Chapter I: Hunter, Hunted

 Bob Schultz crept through the trees with his Browning 30.06 semi-automatic rifle pointed ahead. He was an elderly man, dressed in camouflaged fatigues and a floppy cammo hat with combat boots.          

A tree branch snapped loudly over the cool evening breeze, catching his attention. Schultz held his hand up for his partner, Bo Davis, to freeze.

Bo, a short, stocky man in his early thirties, wore a fluorescent vest with fatigues and a baseball cap. He carried a Remington Genesis rifle with a night scope.

“See anything?” whispered Davis.

“Wait here. I’ll see if I can flush it out in the open.”

“We’ve been at it all day. I think we earned this one.”

“We sure ain’t goin’ home empty-handed this time,” said Schultz as he slipped into the trees.

Davis leaned against a pine tree with his rifle pointed toward the clearing. As he waited nervously for the deer to emerge, he thought to himself, “This could be the big one. We’ll show them boys at the lodge.”

Perspiration dripped from his forehead. He impatiently fingered the trigger and murmured, “Come on, Bobby. Flush him out where I can paint his sorry ass.”

Schultz stepped cautiously through the bushes and trees. He approached several large boulders near the base of the rocky ridge and climbed atop one of them for a better view.

Something moved in the darkness at the top of the ridge and numerous rocks cascaded down upon him, catching him off guard. He dodged most of them few but one caught him in the shoulder and staggered him.

“Damn you, you son-of-a-bitch!” bellowed Schultz.

He climbed to the top of the ridge and searched angrily for the cause of the small rockslide in the fading twilight.

“Someone’s going to pay for this. Probably one of them PETA fools,” he muttered.

Beyond the ridge was a gray bullet-shaped spacecraft. Its side hatch was open, projecting a ray of light off the nearby trees. Without the light from the hatch, it would be hard to notice.

“Well, I’ll be!” Schultz uttered when he saw the spaceship.

His heart raced as he considered shooting the world’s first alien visitor. Another branch snapped nearby.

“I ain’t got time for you PETA fools now. I got an alien to bag,” Schultz mumbled sarcastically.

Schultz cautiously approached the ship with his rifle poised to fire.            The outline of a strange creature stood in the doorway of the hatch and waited patiently. He strained to see what the creature looked like but the bright light inside the ship blurred its features.

“Come on out, ET, with your hands up!” he shouted as he inched closer.

The creature backed away from the doorway and vanished.

“I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.”

He crept in front of the hatch and pointed his rifle inside the spaceship. “Don’t piss me off, ET. You’d best get your funky-ass butt out here before I get mad.”

Schultz peered through the hatch and was amazed. Inside the spaceship, instrument panels blinked multicolored lights. A large glass tube, filled with pink fluid on a metal base, was positioned in the middle of the floor with a live sponge-like creature suspended inside the container. Several conduits ran along the base and up a steel column to each instrument panel.

“Don’t make me come in there! I’m giving you three to come out,” warned Schultz.

Branches snapped in the trees to his right. He backed away from the hatch and called out, “Is that you, Bo! Don’t be screwing around or I’ll whoop your ass. We got us an alien encounter here.”

Schultz heard more branches break in the trees on his left. His heart beat faster as he moved fearfully away from the ship. His breathing became irregular and he shuddered.

“Sons-of-bitches are askin’ for it now,” he uttered nervously.

Schultz pointed the rifle into the spaceship. “If you don’t come out, I’ll fill this tin can with so many holes, it’ll never fly again,” he screamed frantically.

A large branch broke to Schultz’s right and startled him. “Alright, you really pissed me off now!” He turned away from the hatch and stomped angrily toward the trees.

“Someone’s going down, now!”

An alien creature exited the ship and crept up to Schultz from behind. It was similar to humans in some ways: pairs of arms and legs, a head with eyes and a mouth.

The mouth was full of sharp teeth and opened wide. Its outer skin resembled that of an alligator – rough and leathery. Sixteen tiny appendages protruded from its chest in two rows of eight and quivered with drops of clear alien hormone dripping from each one. The creature wore a metal band around its head with a small flap that covered its left ear and attached to its throat with two electrodes.

Two more of the creatures emerged from the forest and stalked Schultz.

“Holy Mother of God! What the hell are you?” he cried out in fright.

The alien from the ship grabbed him from behind and pulled the rifle out of his hands. Schultz struggled to get free but a pink tubular tongue shot from the alien’s mouth and wrapped itself around his neck. Small bristles emerged from the creature’s tongue and injected a paralyzing agent into his throat muscles and vocal cords.

The alien dropped the rifle on the ground and held Schultz firmly in its grasp. The tiny appendages retracted until Schultz’s back was pressed against the chest. The appendages then darted out again and penetrated both sides of his spine, injecting him with hormone. Schultz shuddered and his eyes rolled back in his head.

The other two aliens watched eagerly as Schultz struggled helplessly. Their white teeth and dark, shiny eyes shone eerily in the moonlight.

The tubular tongue slowly released from Schultz’s neck and retracted into the alien’s mouth with a slithering sound. It released Schultz and let him fall to the ground motionless.

A low-pitched whirr emitted from one of the control panels inside the ship. One alien became visibly annoyed and asked the other, “What do we do about them, Shurek? They’re going to keep hunting us until they find us.”

Shurek approached the alien named Kroll and grabbed at a flap on his chest.

“Please don’t do that. I only asked you a question,” pleaded Kroll.

“You let me deal with them. You and Grimwold just stick to the plan, understand?”

Kroll nodded and replied humbly, “I didn’t mean any disrespect, Shurek. I just wondered.”

“Well don’t wonder. Just do your job.”

Shurek released his hold on Kroll’s flap and hurried into the ship.

Kroll delicately lifted the flap and inspected a gray worm, which hung inside a small, fleshy chamber. When he poked at the worm, it curled up. He sighed with relief and delicately closed the flap over the chamber.

Grimwold laughed cynically in a garbled tone.

“You keep it up and I’ll rip out your whole worm sac,” warned Kroll.

Grimwold laughed harder and taunted, “And do what, Kroll, make love to it?”

Kroll glared at Grimwold with a chilling glaze.

Shurek returned from inside the ship and slapped Kroll in the back of his head. The metal band fell from Kroll’s head and landed in the grass.

“Stop causing trouble, Kroll,” chided Shurek.

Without the interpreting device, Kroll could only respond in his alien dialect. He crawled on all fours in the grass and searched for his band.

“Jasper’s ship is still far away. They don’t have coordinates on us yet,” he continued.

“That should leave us plenty of time to build up an army,” replied Grimwold.

“I’m not taking any chances. Now let’s get moving.”

Kroll found his metal band out and placed it on his head. He connected the probes to his throat and warned Shurek, “Don’t do that again.”

   “Or what? What will you do to me, Kroll?”

   “One day you might need me to watch your back and I just might forget.”

   “I don’t see how I’ll ever need you. You’re a mess,” mocked Shurek.

   Schultz got to his feet and walked awkwardly toward the aliens. His face swelled and his jaw protruded with two upper fangs and irregular, pointed teeth. His limbs grew longer and he hunched over like an ape.

“I think he’ll do,” remarked Shurek.

“Can we trust him?” inquired Grimwold.

   Shurek approached Schultz and asked, “Was anyone else with you?”

Schultz nodded and answered in a course, raspy voice, “Only Bo.”

“Don’t come back until you’ve killed him.”

Foamy saliva dribbled from Schultz’s lip onto his boot. His clothes stretched tightly against his growing limbs until they tore.

“I’ll eat Bo. I’m hungry.”

“Get out of here, now!”

Schultz grinned, baring his crooked, broken teeth, and trudged into the trees.

“These humans might transform into better soldiers than we thought,” remarked Grimwold.

“We still don’t know how they’ll mutate with the DNA compound and the worms when they’re inserted inside them,” replied Kroll uneasily.

“Why don’t you shut up? You’re really starting to annoy me,” barked Shurek disgustedly.

Kroll walked away in frustration and entered the ship.

Shurek pointed toward three lights in the valley. “We’ll start over,” he said.

“This’ll be easy,” replied Grimwold.

“Just make sure we keep them quiet. I don’t want any problems, understand?”

Grimwold sneered at Shurek and darted into the forest. Shurek stared angrily for several seconds and followed him.

**********

 

Moonlight cast an eerie glow from just over the ridge and created lurking shadows across lumpy clods of grass.

Bo fidgeted as he waited impatiently. “Where the hell are you, Schultz?” he muttered.

Fear took over and Bo crept along the perimeter of the clearing, holding his rifle tightly in his hands. He searched but there was no sign of Schultz.

“You and me are gonna’ have a talk about this, buddy,” Bo grumbled angrily to himself

Bo ascended the rocky slope toward the top of the ridge. Schultz hid behind him in the clearing and lobbed a rock at him. Bo heard the rock bounce and saw someone dart along the edge of the clearing.

“If this is a practical joke, someone’s gonna’ have a hole in their ass the size of this damn mountain!” warned Bo.

Schultz waited patiently in the trees as Bo unknowingly approached him.

Bo pointed his flashlight around the perimeter of the clearing and briefly aimed the light in Schultz’s eyes.

Schultz’s eyes ached and angered him. He burst out of the trees and rushed at Bo.

Bo was horrified when he saw what Schultz had become. He aimed his rifle while holding the flashlight and ordered, “Stop right there. Bo! If this is a joke, I’ll kick your friggin’ ass!”

Bo now realized that the horrible creature Schultz became was real. The fangs convinced him that this was no joke. He fired at Schultz from about ten feet.

Schultz staggered and covered his chest with his left claw. He snarled rabidly at Bo. Bo aimed the rifle again but this time Schultz lunged at him with surprising speed. The two tumbled across the ground as Bo desperately tried to defend himself against the much stronger creature that Schultz became.

Schultz ripped Bo’s rifle and flashlight from his grasp and tossed them aside. They lay nearby in the grass just out of his reach.

Schultz sat on Bo’s chest and savagely tore into his right arm with his teeth. Bo gouged at Schultz’s eye with his left hand but only angered his attacker more. Schultz ripped off Bo’s right arm and beat him with it. He shoved his clawed hand through Bo’s abdomen and ripped out his intestines.

Bo’s cries carried across the dark forest, unheard by anyone in the chilly night air. Schultz held Bo’s entrails in the air like a prize and howled.

When Schultz finished devouring the flesh from Bo’s body, he staggered through the trees to a trail. He looked down at the bullet wound in his chest and grunted. Reddish brown blood oozed from the wound. After three more steps, he stumbled and fell to the ground dead.

Bo’s headless body was a heap of broken bones and bloody pieces of flesh. His head lay sideways in the grass with his eyes frozen wide-open; displaying the fear he died with. A short length of spine extended from the severed neck and quivered briefly as his right eye twitched one final time.

**********

 

Two college students, a male and female, hiked along the dirt trail up the side of Grahams’ Mountain in the early morning hours. The woman wore a gray sweatshirt and sweat pants with a red headband holding her long blond hair behind her. She walked ahead of her partner.

The young man wore denim shorts and a tank top. A dark blue bandana was tied around his shaven head. He carried a black backpack over his shoulders and breathed heavily as he attempted to keep up.

“Come on, Steve. I thought you were in shape,” the young woman teased.

“I am, Jill. Remember, I worked all night while you slept.”

“Oh, stop whining.”

Jill noticed someone lying on the ground about twenty feet away and paused.

“What’s wrong?” asked Steve as he stood next to her.

“There’s a body on the ground.”

Steve cautiously approached Schultz’s body while Jill stayed back.

“Is he alive?” she asked nervously.

Steve saw the gunshot wound in the chest and knew the man was dead. The deformed face and teeth of Schultz’s corpse stunned him. He suggested to Jill, “You’d better call the Sheriff. This isn’t pretty.”

Jill opened a small pouch tied to her waist and took out her cell phone. She dialed the Sheriff’s office and waited patiently.

Steve knelt close to Schultz’s body and examined it. He saw pieces of stringy flesh caught in the dead man’s teeth. The two fangs in the top of Schultz’s mouth intrigued him.

“So, what in the hell happened to you?” he muttered to himself.

**********

 

Sheriff Justin Bowles sat at his desk flipping through photographs. He was a large African-American man in his early thirties, dressed in a tan uniform with a shaved head. He took the position of sheriff in Parmissing valley because he feared confrontation with people, particularly in populated areas. When he was offered the job, he thought, “How much violence could possibly happen in a hick town like this?”

Deputy Johnny Watkins entered through the front door. He wore the brown work uniform a little undersized for his physique. He worked out a lot and liked to show off to the ladies. He was in his middle twenties and easily the most sought after bachelor in Parmissing Valley. He and Justin became friends over the six months that Justin served as sheriff.

“Internet’s faster if you’re looking for a handsome guy for a date, Sheriff,” he teased.

Justin put the photos down and replied sarcastically, “For your information, Deputy Know-it-all, we have four missing persons reported this morning – all unrelated but all from the vicinity of Graham’s Mountain.”

“Maybe they went for a hike or something.”

“No, I don’t think so. A mother doesn’t leave three young children to go for a hike in the middle of the night. Furthermore, her door was bashed in like maybe a bear came through.”

“Did the kids hear anything?”

“They’re a little young to tell: an infant, a two year old girl and a three year old boy.”

“Where’s the father?” inquired Johnny.

“Hasn’t been around in a few days. Neighbors say he was looking for work outside of town. I have a few of my men asking around for him. Right now, those kids need a parent.”

“Who else has disappeared?”

“A security guard from a gated community on the ridge; a sixty-year old man without his wheel chair; and a pizza delivery boy,” answered Justin.

“All last night?”

“Uh-huh.”

The phone rang and interrupted them.

“This could be your big break, Sheriff. Ed McMahon of Reader’s Digest: Sheriff Bowles, you’ve just won …”

“Shut up, will you!” snapped Justin.

Johnny chuckled and poured himself a cup of coffee from the urn on the counter.

Justin answered the telephone. “Parmissing Valley Police Department – Sheriff Bowles speaking.”

He sat up attentively and scrawled on a piece of newspaper. “Slow down, ma’am. Are you sure he’s dead?” Justin asked nervously.

Johnny’s face turned somber and he pulled up a chair next to the sheriff’s desk.

“Just relax, ma’am. We’ll be there in forty minutes. Stay right there.”

He hung up the phone and sighed. “Seven thirty in the morning and it’s already one of those days.”

He rubbed his temples with both hands and covered his face.

“Well, what happened?” asked Johnny anxiously.

Justin leaned back in his chair and frowned. “Two hikers on the Pomona Trail found a dead guy, they think.”

“They can’t tell if he’s dead or not? What morons!”

“No, he’s dead alright. They just aren’t sure if he’s a ‘he’.”

“That’s even worse if they can’t tell if it’s a male or female,” Johnny remarked sarcastically.

Justin explained angrily, “The corpse doesn’t look human, you fool!”

Johnny became silent and waited for further clarification.

Justin strolled across the office to a clothes tree in the corner and retrieved his gun belt. After strapping it around his waist, he loaded his .45 Colt Diamondback.

“You’re serious!” exclaimed Johnny.

“Get your gear and get in the truck. We’re going up there to find out what the hell’s going on. If this is a joke, I’m gonna’ bust some heads.”

Johnny gulped down his coffee and tossed the Styrofoam cup in the trashcan. He grabbed a shotgun from the cabinet and a box of shells.

Justin reluctantly hurried out the door and climbed into the police SUV.

Johnny held the shotgun over his shoulder with one hand and followed the sheriff outside.

Justin started the engine and shifted into drive while keeping his foot on the brake.

Johnny opened the passenger-side door and climbed in.

“You’re not playing around today, are you?” Johnny asked.

“Missing people and unanswered questions don’t make for good job security even in a small town like Parmissing Valley.”

“How about I call Kaz and tell him to stand by?”

“Tell him to meet us up there. The hiker is convinced the body is deceased, no matter what it is.”

Johnny took out his cell phone and dialed.

Justin stared ahead glumly as he drove toward Graham’s Mountain.

**********

 

George Kazmerski was the Parmissing Valley coroner, who resided in a small home on the outskirts of town. He was short, fifty-two years old and Asian. He took the job of coroner ten years ago to get out of the big city rat race and enjoy country living in his senior years.

George sat at a round, glass table on his back patio and sipped coffee while reading the PV Daily Press. The yard was enclosed with a red brick wall and full of flowering shrubs. He was proud of his gardening skills and the colorful array of flowers, trees and bushes he cultivated over the years. He spent many of his mornings on the patio with a hot cup of coffee surrounded by the sounds of chirping birds in his garden.

The telephone rang and ruined the peaceful atmosphere. “So much for hot coffee,” he grumbled.

George reached inside the back door and took the phone from the wall.

“Hello, George Kaz speaking.”

He stepped inside the kitchen and sat down at the table.

Johnny greeted him from his cell phone in a professional tone, “Good morning, Mr. Kazmerski. This is Deputy Watkins of the Parmissing Valley Sheriff’s Department.”

“Okay, Magnum, what can I do for you?” George replied playfully.

“Kaz, you’re supposed to respect the law, not make fun of it.”

“Sir, yes sir.”

“That’s better. We have a cold one for you up on the Pomona trail on Graham’s Mountain. Can you meet us there?”

“Do you have a name?” he asked.

“Not yet. A couple of hikers found the body. Why?”

“Two of my friends went hunting yesterday and didn’t come home.”

“Who were your friends?” asked Johnny curiously.

“Bo Davis and Bob Schultz. Emily Schultz called me this morning and asked if I heard anything. Didn’t she call you guys?”

“Maybe she left a message. I didn’t check the answering machine yet.”

“I told her not to worry. Maybe the boys had a few drinks and they’re sleeping it off somewhere.”

“I’ll let the Sheriff know. Thanks, Kaz.”

“See you in a bit.”

George hung up the phone and closed the sliding glass door. He took his ring of keys off a hook on the wall and exited the front door.

Johnny paused for a moment before stowing his cell phone, arousing the sheriff’s wrath.

“Well, is he coming or what?”

Johnny put the cell phone inside his jacket and replied, “Kaz says two of his friends went hunting yesterday and didn’t come home. One’s wife called him, asking if he knew anything.”

“You got names?”

“Bo Davis and Bob Schultz.”

Justin’s eyes widened. “No shit! I’ve known Schultzy for years,” exclaimed Justin. “He’s a tough son-of-a-bitch.”

“Maybe they got drunk and slept it off or something.”

“I hope so. Otherwise, our list of missing persons just grew to six.”

“The kids’ father is still missing. That could be seven,” Johnny remarked.

“Johnny.”

“Yes, Sheriff.”

“Shut up.”

Johnny stared ahead and said nothing the rest of the ride. The sheriff’s unusual behavior bothered him.

**********

 

Grimwold hid in the trees and studied the two hikers. Shurek also lurked nearby in the trees, closer to Schultz’s body.

 Jill kept her distance from Schultz’s corpse and complained to Steve, “Why can’t we get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”

“The Sheriff told you to wait here.”

Steve knelt with his back to Jill. He pulled open Schultz’s mouth and studied the fangs and disarranged teeth.

“You know, Jill, we might have found a missing link or something like it. This guy can’t be human.”

Jill placed her arms on her hips and looked annoyed. “Whoop-de-doo!” she said mockingly.

Grimwold crept toward Jill from behind and reached with his reptilian arms.

“We’ve been together over three years, Steven, and you’re more insensitive now than when we first met,” complained Jill.

Steve ignored her and probed Schultz’s temples and cheeks for bone structure.

Grimwold’s mouth opened and his tongue emerged like a cobra waiting to strike.

Jill stared nervously at Schultz’s body with her arms folded tightly against her body.

Grimwold’s tongue whipped around Jill’s neck and quickly tightened. Short needles emerged from his tongue and penetrated Jill’s throat. She tried to scream but the chemical from Grimwold’s tongue numbed her vocal chords.

The alien pressed her against his chest and inhaled excitedly in short gasps as sixteen appendages injected themselves into either side of Jill’s spine. Jill’s eyes rolled back in her head and her body quivered violently.

Steve unknowingly quipped, “You know what you need?” He turned around and was horrified when he saw Jill. “Oh, my God!” he cried.

Jill’s fingers reached toward Steve in desperation until she lost consciousness.

Grimwold retracted his tongue and released his hold on Jill. She fell limply to the ground.

Steve stared in horror as he slowly retreated away from Grimwold. Shurek stepped out of the trees behind him and waited patiently. His tongue extended from his mouth and hovered behind Steve’s head.

Steve turned to run but stepped into Shurek’s waiting clutches. Shurek wrapped his tubular tongue around his neck and injected the paralyzing chemical into his throat.

Steve grabbed the tongue and struggled to get free but to no avail. He desperately tried to scream but no sound came from his mouth.

Grimwold approached Steve from behind and pulled him against his chest. The tiny appendages grappled into either side of Steve’s spine and injected alien hormone into him. Shurek retracted his tongue and backed away.

Grimwold threw Steve’s unconscious body over his shoulder and remarked, “This is gonna’ be easier than we thought.”

Shurek picked up Jill’s limp body and tossed her over his shoulder. Her cell phone fell from her hip pouch and landed in the grass.

“We still have a lot of work to do. Don’t get stupid, Grimwold.”

Grimwold sneered at Shurek as the two carried their prey through the forest to the spaceship.

“I’m gonna’ enjoy making slaves of these people. They’re so damn fragile,” said Grimwold arrogantly.

Shurek scowled and ignored him. He knew Grimwold’s complacency could ruin everything.

**********

 

The police SUV arrived on the Pomona Trail and parked near Schultz’s corpse. Justin stepped out of the vehicle and scanned the area. He saw no sign of the hikers.

Johnny opened the door and stepped out of the vehicle. He looked around the area as well.

“That’s strange. There’s no sign of the hikers,” complained Justin. “I told them to wait until I got here.”

“Maybe they got nervous being around a dead body and left.”

“Or maybe they went for coffee and doughnuts, too, you lunkhead.”

“Come on, Sheriff. Lighten up.”

Justin drew his pistol and called out, “Anyone out here?”

Johnny reached into the back seat and took out the shotgun. He loaded it and scanned the area again.

“Hello! Anyone here?” Justin shouted again.

The wind whistled through the trees, creating goose bumps on Justin’s arms. He had a strange feeling that something was watching them.

Johnny had the same feeling and stayed close to Justin. The two men surveyed the area with worried expressions.

“Don’t see nothin’ peculiar, Sheriff,” remarked Johnny.

“Did you check out the area yet? I didn’t think so,” said Justin sarcastically.

“All I meant was… Oh, never mind.”

Justin approached Schultz’s corpse. “Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut until we figure out what’s going on here,” Justin ordered.

“Yes, sir.”

Johnny paced around the perimeter searching for potential evidence in the trees and grass. Justin knelt over the corpse and grew concerned.

“It’s Schultz alright, or at least it used to be,” he said somberly.

“What killed him?” asked Johnny.

Justin examined the bullet wound and replied, “I’d say a bullet to the chest, although I have no friggin’ idea what happened to him before he got the bullet.”

Johnny found Jill’s cell phone in the grass and picked it up. “Hey, Sheriff, looks like someone lost their cell phone.”

“That’s right, screw up the evidence, you muttonhead. This is a crime scene, you know,” he chided.

Justin took a folded plastic sandwich bag from his pocket and handed it to his deputy. Johnny took the bag and tucked the cell phone inside it.

“Sorry, Sheriff. I wasn’t thinking,” he said humbly.

Justin returned to Schultz’s corpse and examined it.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was poisoned and shot, but this would certainly be the worst damn case of rigor mortis I’ve ever seen.”

Johnny saw a small pool of glistening substance on the dirt and grass. He knelt down and studied it.

“Hey, Sheriff, there’s something on the ground over here.”

Justin left the body and approached him. “What do you got?” he asked curiously.

“Looks like clear syrup.”

Justin knelt down and stirred the substance with a stick. The substance was viscous and dripped slowly from the stick.

“Get the sample kit out of the truck. Get as much of this stuff as you can without the dirt.”

“Right away, Sheriff.”

Johnny went to the SUV and opened the rear hatch.

Justin eyed a rough trail through the grass and trees. He considered following it but thought better of it. Bravery wasn’t one of his strong points.

“Sheriff, it’s Flores. Come in, please,” said an urgent man’s voice from the radio.

Justin plodded to the vehicle and reached inside for the mike.

“Go ahead, Flores,” he said anxiously.

“We found traces of a strange substance on Noel Kemmerman’s wheelchair.”

“Let me guess, it’s thick and clear and syrupy,” Justin quipped cynically

“Sure is.”

“Finish up and report to the Pomona Trail. Bring Nickerson with you.”

“Will do, Sheriff.”

Justin tossed the radio mike on the seat. Johnny brought a small plastic container to him.

“Here it is, Sheriff.”

“Well put it in the truck already! What do you want me to do with it?” uttered Justin.

Johnny realized that the sheriff was frightened. He learned to tolerate the sheriff’s lousy attitude when he was stressed but the Sheriff was much more stressed than he had ever seen before.

George Kazmerski pulled up in his Suburban marked Parmissing Valley Coroner’s Office. He got out of the Suburban, carrying a tool bag and a rolled up body bag with him.

Justin waved him over to the body and greeted him somberly, “Morning, George.”

“Hey, Sheriff. What do we have today?”

“Bullet hole in the chest but I’m not sure what it’s the chest of.”

George glanced at the body and uttered in mild surprise, “Geez, Schultz was a friend of mine but it sure doesn’t look like him, though.”

George put on a pair of latex gloves and knelt over the corpse. He checked for a pulse and studied the pupils.

“I guess he’s got rigor pretty bad,” remarked Justin.

“Shouldn’t do this to him, though. I’ll need to get an autopsy on him immediately. He looks pretty messed up for being dead less than twenty-four hours,” answered George as he examined the teeth.

He laid out the body bag on the ground and looked up at Justin. “You know the drill,” he said.

“Johnny, get your ass over here and give us a hand,” ordered Justin.

The three of them maneuvered Schultz’s corpse onto the body bag and lifted it into the rear of the Suburban.

“Chris’ sakes, Mr. Schultz could’ve stood to loose a few pounds,” complained Johnny.

“Watch your mouth, boy. Don’t be usin’ the Lord’s name in vain,” chastised Justin.

“Sorry, Sheriff. My bad.”

George took off the latex gloves and tossed them on the bag.

“Well, Sheriff, I’ll take our boy back and see what I can find out.”

“Thanks, George. I’ll stop by later.”

George shook hands with the two men.

“Keep the Sheriff out of trouble, will you, Johnny?” kidded George.

“Sheriff’s a handful but I’ll try.”

George climbed in his Suburban and drove off.

“Let’s take another look around. Keep your eyes open and your gun ready.”

“I got you covered, Sheriff.”

The two men searched the trees for an hour and found nothing. Justin eyed the crude trail and again considered following it. He knew he should do it but he really didn’t care if he found the killer or not, especially without backup. So long as Johnny didn’t notice the path, he wasn’t going to sweat it.

“That’s enough. Let’s get out of here,” Justin ordered.

Johnny retreated away from the trees and joined the Sheriff.

“Not much to go on out here, is there?”

“No, there isn’t,” said Justin stoically.

Johnny climbed in the passenger side of the SUV. Justin got in the driver’s side and started the truck.

“Flores and Nickerson should have been here by now,” complained Justin.

Johnny picked up the radio mike.

“Come in Flores. This is Deputy Watkins. Come in, Flores.”

“You got the right channel?” asked Justin.

“Of course, I do, Sheriff.”

Johnny again called, “Flores. Nickerson. Come in, will you?

There was no response.

“That’s not a good sign,” said Johnny uneasily.

The two men glanced at each other briefly and then at the road ahead.

As Justin drove the vehicle down the mountain trail, he tormented himself over what a coward he was but he learned to hide it and at least pretend to be a tough guy.

Johnny valued his friendship with Justin and pandered to him in difficult situations which helped Justin masquerade his cowardice. Until now, the worst thing that happened was a couple of lost teenagers in the forest.

Justin took out his cell phone and called the local news station. He informed them of Schultz’s death and his pending investigation.

“Do you think that was smart, Sheriff?” inquired Johnny.

“They’d find out anyway and then they’d be after my hide again. Media’s a dangerous animal, you know.”

Justin pulled off to the side of the road and thought, “If I go back there without any answers, the press will have a field day with me.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Johnny.

“Call in Jonesy and Mayberry. We have to get to the bottom of this.”

Johnny was surprised by the Sheriff’s change of heart. He took the radio mike and called in the other three units.

Justin turned the vehicle around and drove back up to the trail.

**********

 

Inside the spaceship, Grimwold and Shurek watched their latest victims mutate on the floor of the control room.

Jill spasmed and quivered as her face pulsed. Her jaw extended and her teeth became disjointed. Two short fangs grew from out of her upper jaw. Her back snapped as it hunched and her groans became snarls.

Steve moaned as he rolled across the shiny metal floor. His cheeks enlarged and his eyes rolled back in his head momentarily. His limbs grew longer and his back hunched with a loud crack.

“Looks like they’re reverting to a primitive stage of their evolution,” remarked Shurek.

“Maybe they were never that smart to begin with. How long will they mutate for?”

“Who knows? Maybe they’ll never stop.”

Kroll, the third alien, entered and announced, “I found a cave nearby for these things to stay until we’re ready to use them.”

“It’s about time you used your head,” replied Shurek.

Two disfigured humans entered the spaceship wearing tattered police uniforms.  The nametags read ‘Flores’ and ‘Nickerson’.

“Unlike you, I’ve been busy,” chided Kroll.

Shurek looked pleased with him. “Maybe you are worth keeping around, Kroll,” he said mockingly.

“Very funny, Shurek.”

Shurek took Flores’ pistol from his belt and examined it. His claws were too big to work the trigger.

“We should find someone to teach us about their weapons,” complained Shurek.

“We could implant our DNA compound inside them,” suggested Grimwold.

“No, not in the mutated humans. Their brains are already damaged.”

“I don’t think we should use the DNA. We don’t know what will happen,” advised Kroll.

“That’s why we have these,” scoffed Shurek.

He lifted the fleshy flap and exposed a small cavity in the right side of his chest. Inside, a gray worm about two inches long with numerous little legs, dangled from the roof of the cavity.

“We can control them after we give them the DNA,” added Grimwold.

Kroll shook his head in disbelief.

“You’d better be careful. We don’t know what they’ll become,” he warned.

“Don’t you have something better to do, Kroll, than to irritate me to no end?” chastised Shurek.

Kroll glared at Shurek disgustedly and ordered the mutants, “Follow me. I’ll take you to your new home.”

Jill and Steve obediently followed Kroll out of the ship. They walked, using their elongated arms as legs, just like gorillas. At first glance, they appeared to be creatures from a prehistoric era with tattered clothes but closer inspection showed traces of their human features still remained.

**********

 

George Kazmerski pulled into the parking lot of the Parmissing Valley City Morgue and backed the vehicle toward the double-door entrance on the side of the building.

The morgue resembled an old firehouse, made from red brick. It stood two stories high, square in shape, and had few windows on either of the two floors. The parking lot on the right side was just large enough to hold five vehicles. In a small city like Parmissing Valley, the morgue didn’t get much action except for the elderly when they moved on to a higher plane of life. Crime was nearly nonexistent in their town.

George got out of the Suburban and walked around to the rear. He looked sullen as he opened the rear door. The worst part of the job of a coroner is doing an autopsy on someone you know.

A large woman, dressed in an unsightly rainbow-colored sundress, opened the double doors. She propped them with two wooden wedges and squinted as she looked up at the morning sun.

“Looks like we’re working a little overtime today, huh, George?”

“Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s a friend of mine.”

“An old geezer?”

“No, a younger friend.”

“What happened to him?”

“Gunshot wound and possible poisoning.”

“Damn. We can’t afford to lose healthy, young men around here, especially when there’s a good-hearted, single woman like myself on the market.”

Greta reached into the Suburban and unzipped the body bag far enough to see the face of George Schultz.

“Although in his case, I would have thrown him back for the other women to fight over,” she remarked cynically.

George was amused by her comment and smiled.

“Greta, you’re a real trip, you know that?”

“Just making an honest assessment.”

“I’m sure you are.”

George slid the gurney halfway out of the vehicle and struggled to lower the wheels on it. He broke a sweat as he held the gurney tightly.

“Why don’t you let me help you out with that?” Greta offered as she reached underneath the gurney and unlatched the wheels.

“Thanks, Greta. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” George said appreciatively.

The wheels descended slowly and locked in.

“You’re getting old, George? You never had trouble with the gurney before.”

“It’s not me, Greta. I don’t know what happened to Schultz but he weighs a ton.”

Greta patted him on the back.

“That’s what Viagra’s for. It’ll make you feel like a new man,” she suggested.

“I don’t need Viagra, Greta! He’s just really heavy.”

George strained as he pushed the gurney through the doors.

“Nothing to be ashamed of, George. Young men are getting primed with that stuff, too. Women love it.”

George pushed the gurney past Greta’s desk through another door and into a dim hallway.

Greta closed the outside doors and followed him into the hall.

“Why don’t you replace some of these lights? Maybe you’ll be able to see where you’re going,” she suggested.

George wiped the sweat from his brow and became irritated.

“Greta, don’t you have work to do?”

“I get the point, George. I’ll leave you be.”

“Thank you,” replied George with a note of relief in his voice.

George waited as Greta entered the lobby. He pushed the gurney into the fourth room and chocked it next to a steel table. With a sigh, he leaned against the wall and rested.