It's been a while since I've offered up a free story. This one is from my most recent horror collection, Fool's Fire.
"An Occurrence at Kendrick Outdoors," as noted in my preface to Fool's Fire, is notable for a couple of reasons. One is that it marks a return to the Kendrick family, last seen in "The Worst 1s Yet to Come," from my Jagged Edges & Moving Parts collection. The other is that it was prompted by a true story told to me by a friend. You'll have to decide for yourself how much of it really happened and how much is pure invention.
There's also a literary nod in this one, but I don't want to spoil all the fun.
An Occurrence at Kendrick Outdoors
With the sun peeking over the horizon, Carl Kendrick pulls his utility pickup into the parking lot of his store. Time to open for the day, but right away something doesn’t feel right. He parks facing the building, several yards from the front door. That’s when he sees movement at his periphery. He turns his head and sees a man stumbling toward him from around the corner of the building. The man has long hair, knotted together in places from lack of attention, and wears only a pair of cargo shorts. No shoes or anything. An uneven beard hangs from his chin. Black-ink tattoos adorn most of his arms and upper body. One across his chest reads Rock Hard. It would project strength on a man of intimidating size, but on this guy’s wasted frame it seems a pathetic phrase to be toting around.
Carl realizes what must have struck him as off when he pulled into the lot. The property’s drive runs past the side of Kendrick Outdoors where the strange man emerged from. Carl’s guess is that he subconsciously noticed a broken window on his approach and that the sparsely clad man exited the building from a side door after having broken in, but not until Carl has parked.
The man is saying something, so Carl powers down his window.
“What’s that?” Carl says.
The man continues his approach. “I’m really sorry about the window, man. I’ll pay you back for that.”
Carl can see blood on the man’s arm. “What are you doing here?”
“Have you been down below, to the City? Can you show me? They won’t let me in.” He reaches for the door handle on Carl’s pickup and unlatches it.
“Okay, now. Hey, back up a little.”
The man does as he’s told and Carl steps out of the vehicle. Immediately the stranger lunges at Carl, waggling his tongue in his face and mumbling curses. Carl pushes him hard and reaches behind him for something in the pickup, then forgets what it was and turns to face the man once more. They stare at each other for a long time. Disquiet has left the man, replaced by an almost angelic look of peacefulness. He then turns and heads back in the direction he came from. Carl follows.
“I’m really sorry about that window,” he says again under his breath as they round the corner. “I’m good for it, though. Just say how much and I’ll have my people wire you the money, I swear. Say, do you hear that music?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
Carl glances absently at the window in question but continues to follow his guide to the side entrance. Did he see blood along the edges of some of the shards of glass still poking out of the frame? He doesn’t bother to look back and check. In a gesture Carl finds oddly polite, the man holds the door for him as he enters the store. That’s when Carl realizes he’s seen the man before. A few weeks ago he spotted someone wandering among the trees at the back of the property. The man was fully dressed then, but it has to be the same person.
“You work here?” The man follows Carl inside. “I know the owner.”
“Huh? No, I own the place.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a sporting goods store.”
“Snowmobiles.” The man nods toward an area behind Carl.
Carl begins to turn in that direction but realizes the man has noticed the snowmobile display. “Yeah, we carry a little of everything. Camping gear, hunting supplies. You know.”
“A town the size of Dickinson, North Dakota, can support a place like this?”
A drifter maybe? Crazy? High on meth? Carl can’t tell. He doesn’t have any experience with this kind of thing.
“What is it you want, son?”
Instead of answering, the man walks away from Carl, toward the front of the store. Carl shrugs and follows.
The 1926 Model T he keeps in the front showroom is his pride and joy. He restored every last nut and bolt with his own hands, even gave it a top-of-the-line paint job. Highland Green for the body, with a shine like crystal lit from within by fire. Black for the fenders and running boards. Casino Red for the wheels. All of them original Model T colors, too. Most years only black was available, as the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford implies. But some years Ford broke out the color palette. Highland Green and Casino Red were on it. One of Carl’s polishing rags sits on her rear driver’s-side fender. That’s a little odd. He hasn’t wiped her down in a couple of weeks, and he doesn’t leave shit like that lying around.
The man has taken a seat in a guest chair near the main entrance, which is still locked. “Have you been to the City?” He crosses his legs as if he has on a three-piece suit.
“What city are you talking about?”
“They won’t let me into the fucking place. Goddamn three-headed wolf at the gate.” His voice is an octave lower than it should be.
Maybe living under the sky will do that to you, Carl thinks.
“Right. Listen, I left my phone in the pickup. I’ll be right back, okay?”
“Hey, you got one for me, man?”
“Uh, no. Just the one.”
The man nods once and takes to chewing his fingernails. Carl doesn’t give him a chance to change his mind. Unlocking the front door, he hurries to his pickup. The phone is on the dashboard where he left it. Maybe that’s what he was going to reach for earlier, but he doesn’t think so. Sitting with one foot in the cab and the other resting on the running board, he calls the police.
They arrive in what seems like about ninety seconds, but that can’t be right. Can it? Well, he is a straight shot up Highway 22, which runs through the middle of town, and Kendrick Outdoors and the cop shop are both on the north end. Still, Dickinson’s not as small as when he and his brother Duff were growing up. Nothing’s like it was then.
He remains seated in the pickup, both legs hanging out of the cab now, and adjusts his trucker hat as they cuff the man and read him his Mirandas. The sonofabitch doesn’t put up a lick of resistance, even as they pack him into the backseat of one of the cruisers, its light rig still sending slow strobes of blue-white-red into the dim morning sky for no discernible reason.
An officer approaches, tugging up the belt of his uniform, then rubbing each side of his jowly face, like he’s checking to make sure he shaved. Do they know how many little signals of power they give off? He supposes they do.
“I probably don’t need to tell you that you should have called us right away. You never know what these meth heads are gonna pull. Would’ve been within your rights to blow the sonofabitch away, too.” Carl can tell that the officer is eyeing the shotgun he’s got racked to the rear window of his cab. The man smirks at what’s coming. “This is Dickinson, North Dakota, not Portland, Oregon.”
Oregon came out OR-a-gawn.
“So you figure drugs, then?”
“Drugs or a head case. What the fuck’s it matter?”
Carl bought the gun shortly after his brother was murdered on his own farm. Presumed killed by his friend Tuck Wagner, though nothing was ever proved and Tuck disappeared like a wisp of smoke. Nothing’s like it used to be.
“Well, it’s all squared away now,” Carl says to the officer.
“Sure, until we let him out and he shows up on your doorstep again. He’ll probably be back on the streets in a month, and you know what they say about returning to the scene of a crime.”
“Isn’t there some help he could get?”
“Yeah, if anyone gave a shit. My guess is that no living soul has included him in their nightly prayers for a good long while.”
The officer looks ready to move on as he takes a deep breath and glances over at his cruiser.
“I have security cameras inside,” Carl says.
“Okay. You want us to have a look?”
“Guess not. I can go through the footage, let you know if I find anything peculiar.”
“That sounds real good. Don’t delete anything just yet. Understand?”
Carl nods and the officer walks away. Once his parking lot is cleared he steps down onto the pavement and walks back to the building, leaving the door of his pickup wide open. For some reason, reviewing the security footage can’t wait. Curiosity has him by the throat.
The command center, as he likes to think of it, is a small cubby of a room adjacent to his main office behind the sales counter. From there he can pull up footage by date and time, even zoom in and out. He wouldn’t know where to begin designing or engineering the technological marvels the world now takes for granted—or worse, puts to evil purposes—but he sure as hell enjoys playing around with them.
Scanning back to the break-in, which camera two has captured as if it were shot for a movie, he lets go of the progress bar and the footage begins to play. It’s eerie watching the soundless video, sitting all by himself in the tiny room. Every squawk and creak of the building, every shifting timber and complaining duct, steps in to provide the soundtrack. Sure enough, the man bloodies his left arm crawling in through the broken window but barely seems to notice. Carl switches to camera three as the man leaves camera two’s range. Four cameras keep an eye on Carl’s wares. Number three shows the man disappearing into Carl’s office. A chill wriggles up his back. He hasn’t been in there yet. Doesn’t want to go now. Knows he has to.
He pauses the playback and steps into his office.
At first he notices nothing unusual. Then he sees what the man has done. It’s almost shocking in its lack of vulgarity. No streaks of shit on the walls. No vomit in the corner. The man came into Carl’s office, removed all of his family photos from the walls, took them out of their frames, carefully stacked the frames in the garbage can, and fanned the loose photos out on the desk in symmetrical profusion. Carl doesn’t know what to make of it, but it spooks him a little. Instead of grappling with what it might mean, he turns and heads back to the command center.
Camera four is poised to keep watch over the front lobby where Carl’s beloved Model T is displayed. The man walks over to the impressive automobile. Carl sees that he has the polishing rag in his hand as he makes a complete circuit of the Model T, scrutinizing every curve and cranny. On his second pass he begins polishing the fenders, doors, bumpers, and headlights, tending to each with minute care. When the job is done to his satisfaction, he drapes the rag neatly on one of the fenders—the rear driver’s-side fender—and wanders out of view.
Carl almost switches off the video display but decides to take a quick look at the footage from camera two that will show the man immediately after the polishing stint. This gives Carl the clearest view so far of the man’s face. He pauses and zooms in. He knows this man. From when he still had the downtown store. The man worked for him then. Jeff Conley. The name drifts into his mind like a cloud. There was no intention to rob or vandalize. This has been the act of a troubled soul, someone reaching for a hand that couldn’t possibly provide the help or comfort he is in need of, but maybe it is the only hand his addled brain can conjure. Carl can only guess at the difficult path the man has walked since leaving his employ almost fifteen years ago.
Now Carl truly has had enough of the ghostly security footage. He feels the need to be outside again, so he steps out the front door and returns to his pickup truck. Before getting in he stares at the gun rack. Why does he have the urge to take down the shotgun? It’s too late to do him any good. Why has he even come back to the vehicle? He can close up shop for the day. Should probably do that. But he’ll need to go back and lock up first.
He brings a hand to his forehead and slowly shakes his head back and forth.
He couldn’t remember going for the shotgun. He’d only been looking at it, thinking about removing it from the rack. Yet now he stood against the cab of his pickup, the shotgun held firmly in both hands. He let his gaze travel from the weapon to the pavement, and as he scanned the parking lot before him he was met with a grisly sight. Ten or fifteen feet before him lay the man with long, gnarled hair, clad only in shorts. A hole had been blasted out of his chest, and blood pooled around him like a carefully designed background for a grim art installation.
Carl ran a hand along the barrel of the gun and recoiled at its warmth. The distant wail of sirens told him that someone had heard the gunshot and called it in. He had found a temporary reprieve from his own guilt, but that was all. There would be no escaping the longer, sharper claws of fate. What he had done might indeed prove to have been within his legal rights, but he would forever wonder if the man had deserved to die.
An unearthly music swam into his head and grew in volume until it drowned out the approaching sirens. It sang of a city and a wolf with three heads. I do hear the music, Jeff. I hear it, and I think I may be headed for the City. I’ll see if I can get you in.
He got down on his knees, placed the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.