when Nick spoke, on account of his accent.
You don’t hear a lot of folk in rural Virginia talking about UFOs like they’re swapping fried chicken recipes. You might hear some stories about ghosts, and haunted mansions or homes from the Civil War era, but people just don’t drop the word “aliens” in the same tone of voice they’d use to say “suppertime.” Unless you read about it in a newspaper or watch it on television, in a rural area a lot of the weird and paranormal happens without you noticing it. Cattle mutilations and aliens had obviously gotten by me, but all that changed when I met Jackson Black on that mild October afternoon.
“Little green men? You’re not serious.” It was my turn to laugh and I did. “C’mon. Aliens? Please.” Like I said, I speak sarcasm fluently and never miss an opportunity to flaunt my prowess. I could tell that the preacher was going to offer a stream of golden opportunities on which to practice my extensive repertoire of jibes.
But, he wasn’t biting. Instead, he walked over to a woodpile behind the cattle and picked up a stick.
“Cattle Mutilation 101,” he said, returning with his pointer. “A mutilated cow usually has a hole carved out of its eye or rectum, or both.”
He directed our attention to their head and tail areas. Both were missing eyes and their rectums had obviously been cored out.
“There are various body organs removed,” he continued. “Usually the reproductive organs, heart, eyes, tongue, udder and so on. The teats on the cow are also cut off in addition to a strip of flesh that exposes the mandible.”
He droned on like a lecturing professor, walking around the two dead cows, pointing out various signs of alleged alien activity.
“The removal of body parts and organs, and the cuts in the flesh appear to be done with surgical tools and then cauterized. Sometimes the cattle are covered with a fine white powder that people mistake for dust. You can usually detect a slight chemical smell if the animal is found within 24 to 48 hours of going down, but there is no odor of rotting flesh. Other predators won’t touch the body. If coyotes or wild dogs had brought these cattle down they’d have chewed on them. Vultures would have been all over them this morning too, but there weren’t even any crows around, were there Nick?”
Nick shook his head and Jackson kept talking. I watched Nick as Jackson droned on. He’d obviously heard the speech before. He not only nodded his head occasionally, he smiled before Jackson made certain points. He’d heard this talk before, and more than once.
“Predator attacks on livestock are nothing new,” said Jackson “Farmers and ranchers have always had to protect their animals against wolves, bear, lions, coyotes, tigers and jackals. What most people don’t know is that thousands of farmers around the world have to protect their livestock against aliens, and have done so for centuries.”
He paused only to look for a reaction from me. I kept a straight face and just nodded. Laughing in his face at this point would shut him down and I wanted to hear what he had to say. Nick had obviously paid for him to come from Colorado, so he had to be an expert of some kind. And I wanted to know what kind.
“The top livestock predators are man, coyotes, cougar, bear and wild dogs. They leave distinctive calling cards next to their prey, Ms. Lamb. Things like footprints, blood, tufts of fur, the ground torn up with signs of a deadly struggle, a carcass that is chewed on and often dragged along the ground, and entrails that are torn out in the heat of battle. Oh, and there’s blood. Lots of blood.”
I felt a twinge at that. It was that lack of blood that had made Nick so agitated last week—no, hysterical, bordering on screaming and crawling under a bed or into a fortified basement, by my best guess, with a shotgun and a month’s supply of food and water rations.
“Any farmer who has lost an animal to a predator quickly learns the signs and can identify what most likely killed his livestock. Any reporter, law enforcement officer or curious bystander, once shown the details of a kill, will also learn to recognize the signs, but not the cause.”
Jackson had been pacing as he talked, but now he stood still and looked directly at me. His eyes were the greyest green I’d ever seen and I was suddenly mesmerized.
“But it’s not the traditional signs that make ranchers nervous. It’s the absence of them that strikes fear in the hearts of those who understand what they’re looking at. For the inexperienced, ignorance is bliss. For those who recognize the calling card of the bizarre, the deadly and the non-traditional, there’s definite cause for pause,” he said, sounding more like carnival barker than preacher or cowboy.
“That non-traditional predator walked into my life 10 years ago and never left. It’s given me ample opportunities over the years to pause, and often scream in bloody terror. If you keep an open mind and hear me out, and learn what I’ve learned, I bet you’ll do the same.
“Like I tell everyone I share this story with, it’s up to you to pick and choose your nightmares. You can’t exactly scrub this stuff from your brain once you read it, so make sure your psychological seatbelt is on if you’re going to keep listening. I don’t want anyone saying I didn’t warn them,” he sighed.
I tucked my pen and pad under my arm and started clapping.
Nick cocked his head to one side, surprised by my reaction.
“Bravo preacher,” I said.
“I’ve heard a lot of carnival shills and snake oil speeches, but that was the best one yet.”
Nick blushed, while Jackson merely looked down at the ground, considering his response.
“Like I said, Ms. Lamb, the most significant indication this wasn’t predators is that there is no blood, no sign of a struggle and no footprints.”
I looked closer. He was right. There was no blood anywhere around the cattle and no evidence of a struggle. There was no torn-up ground, and no hoof or footprints. It was like the cattle had just dropped out of the sky. Based on the depth of the indentations in the soil around them, they just might have.
Right about that time, the sheriff pulled up. “Boys, what have we got?” he called, as he waddled up the slight incline from where he’d parked.
Sheriff Franklin Smith was only 18 months away from retirement if he didn’t drop dead of a heart attack first. Five foot five, and about that big around as well, Frank was obviously a fan of fried food. When he stood a certain way, his tan-colored uniform was strained at points that would cut off a man’s circulation, and his shirt puckered at the buttonholes. His huge stomach swayed as he walked.
I knew he didn’t want to get anywhere near those cattle because he stopped well short of them, and didn’t seem curious about anything other than the fact that they were dead. If he were to kneel down even on one knee to examine them, it wasn’t going to be easy getting him back up again. I bet he knew that.
“Coyotes eh?” Frank said, holding his nose just as I had.
“Aliens, Sheriff,” Jackson said again, with that same animosity.
Frank laughed, but stopped when he saw Nick’s face. He suddenly got very serious and adopted a professional stance. His body may have been round, but he’d managed to hold on to a semblance of a square jaw. It might have been the military buzz cut he sported, but when the sheriff got serious you could easily forget that he looked like a beach ball with legs.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said to Jackson.
I knew that tone. Of course, the fact that there was no hand extended in greeting sealed it for me. Jackson had just been moved to the top of Frank’s shit list and he probably didn’t even know it. I stepped back so I wouldn’t catch any of the fallout when the proverbial cow poop hit the fan.
“Jackson Black, Sheriff. I’m a cattle mutilation researcher from Colorado.”
“That right?” Frank drawled rhetorically in an apparently bored tone, while digging in his shirt pocket for a notebook and pen. He scribbled down Jackson’s name.
“You got an address?”
“I’m staying with Nick.”
“That right Nick?” Frank’s pen was poised above his notebook, waiting.
Nick looked up, startled by the question.
I could tell he was still feeling shocked by having hosted aliens on his farm. He may have believed Jackson, but he was still trying to wrap his head around the details of how extraterrestrials could have abducted, killed and dumped two of his best dairy cows without being seen. He looked at Jackson and then back at Frank.
“Yes, yes that’s right. The preacher’s staying with me.”
He turned and waved towards a pickup truck with a brand new camper in the truck bed, sporting Colorado license plates. Frank’s eyes narrowed. I could tell he disliked Jackson more each time he opened his mouth.
“Colorado? Long way from home aren’t you… preacher?”
“Nick and I met in Denver at the stock show last year,” Jackson volunteered, sensing the sheriff’s mistrust. “He wrote me and asked me to come out when his donkey was killed a while back.”
“Huh,” Frank grunted, looking at them both with serious doubt on his face.
I kept my mouth shut, taking mental notes as I watched the posturing for dominance between the two men. Thanks to Frank’s persistent and pointed questioning over the next 15 minutes, I found out that Jackson wasn’t a real preacher. At least he hadn’t graduated from any Bible school that would admit to having accepted him.
His nickname apparently came from the testimonial about his religious conversion that he gave after every mutilation he investigated. I hadn’t heard it yet, but I was suddenly curious to spend more time with the preacher to hear what else he might have to say. Anyone who could tie cattle mutilations to aliens, God and salvation, got my attention. That “come to Jesus” type talk about aliens he’d just given me wasn’t the traditional fare of any response to a dead animal I’d ever attended, but his fervor and delivery beat any tent revival-trained Southern Baptist six ways to Sunday. I was intrigued.
I had ulterior motives that went beyond my fascination with his oratorical skills and basic investigative research though. The man was damn handsome; not hard on the eyes at all. Sure, he was arrogant and obnoxious, but in a James Dean, dark angel kind of way. He was also about 10 years older and a foot taller than me, and I surmised that his jet-black hair had turned salt and pepper-colored about a decade earlier than he would have liked. He wore his jeans tight on the thighs, baggy in the butt, with the cuffs drooped over his cowboy boots.
I learned that Jackson always wore black. Usually mock turtleneck tee-shirts with a white rectangle sewn on the front so it looked like he was wearing a clerical tabbed-collar shirt. He insisted “preacher” was his nickname and everyone who knew him was happy to oblige him. Everyone, except Frank.
“Well Mr. Black,” Frank challenged, “can’t say as I agree with you on the alien thing. Looks like coyotes to me.”
I was expecting an argument from Jackson. But he simply closed his mouth firmly, crossed his arms and nodded, apparently not surprised.
“Sheriff, I can see how you might think that,” he said.
“Nothing to think about,” Frank said evenly. “I know it.”
“Sheriff, you see any slash marks? Any bite marks on the throat or back legs of these animals?”
The sheriff glanced at each animal without saying anything.
“Coyotes usually chew on the tails too,” Jackson went on. Not a mark on either tail that I can see. No bite marks on the head either. If it was a coyote there’d be a lot more evidence than this.”
Nick looked at Jackson, then back at Frank. Nick was a quiet man, not prone to stirring up trouble. So, if Jackson claimed aliens had abducted and mutilated his cattle, Jackson was who he was going to believe. The sheriff and I were just witnesses to the crime after the fact. Nick would need the sheriff’s report for the insurance company to prove his animals were dead. Beyond that, I don’t think Nick really cared whether the sheriff believed Jackson or not. If that bothered the sheriff at all, he didn’t let it show.
“You calling me a liar?” Frank asked.
Jackson had been at the farm for at least an hour before Frank and I pulled up. I suspected that he hadn’t had to work too hard to convince Nick that the two dead cattle with their teats cut off and their tongues missing were the work of little green men and a fleet of DNA-snatching UFOs. He’d seen Nick’s photos of the calf and donkey that had suffered similar fates. Jackson regretted not having arrived from Colorado the night before, believing he could have stopped the mutilations.
“Not at all Sheriff. I’m just pointing out that there’s no evidence coyotes killed these cows,” Jackson said.
“Dogs didn’t kill them either. Dogs tend to chew the ears, rip the head and shoulders, and just waste the meat. Wasn’t a cougar or mountain lion. They leap on the back and break the neck, bite the base of the skull where it meets the neck. Nothing like that here. Besides, mountain lions don’t leave their prey where it falls. They drag it off and eat it.”
No matter what the sheriff said now, Nick had already seen the alien light and been baptized into whatever religion the preacher was pushing. A staunch, although lapsed Baptist myself, I vowed to remain an alien agnostic, at least until I had a chance to ask Nick more questions. I had to admit that Jackson’s remarks about the missing evidence of a coyote attack made me think twice. I was glad when Jackson followed the sheriff back to his patrol car, giving me time to talk to Nick for a minute.
“Nick, how much do you know about this guy?”
Nick studied me carefully.
“He’s one of the best cattlemen in Colorado, Washington and Wyoming,” he said.
“He and his father are about the most respected cattlemen in the West, maybe even the country. He knows cattle. He described all the signs of alien kills now, just like he did before my animals were killed, and if he’s saying that aliens killed my animals…. well,” he paused and looked down at the two dead cattle. “Well, I tend to believe him,” he said.
“He’s right. None of the animals had any throat or flank bites or tears.”
I nodded. I understood. This guy wasn’t some fly-by-night joker he met in a cowboy bar at a week-long conference. He sounded like he knew his predators, and how they killed too.
“What’d he charge you to come out, if you don’t mind my asking,” I blushed. It wasn’t any of my business, but it was also a question that’d tell me how good a con this was if Jackson were a con man.
“Charge? He didn’t charge me a thing. He asked me if he could stay on my property, and if I’d cook for him while he was here. Says he’s a horrible cook.”
“Really?” I was flustered now, and starting to feel a little guilty. I bent over my notebook and started writing.
“They’re grey, not green,” Jackson said, looking over my shoulder at the notes I was taking. I hadn’t even heard him walk up. When Frank returned, he walked a lot slower than Jackson. I watched as he walked around the dead cows, scribbling in his notebook.
“Yep,” he said loudly to no one in particular, “coyotes.”
It was Jackson’s turn to ignore him and he did, focusing on my notes.
“Sorry, little grey men,” I said, making the notation in the notebook. “That better?”
I rolled my eyes. I was just wasting my time here. There was no way my editor was going to let me write about cattle-abducting aliens and UFOs, if the sheriff was citing “coyotes.” He’d laugh me out of the newsroom. It didn’t matter that the newsroom was just a small office with three battered wooden desks, two aging computers and one coffee pot. We all took the news seriously, whether we were reporting on the winner of the biggest pumpkin competition at the state fair, or a fatality on Route 616.
There were only three of us working at the Virginia Monitor: me, Eddie Decker, the editor and Robert Smith, the sports writer. I’d never hear the end of it. Still, I took notes anyway.
“So, coyotes…. Is that your official conclusion, Sheriff?” I sighed.
“It is indeed,” Frank said, snapping his notebook shut.
“Coyotes it is then,” I said closing my notebook and tucking it back into my bag along with my pen.
Jackson was chewing absentmindedly on a piece of straw and staring off into the distance, scouting I guessed, for the return of a flying saucer.
“And what makes you an expert on cattle mutilations preacher?” I asked. I wanted confirmation of Nick’s assessment, and to give myself more time to appreciate how attractive his profile was. I could hang around and admire him for a few more minutes, even if I did have to listen to his alien talk.
His green eyes narrowed. I watched and waited, my gaze steady and appreciative while he hitched up his black jeans, and crossed one leg over the other to pick at some mud that was stuck on the sole of his boot. He glanced up at me and spit the straw out of his mouth. His left hand rubbed a remarkably flat belly for a middle-aged man, and then he hooked his thumb behind his belt buckle. I noticed the buckle was closer to the size of a salad plate than a bagel, and it was etched with the words, “Bull Riding Champion, 1960.”
“I’ve seen more than a thousand of them in the last 20 years,” he finally replied.
“That right? A thousand? Around here?”
“Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Brazil and Argentina, mostly.”
“Cattle, horses, a couple of pigs and…” he hesitated, “and two humans.”
There was no mistaking my disbelief. I bit my tongue to keep from saying something smartassed.
Frank looked up sharply and flipped his notebook open again. Dead cattle were one thing, dead people were another.
“I’m going to need to see your driver’s license Mr. Black,” he said.
The mention of mutilated bodies had increased Frank’s mistrust by a factor of at least 500.
“You see these mutilations yourself did you?” he asked in that casual tone that police officers use when they think the person they’re talking to is their prime suspect and likely to bolt at any minute. It’s a tactic they use to lull the suspect into believing they’re not a suspect. I was impressed by how well Frank carried it off, almost falling for it myself. Jackson had though, by the way he suddenly warmed up to the sheriff.
“Yes sir,” he said, nodding and digging for his wallet. “Cored out at the anus and genitals and drained of blood just like these cattle.”
He produced the license with a flourish and handed it to Frank.
Nick Edwards looked at the ground, then picked up a rock and took a sudden interest in every facet of it while the sheriff studied Jackson’s license. The sheriff wrote down what he needed so he could run a check that would verify Jackson’s identity.
The preacher watched Frank calmly while he scribbled in his notebook. If he was a murderer he was one cool, calm son-of-a-gun, I thought to myself.
“Got a copy of the report and photos of the body in the truck,” Jackson offered.
“I bet you do,” Frank said. “Of course, I’d like to see that. I’ll walk over with you so you can show me.”
Once the two men were out of earshot, Nick sighed. “Nobody but Jackson believes me,” he said.
Ranchers don’t generally cry unless they’ve been pulled through a piece of machinery, or their dog has died. But Nick clearly hadn’t gotten that memo because tears started streaming down his face.
“Those cows are my best producers,” he said. “I can’t afford that kind of loss.”
I didn’t know what to tell him, so I just listened, stealing the odd glance over at Jackson and the sheriff. The two men spent a long time at Jackson’s truck, talking and handing photos and papers back and forth. Eventually they shook hands and returned to where Nick and I were still standing by the dead cattle.
“Nick,” Frank said. “Like I said before, I think you’ve got yourself a coyote problem here. Mr. Black here’s welcome to believe what he wants to believe, but my official report is going to say coyotes. You okay with that?”
He was telling, not asking.
Nick glanced at the preacher and shrugged. “Sure Frank. I’m okay with that.”
Jackson nodded once.
The sheriff continued with his business, filling out a form and having Nick sign it. When they were finished he started to head back towards his patrol car, but stopped and turned around to say one more thing.
“You can burn ’em or bury ’em. Won’t be needing anything else,” he said, hitching up his pants and rearranging how his stomach lapped over his utility belt. One hand rested lightly on the butt of his revolver as he glanced at the cattle and then back at the preacher. He seemed to be studying his face and committing it to memory. I could tell he thought he’d be seeing Jackson again.