The Killer from the Summit

mountain-path-Final

Hi there everyone, I finally have my next story ready to share with the rest of you.

For this one, I wanted to channel my life-long fear of heights into a horror piece. The Result? A tale of six friends, trapped at the edge of a cliff with only one way to escape: outwitting a supernatural predator bent on murdering them.

I’d like to thank my co-worker and climbing enthusiast Russ Hinds for helping me with some of the technical details.

Enjoy, and if you’d like to be notified when I upload my next story, hit the “Follow” button to the right (it may be at the bottom of the screen if you’re using a tablet), or follow my Facebook page (here), my Twitter profile (here) or my Google + profile (here).

The Killer from the Summit

Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

This story is dedicated to Justin Carballo, as loyal a friend as they come and a man who certainly knows his horror.


Alan had never been more terrified.

Emily, hands over her mouth, stood in front of him, staring down at the ring he was holding out. The silence was unbearable. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds since he’d proposed, but with each of those seconds, he could feel his confidence dying.

You just caught her off guard, he told himself. Give her a minute.

His mental pep talk wasn’t working. Had he rushed things? Was she upset? Had he put her on the spot? Did she feel manipulated?

His throat tightened. Would she–the one he could tell anything to, the one who’d stayed by his side when things were at their worst–even want to speak to him after today?

Emily lowered her hands. Alan’s questions were all about to be answered.

Her gaze left the ring and rested on Alan’s face. She smiled and, seeming to think that wasn’t clear enough, gave him a vigorous nod.

The tension left his body so fast that Alan almost collapsed. He caught himself and, with trembling hands, put the ring–a white gold band paved with intricately cut sapphires and diamonds and topped with a larger diamond–on Emily’s finger. Engaged. The most perfect woman in the world had agreed to become his wife.

It was only then, after his anxieties had been put to rest, that he became aware of just how much the rough ground was hurting his knee. Not taking his eyes off his new fiancé, he stood up. He hadn’t been back on his feet for two seconds when she jumped up and threw her arms around him. Alan greeted her lips with his own.

When the kiss ended, he realized that the other four climbers, who’d been just as surprised by the proposal as Emily, were now all gathered around the couple. Lupe, Emily’s best friend, and Daisy, Emily’s kid sister, both squealed with delight and begged to get a closer look at the ring. Daisy’s friend Nicole, smiling widely, kept shaking her head and saying “I don’t believe it” over and over. Kenneth–Alan’s oldest friend, his brother in all but name–grabbed his hand and shook it, grinning with approval.

“I was not expecting this,” Kenneth said. He looked over at Emily. “Were you?”

“Oh, shut up!” said Emily, still beaming.

Kenneth chuckled and turned back to Alan. “You dragged us to Sky Hill, a place none of us knew existed until last month, where the easiest way to get past the base is a 12-foot, near-vertical rock face. Then, you had us hike four miles,” he made a sweeping gesture, “all the way up to the summit. All that, just to do something you could’ve done at your apartment…or hers.”

Alan just smiled and shrugged. He was guilty as charged.

Kenneth looked over at Emily and the others. “What are we even doing up here?” he said. “We need to celebrate! Come on. I’ll buy us all drinks at Rob’s.”

Alan began laughing.

“That, Kenneth, that’s just cruel. You know how much I love that place, but I actually had something else–”

“C’mon!” his friend cut him off. “It’s the perfect way to end a day like this! Besides, I’ll pay for everything.”

Alan frowned. The actual perfect way to end the day would be doing what meant the most to Emily, and he knew that would be breaking the news to her parents in person, with him right there beside her. He needed to nip Kenneth’s idea in the bud.

“Maybe,” he began, “but we’d be on the road for hours…and then there wouldn’t be any time left for–”

Kenneth raised a hand.

“Look,” he began, “I’m sure you had something incredible planned after this, but Rob’s has always been like Nirvana to you. Think of it as my way of thanking you. I mean, you let me be a part of…of this, the biggest day of your life. Yeah, I gave you a hard time about it just now, but you know I was kidding. You let the rest of us,” he gestured at Emily’s friends, “share the experience with you. We all owe this to you,” he turned to Emily, “to both of you. You’ve been great friends to me. Now, it’s my turn to be a great friend…and that’s something I really haven’t been lately.”

His mouth closed, Alan exhaled. In any other circumstance, he’d have been touched. He knew Kenneth well enough to tell he was being sincere, but he also knew Emily. She’d have fun, but Rob’s wouldn’t make her face light up like what he’d planned. Then again, the main thing–the proposal–had been accomplished. She was already ecstatic, and changing Kenneth’s mind on anything always took lots of effort. Maybe it’d be best to just give in.

“You know what?” He looked back and forth between his friend and his fiancé. “If it really means that much to you, Kenneth, we’ll take you up on it.”

His friend nodded. “Awesome! Follow me!”

Alan sighed. It wasn’t awesome, but Kenneth meant well, and this would still be great, just not as great. As he watched the others get their packs, Emily leaned against him and gave him a tender, consoling pat on the back. He smiled again, wrapped an arm around her and squeezed tightly. She could always tell what he needed. The two grabbed their backpacks and started following the others down the trail, back into the forest of ponderosa pines.

Alan reached out and clasped Emily’s hand. Emily squeezed back. He glanced down; he loved how her hand looked with the ring on it, with his ring on it. Physical proof that what happened at the summit hadn’t been some dream, the piece of jewelry might have held his gaze for hours if Emily hadn’t brought him back to his surroundings.

“Oh, it’s that narrow part again,” she said.

Alan looked up and was caught off guard. On the way up, he’d been too preoccupied to notice just how dark and closed in the forest was. The blue sky had all but disappeared, replaced by a shadowy, green curtain. There was just enough light getting through for them to see the trail. As Emily said, the path was narrowing, almost like it was afraid–afraid to allow any more space between the trees than was absolutely necessary.

The trail was so narrow, they’d all have to go single file. He gave Emily’s hand a final squeeze, then let her move in front of him. In fact, he was eager to keep her in front of him. He knew he was being irrational, like a kid who’d just heard their first ghost story, but these woods made him want to keep the woman he loved safe in his line of sight. On they went, slowly. Other than their own footsteps, the only sounds came from some woodpeckers far in the distance.

“Ah!” Emily cried out, coming to an abrupt halt and almost falling over.

Alan rushed forward. “What’s wrong?!”

She pointed at the ground. Right by her foot was a lone, brown thrush with a rust tail. The tiny bird was digging through the fallen pine needles, taking no notice of the humans.

“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing,” she repeated louder to the others ahead of them. “Sorry. I just almost stepped on him. Poor little guy.”

Alan was relieved that was all it was. The entire group stared at the bird for a bit, then continued on their way, leaving it to its foraging.

“I wonder why he didn’t fly away,” Alan said.

“Maybe he hasn’t been around humans enough to consider them a threat,” said Lupe. “It’s not like this place gets many visitors. Just look at the ground. The only footprints I see are the ones from when we were heading up.”

Emily shook her head. “No. He’s probably starving. When these birds get hungry enough, they ignore everything around them.

“Wait a minute.” Emily turned her head. “Sweetie? Is that why you chose this place, because there wouldn’t be anyone else up here?”

Alan grinned. “That’s right. I mean, yeah, they made a hiking trail and everything, but Sky Hill really doesn’t get much traffic. There are higher mountains not too far away, so you don’t get a lot of serious climbers here, and getting past the base is too much trouble for someone just interested in hiking. I’ve even read that the name ‘Sky Hill’ has nothing to do with the elevation; it’s called that because the only regular visitors this place gets are things that can fly through the skies.” He held out his hand. “That’s why I wanted to come here. I just thought it’d be more special if it was just us and some friends.”

Lupe cooed. Emily reached back toward Alan. It was still just bright enough for him to tell she was smiling. Once again, he took her hand in his own. So what if these woods were too gloomy for his liking? He’d made the right choice picking Sky Hill; he was sure of that now.

The path widened after a few minutes, making things a little more tolerable. Also helping were the distractions; the climbers encountered other birds throughout the hike, few reacting to the humans with anything beyond a curious glance. Finally, an hour-and-a-half after they left the summit, the canopy of trees broke apart. The dark green shadows gave way to bright, golden light and a blue sky.

“Anyone up for a break?” Alan asked. After being surrounded by those pines for so long, after being cut off from the rest of the world by that darkness, he felt like lounging in the sunlight for a bit.

“You sure?” Kenneth replied. “That’ll just mean less time at your Nirvana. I bet all you really need is one of these.” He pulled out an energy bar.

Alan shook his head. “It’ll take us at least another hour to reach the end of the trail. I could really use a rest…okay?”

Kenneth tilted his head, then nodded and sat down. He tossed the bar at Alan. “You’ll need this regardless.” He then tossed a bar to each of the others.

Emily plopped down next to Alan. With his arm once again around her, Alan appreciated that Kenneth hadn’t argued this time. After a moment, Emily began giggling.

“I guess this is our first meal as an engaged couple,” she said, gesturing to his bar and holding out her own.

He laughed. “And here I was thinking it’d be at Rob’s.” He tore off the wrapper and took a bite. “Life’s full of surprises, huh?”

Emily beamed at him and then looked at her ring while shaking her head. “I’ll say.”

Later, bars eaten and legs rested, the six were back on their feet and resuming their journey to the base. Eventually, they were traveling in single file again; the trail hadn’t gotten narrow again, but it was now winding around the mountain, something it would do for the rest of the trip down. To the trail’s left was just a craggy, tan rock face, but to its right was a 100-foot drop. If someone fell from that high up, they’d live long enough to count to three and then smash to pieces on the rocks below.

Like before, Alan brought up the rear. Just ahead of him was Emily, craning her neck to see over the taller Lupe’s shoulder, probably to keep an eye on climbing rookies Daisy and Nicole, even though both girls seemed anxious to stay away from the edge. It even looked like Nicole kept scraping her arm against the rocks; that’s how close she was to the wall.

Finally, there was Kenneth. He wasn’t just in front anymore; by now he was beginning to put real distance between him and everyone else. After a few more minutes, there was a huge gap. Alan shook his head. Maybe Kenneth was trying to make up for the break. It wasn’t a rational plan. He wouldn’t save any time; he’d still have to wait for everyone else; come to think of it, he probably didn’t even realize how far back the rest of them were. The trail was approaching a bend, and Kenneth was about to disappear around it.

“I need to pass you,” Alan told Emily before pointing at his friend. “He’s going to wear himself out for nothing if I don’t stop him.” His fiancé complied and shifted toward the wall. Alan cupped his hands around his mouth, preparing to call out.

He didn’t.

Kenneth, now turning on the curve, came to a dead stop, his legs frozen in mid-step. Good, he must’ve realized on his own; Alan wouldn’t need to call out after all. He started to lower his hands but paused. Something was wrong. Kenneth wasn’t just standing there, impatiently waiting; he wasn’t moving at all. His arms were stuck in mid-air, his face fixed straight ahead. Everyone else came to a halt. Nicole looked back at the others, as if eager for some kind of explanation. Alan moved forward again, as fast as he possibly could. He pulled a can of bear repellant out his pocket. He didn’t know how they’d gotten up here, but there was clearly something just around the bend, something that made Kenneth too scared to move.

“Kenneth!” he yelled, hoping the animal around the corner would back off once it realized its prey wasn’t alone. “Kenneth!”

A wave of relief hit Alan at what he saw next. Kenneth’s arms limply fell to his sides; he was moving again. The animal must’ve run off. Alan didn’t want to take any chances though; he kept rushing forward and calling out. He soon caught up to his friend. Repellant out, he looked around the corner.

Now, it was his turn to freeze in place.

Kenneth hadn’t stopped because of an animal. Just a few feet ahead of them, the trail–the very trail they’d used on the way up–came to a dead end. Instead of continuing around the mountain, it now led directly into the rock face. Alan kept staring with his friend until he heard Emily rushing up, followed by the others. He turned to the women, not knowing what to say.

“Alan?” Kenneth said, still looking ahead. Alan turned back. “Alan, how is this possible?”

Emily, her own can of repellant out and ready, shuffled past the two men to see what it was that had turned them into statues. Her mouth dropped open, and for a moment she went as still as they had. Then, without saying a word, she stumbled up to the wall, clearly still in shock but apparently wanting a closer look. Alan–and then the others–followed.

It was just as inexplicable close up. They had a drop to their right, a wall to their left and now another wall right in front of them, a wall that hadn’t been there before.

“How is this possible?” Kenneth asked again. “What…what happened?”

Alan blinked a few times before shaking his head and narrowing his eyes. “What happened is that we’re not thinking straight,” he said. “Obviously, there was a fork somewhere back there, and we just didn’t notice.” He had no idea where that could have happened or how any of them could have missed it, but that was the only thing that made any sense.

Still facing the wall like the rest, Kenneth pointed up ahead. “Look.” Alan looked, and he immediately felt his stomach harden. “There’s that stone with the weird, green stripes,” Kenneth said. “Remember? We saw it on the way up.”

Alan did remember. Kenneth had pointed it out back then too. After a few seconds, he willed himself to look away, stepped to the front and faced everyone.

“Listen,” he said, trying to convince the others, trying to convince himself. “What sounds crazier, that there’s more than one rock like that up here or that this part of the mountain magically changed?” He looked each one of them in the eyes. “We’ve wasted enough time here. If we don’t go back and start looking for that fork right now, we’ll be up here after sundown. Anyone here want to rappel in the dark?”

The very idea of doing that made Nicole and Daisy cover their mouths. Lupe and Emily shook their heads. Kenneth looked at Alan and then back at the wall. “No,” he told Alan.

“Then let’s go,” Alan replied. He maneuvered back to the other side of the group. This time, he wanted to be up front; they needed sharp eyes if they were going to find that fork. He went back around the bend.

There was another dead end.

At first, Alan was too shocked to think coherently, let alone move. It took the screams of the others to snap him out of it. He glanced back at his companions and then looked forward again. The trail they had just been on only a minute ago now led directly into a rock wall, as if it had never led up to the summit in the first place.

Panic set in. What could they do? What could they do? How was this possible? What could they do?

Loud screeches overhead stopped Alan’s chaotic train of thought. They all looked up. A mass of winged creatures were flying overhead, birds–all racing away from the mountain. Earlier, not even the little thrushes had shown any sign of fear. Now, something in the woods above was making not just thrushes but hawks–Alan recognized the high pitched kik-kik-kik alarm call–flee for their lives.

Daisy said what Alan was already thinking. “It’s coming down the mountain!” She gestured at the new wall. “That’s why it trapped us! Whatever did this is up in the woods, and it’s heading down here!”

Alan closed his eyes a moment. “We need to rappel, right here.” He looked around at everyone. “Now!”

“How’ll that help?!” Kenneth responded. “How?!” Everyone stopped. “Whatever’s up there can change the mountain at will! What’s to stop it from making us fall on our way down?!”

Alan frantically racked his brain. Then, it hit him. “We won’t all go down at once,” he said. “So far, it’s only been able to change things when we weren’t there to see it happen. If one of us waits up here until everyone else is on the ground, the anchors will all hold.”

Kenneth looked over the trail’s edge. “What if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not,” Alan said.

Nicole, clearly not happy with the plan either, spoke up. “If only we’d kept moving instead of taking that break.” She wasn’t arguing; she wasn’t pointing fingers; she was just thinking out loud, but that one comment completely disarmed Alan. She was right. If it hadn’t been for that break, they’d at least be a lot closer to the base, and that break had been his idea. Coming to Sky Hill in the first place had been his idea. If it hadn’t been for him and his ideas, their lives wouldn’t be at stake right now. He peered over the edge. Maybe this new idea would kill them outright. Maybe they needed to take time and think of another–

“We don’t have a choice,” Emily said firmly. Everyone looked at her. “It took us two hours to get this far,” she went on, “but we don’t know how fast whatever’s up there is. They could be down here any second. We don’t have time to come up with anything else. I don’t think there even is anything else…other than waiting for them to get here and kill us.”

Everyone went quiet. Alan looked around, then began pulling out his gear. “Come on,” he said.

The wall had no bolts the climbers could attach themselves to, but thankfully, everyone had brought cams. They all scanned the rock face for pockets to wedge the spring-loaded devices into to create anchor points. Very soon, there were six rappel anchors, each with a rope attached. Alan insisted that he be the one to stay up there with the anchors. Emily, looking horrified, tried to object, but Alan reminded her that they were running out of time. She wasn’t happy, but she complied. Just before going over the edge with the others, she looked his way and mouthed “I love you” to him; he mouthed the three words back to her. Then, she was gone.

Alan held onto his rope. Besides being attached to the anchor, it was threaded through a rappel device clipped to his harness; anytime he fed the rope up into the device, he would lower a little, walking backwards down the rock face, just like the others were doing right now.

What if I’m wrong? he thought. What if it’s able to knock their anchors loose even though I’m still up here? He narrowed his eyes. The anchors all seemed to be holding up. If he was wrong, something would have happened by now. He exhaled and then, after a moment, frowned. What if it shows up right now and kills me? Then, it won’t matter that I’m right; it’ll be free to go after the others, to dislodge their anchors and make them all fall to their deaths.

Every one of his muscles tightened. Too late. Can’t change your mind now. All you can do is wait…and pray…and wait.

Soon, Alan heard voices far below. He turned his head and felt his entire body instantly relax. They’d made it. Emily and the others were all on the ground. The love of his life was safe. He took a deep breath and held it a moment. Now, all that was at stake was his future with her. It was his turn now, and there’d be no one to watch his anchor, no one to prevent any interference. With his free hand, he reached out toward the wall. While the rope itself would need to stay attached to the anchor, the tether holding his harness to the anchor had to come off. He unclipped the far end of his tether, attached it to his harness with the other end and began his descent.

He went too slowly at first. He berated himself for this, but with only the rope supporting his weight now, he realized just how terrified he was of letting his cams out of his sight. The moment he couldn’t see them anymore, that might be it. When that thing was all the way up in the woods, it seemed to know exactly where the climbers were. Even if it was still far off, it might somehow be watching him right now.

Emily’s words came back to him; he might fall to his death, but his only other choice was to wait for that thing to kill him in person. He gritted his teeth and began letting out more rope. Seconds later, the wall and his three anchor points were gone.

He moved down the cliff as fast as he safely could. His body was facing straight up, but he didn’t dare so much as glance at the receding mountaintop. Even if it was only for a second, if he saw it, that entity, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to move, and any delay in his progress at this point, he knew, would probably kill him. Instead, he put all his attention on the rope, on feeding it into the rappel device.

It seemed to take forever. He had to hit the bottom soon. In fact, maybe he was close enough that even if all three anchor points were knocked loose, he’d survive. No, if he was that close, he’d be able to make out what Emily and the rest were saying. Actually, he couldn’t hear them at all right now. Still keeping his eyes on the rope, his face scrunched up. Why were they being so quiet? Were they afraid they’d distract him and make him fall? His heart skipped a beat. They were probably looking up at him and up at the mountain. Did they see something that made them too horrified to speak? Did they–

Alan flew backwards off the rock face. He drew in a gasp. Down he plummeted, his arms flailing, the air rushing past him, the top of Sky Hill shrinking before his eyes. He heard screams below, indistinct at first, then clearer and louder, louder, louder.

“Alan!”

**

Late one night, an apartment’s only occupant sat in his living room, watching TV.

The middle-aged man on the screen looked grave, disapproving even, as if he wanted to make sure anyone watching would take what he was about to say as seriously as he did.

A voice from off-screen broke the silence.

“So then, Professor Hunter, in the 100 years since the arrests and the five years since your book came out, has anything else been discovered about the cult?”

The man on the screen shook his head. “Absolutely nothing.”

“But we do know for sure it was a cult, right?” the voice asked.

The professor sighed. “Even after all the research, I honestly don’t know. Not to downplay the loss of life, of course, but all records indicate that the murders were, well, ordinary. Absolutely nothing about the crime scenes suggested anything ritualistic. Up until the arrests, both the public and the detectives assumed it was a gang of robbers on some incredibly violent spree. Some people think that to this day. I mean, all the stolen property was found at the killers’ hideout. The entire idea of a cult hinges solely on one man, Charles Lanchester.

“We don’t even know for sure that was his real name. That’s just the name he gave when he and the other four first arrived in town; that would have been about five months before the murders. Anyway, once they were all in custody, Lanchester, by far the youngest of the gang, was the only one who would talk. Even then, he barely admitted to anything, but what he did own up to earned him his own curious place in history.”

Professor Hunter read from a copy of his book. “Here it is. ‘Our mighty ruler called us from far off. He summoned us to this place, that we might commune with him and pay him tribute.’ He said a few more things, but those two sentences are what this entire cult business hinges on. They raised so many questions that this cult is a bigger mystery than the crimes ever were…if there really was a cult.”

“You have your doubts?” the voice asked.

The professor shrugged. “The others never admitted to anything. Lanchester might have figured he was done for anyway and decided to either have some fun with the interrogators or create a sense of mystery about himself. I always hope a definitive answer will turn up one day, but we may never know for sure.”

“Well, thank you for taking the time to see me, Professor Hunter…and for letting me record this.”

“Don’t mention it. Feel free to drop in again anytime, Mr. Hicks.”

“Oh, just call me Kenneth,” the voice said, and the screen went black.

After a few seconds, a new image came up. A different man, an anxious-looking man, appeared on the screen. He was in an otherwise empty room and was looking right at the camera.

“Professor Hunter gave me the last piece of the puzzle,” the man said, his voice the same one that had come from off-screen in the earlier footage. “After ten years, I finally have all the answers. I know what happened on Sky Hill that day.”

He leaned toward the camera. “Lanchester was telling the truth. He and the other four came to that specific town because, at the time, it was the closest one, to the mountain and to ‘our mighty ruler.’ God alone knows exactly what it is–how much do we really know about this planet?–but Lanchester and the others knew it was there; somehow, it had communicated to them from far away, and they all obeyed.

“Sky Hill’s never been popular, but people have gone up it over the years–since Lanchester and since us–and nothing’s ever happened. Now, I know why. Lanchester knew it wanted worship…tribute…but it never ended up getting that tribute. Lanchester and the rest were taken into custody before that could happen.”

He paused a moment. “It was the ring,” he said. “That’s why this all happened. It wasn’t some ordinary ring. It wasn’t even just a nice ring. It was the type of ring you can only get by going into long-term debt. I could tell that the moment Alan pulled it out. At the time, I was worried Emily would even get mugged for it someday. It had to have been the most expensive piece of jewelry ever brought onto Sky Hill, into its domain.

“We made it angry. I’m convinced it could sense the ring the moment we arrived. I’m convinced it was up there with us at the summit, invisible but still there, watching us. It probably expected Alan to leave the ring there as a gift, and when he didn’t…it decided there was only one way to respond to such an insult. I don’t know why it didn’t just kill us right then and there. Maybe it wanted to toy with us, make us sweat, let us know well ahead of time what was coming.”

He paused again, as if needing to collect his thoughts before continuing. “I think it’s waiting for me, hoping I’ll come back, hoping we all will. Originally, it might have been satisfied with just Alan. He was fifteen feet up when his anchor gave. That was still high enough to kill him, but because he’d gotten that far down and because Emily and Daisy had the rest of us get into position once we were on the ground, we were able to catch him as a group.” Upon recalling the experience, he rubbed his shoulder and arm, the memory of the physical pain–of the agony–apparently still very vivid. “Because of us,” he went on, “not only did it not get its long-overdue gift, it didn’t even get revenge.

“Once we caught Alan, we didn’t bother retrieving our ropes or picking up our gear, we just got out of there. We tried telling our story to the nearest authorities, but they thought we were playing a prank, especially after they went up to investigate; when they got there, the trail went up to the summit, just like it always had.

“Sometimes, I wonder if that thing will ever come looking for us…but, no, it has to be confined to Sky Hill somehow. Otherwise, something would have happened by now. That’s really why I’m recording all this. There’s no way anyone who wasn’t there will believe any of it. I’m just doing this so I’ll always have something on hand to remind myself that as long as we stay away from Sky Hill, all six of us will be safe.” He smiled at the camera, and the screen went black.

An older Kenneth turned off the TV. He then got off the couch and retreated into his bedroom, where he lay in the dark, waiting for what seemed like an eternity to drift into unconsciousness. He gave a long sigh. That video really was the only thing keeping him sane.

It’d been five years since he’d recorded that last footage, fifteen years since Sky Hill, and he still needed reassurance. Even though nothing had happened in all this time, he still regularly found himself up at night, especially on all-too-quiet nights like this, afraid–afraid for his very life; afraid of Sky Hill; afraid of the monster, the demon, the killer that dwelt at its summit, waiting and ready to strike.

The End

In Search of a Skull

jail-429633_960_720 (50 %)

Hi there, everybody. Welcome to my first post and my first story, a psychological thriller about a man racing against the clock to outwit an incarcerated criminal and find a group of missing children. I like to call it “In Search of a Skull”

I’d like to dedicate this tale to Brennan McPherson, a professional author who, even though we only met recently, took time out of his busy schedule to do a line-by-line critique of the first draft. Seriously, how often does that happen? He currently has two books available for purchase. You can find out more by visiting his website.

If you’d like to be notified when I upload my next story, click or tap the “Follow” button to the right (it’ll be near the bottom of the screen if you’re using a tablet) or follow me on Twitter (https://twitter.com/EricHAuthor) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/EricMHeidenAuthor/).

In Search of a Skull

Copyright 2017 Eric M. Heiden

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

In just five minutes, Pete Ryland would be face-to-face with the world’s most notorious kidnapper. He swallowed and opened his briefcase. He hoped he’d be able to hide his disgust. This man had helped take so many children away from their families, and this visit might be the only way to bring them home.

He pulled a legal pad out of the briefcase and set it on the table. Going against his earlier resolve, he began reading through his list one final time.

Despite giving in, Pete shook his head. He must have gone over it a hundred times already. Then again, he couldn’t afford to get careless and slip up. The man he was about to speak with had a reputation and would clam up if Pete wasn’t careful. Every known thing that could set the guy off was written down on that sheet, and this would be Pete’s last chance to review it. He needed to be quick too. If the list was out when the interviewee got here or if he even saw Pete putting it away, he’d guess that something was up, and it’d be all over.

Pete skimmed through the off-limit subjects: his school, his father, his grandparents. Eventually, he was at the last item: a name.

Everyone knew the kidnappings hadn’t been a one-man job, and almost everyone had a theory on who else was involved. Pete stared at that last item. He didn’t have a theory. He knew, and if this all just went as he hoped, he’d have proof. He gave the name to the police long ago, but nothing came of it. They just weren’t as convinced as Pete was, not even close. He often thought they might’ve been just humoring him when they took it.

He kept staring. This name was why the list had to stay hidden. He absolutely could not say it during the interview, but he had to do everything possible to coax it out of the punk’s mouth. It was a miracle they’d let him do this in the first place, and he only had this one shot.

At that last thought, Pete’s chest went cold. Idiot. How long had it been? Praying for enough time, praying at a thousand words a second, he shoved the papers back into the briefcase and snapped it shut.

Right then, the door opened. Xander Eklund, the most famous inmate anywhere on the planet right now, stepped into the room. An armed guard followed.

Ever since the arrest, Pete had always been amazed at how little Eklund looked the part. He was tall, sure, but he was also as thin as a broom and had a tiny, weak chin. Then there was his hair, far too short given how badly his ears stuck out; it made him look almost like a little boy whose parents had just tried at-home barbering for the first time.

However, this was, in fact, a grown man, one who looked right at Pete and frowned.

Pete resisted the urge to leer. Eklund had probably been thinking his visitor would be from a big network. Nope. No crews, no cameras with famous logos on them, just one guy with a camcorder. Like it or not, the monster was stuck with an amateur.

Eklund looked at the guard and back again, waiting a few seconds before sitting down opposite Pete at the table.

While Pete was an amateur, he hadn’t come unprepared. Yesterday alone, he’d practiced what he’d say to introduce himself 300 times.

“Well,” Pete began. “Let me just say how glad I am to be here talking with you.” He gave a nod. “My name is Pete Ryland.”

The other man nodded back.

“Xander Eklund,” he replied. “Of course, I imagine you knew that already.”

Pete hadn’t quite expected a joke, but he responded quickly. He had to. Next to not bringing up the accomplice, his biggest concern was to keep talking, to keep Eklund from having any time to wonder why some unknown freelancer had been allowed to speak with him when there were major names and networks all over the planet still waiting their turn. He forced a chuckle.

“That’s very true…but,” he shifted the camcorder on its stand to center it more on Eklund’s face, “your name is really the only thing about you that anyone agrees on. Even with all the interviews you’ve given, there’s still so much gossip and misinformation out there.”

Eklund snorted and shook his head. “That’s very true.”

“Exactly,” Pete said. “That’s why I wanted to see you. I want to separate the facts,” he leaned forward, “from the lies. I want to know about the real Xander Eklund, not the Xander Eklund from the tabloids or the forums.”

Eklund narrowed his eyes.

“You know, everyone who’s interviewed me said the same thing, and that”–he made air quotes–“other Xander Eklund is still out there. He’s thriving, even.”

Pete figured Eklund would say as much, and he was ready.

“That’s why I’m here,” he told the inmate. “Let’s say there was another way to get the truth out. I bet you’ve realized I’m not even a reporter.”

Eklund sat up.

“What I am,” Pete half lied, “is a teacher.”

Eklund tilted his head.

“A teacher,” he parroted.

“That’s right,” said Pete. “All that gossip? I hear it from my own students, every single day. What you’ve told the media isn’t getting to them because they don’t listen to the media. A lot of people in my field are sick of kids only hearing one side of all this, especially since that side seems to have a problem with accuracy. A bunch of us got together and made enough noise so that a teacher,” he pointed at himself, “would be the next person to see you.

“The way things are, kids will only hear the real story if one of us tells it to them, and they’ll only be interested enough to listen if they’re told it by someone who’s actually met you.”

Eklund went quiet, for much longer than Pete liked. Had he bought it? True, almost everything Pete just said was a complete lie, but it was a believable lie, wasn’t it? He was starting to lose feeling in his hands.

The prisoner let out a long sigh, then raised both eyebrows.

“I think you might be right,” he said, “and even if you’re not, my talking to reporters isn’t working, regardless.” He folded his hands on the table. “Go ahead. Ask away.”

Pete’s muscles relaxed. He was in. He’d have to speed things up–this visit wouldn’t last forever–but he was in.

“I thought we’d start with the biggest rumor,” he told Eklund. “Now, despite what people like my students are telling each other, you’ve never harmed any of the children you took, correct?”

Eklund inhaled slowly, parting his lips just a crack and showing some teeth, before answering.

“Out of all the lies that are told about me and the…others, that, that’s the one that gets to me the most. It’s the one that’s done the most damage.

“The mass relocation,” he referred to the kidnappings, “had been a success. Overall, the public was on our side. It was the perfect time to add to our ranks so we could begin Phase Two of ‘Operation Skull.’ That’s when I recruited Sally Holm to our cause.

“Then,” he set both palms on the table and moved them apart, “the press were told that a body had been found, twelve-year-old Angie Gilmore. People might not have bought it if her parents hadn’t come on camera and said they’d verified it was her. Of course, they were in on it; the police probably told them it was their only chance of seeing her again. Everyone believed it though…and Sally began having second thoughts.

“I reassured her that Angie and the others were perfectly safe–not happy, of course–but safe. I thought she believed me; she seemed to. But within a week, she turned herself in and led the detectives right to me.

“So,” he said with a joyless grin, “we lost a promising recruit, our cause was demonized, and I wound up in prison, all because of a tall tale. The only silver lining was that I was the only one Sally had met; she didn’t know who all else was involved.”

Pete opened his mouth, but Eklund started talking again.

“To answer your question, you’re correct. I’m sure that Little Miss Gilmore and the rest are still safe. We’re not perverts; we’re not killers. Violence was never part of our plan. ‘Operation Skull’ has only ever been about equality.”

As much as that ‘equality’ line made bile rise in Pete’s throat, he hoped Eklund was telling the truth about the kids. He forced himself to nod.

“Thank you. Now, ever since your group released its first statement to the public, you’ve all referred to the children as ‘skulls.’ Why is that?”

“‘Skull’ wasn’t our first choice,” Eklund said. “Up until the month of the relocation, we called them ‘vessels.’ It made sense. We wanted a quick, to-the-point way of telling everyone we weren’t interested in the kids themselves; they were just containers. We wanted what was inside them, their powers. If there’d been a way to take that and leave the kids with their families, believe me, we would’ve done that instead.

“Anyway, the name was ‘vessel,’ but then…somebody had a better idea. These weren’t ordinary children. We’d be dealing with kids who could touch an object and for up to two weeks be able to tell you its location–no matter where it’d been moved–just by closing their eyes and thinking about it. Since these powers were mental in nature, why were we using a generic word for container? Why not use the name of the mind’s container, the skull? That’d be even more to the point. So, just weeks before Phase One began, ‘Operation Vessel’ became ‘Operation Skull.’”

Pete nodded. This was going better than he’d hoped. He’d noticed that pause. Eklund had gotten careless and almost dropped a name. Pete would stick with his plan. Eklund had just shown he couldn’t keep his guard up forever. All Pete had to do was keep him talking.

“How long has ‘Operation Skull’ been in the making?” he asked. “When did it all begin?”

“Well, it formally began once that census was finished and the numbers came in. To be honest though,” Eklund put an elbow on the table, “I think everyone involved knew we’d be doing something like this back when the news first broke, when everyone first learned about the powers.

“That was a frustrating time. Instead of studying what was right in front of them, the”–he made air quotes again–“experts spent all their time trying to figure out where the powers came from. I mean, here we’ve got psychic abilities showing up worldwide, and all we’d get on the news were theories. ‘Was it some kind of evolutionary leap?’ ‘Did aliens secretly visit and toy with our gene pool?’ It was funny,” he frowned, “almost.

“Everyone figured the authorities would eventually focus on the here and now, and to keep their sanity while they waited, some people,” Eklund winked, “got together and began discussing things that actually mattered. How exactly would these individuals use this gift? Who all had these powers? Who didn’t have these powers?

“After the world governments announced they’d collaborate on a census, that last question became the focal point of our meetings. Were these abilities spread out evenly? Were there any regions or groups that were being left out? If there were, what could be done about it?”

He took another deep breath.

“Despite what your students have heard, nobody involved had a prejudice. When it turned out that the Irish and people of Irish descent had one ‘gifted’ kid, one skull, for every eight, we didn’t resent them. It’s just that some demographics had as few as one for every thousand.”

Eklund folded his hands and leaned as far forward as the table allowed.

“We made this entirely clear all the way back when we made that first statement. This was about evening the playing field, getting rid of unjust advantages and disadvantages. It was about getting those kids to families that deserved them more.”

Pete had known that the longer this went on, the worse Eklund’s preaching would get; putting up with it was something he’d resigned himself to well before coming here. Still, he was eager to change the subject.

“The next thing I’d like to ask you,” he began “is–”

Eklund raised a hand.

“I’ve heard enough,” he said, leaning back into his chair before continuing. “Boy or girl?”

Pete shook his head. “I don’t follow.”

Eklund scowled.

“There’s no point pretending. I know why you’re here now.”

Pete’s heart all but stopped. He’d been found out. Eklund had leaned in close when he finished his ‘evening the playing field’ sermon; Pete’s face must’ve given something away. Maybe he was bluffing though. It might not be over yet; he just had to play dumb.

“Um,” he shrugged his shoulders, “how about you tell me what you think I’m here for?”

Eklund gestured at the camera.

“This isn’t for your students. Are you even really a teacher? You look more like a construction worker.”

Football coach, thought Pete.

“Whatever you actually do for a living, I can tell this much,” Eklund said. “You are one of the parents…or at least a relative. You didn’t come here because you wanted to share my story, you came here in search of a skull.”

All feeling left Pete’s body.

Eklund sighed. “I was really hoping I’d been wrong about you. Do you know how much it would have meant if you’d been telling the truth? Before Angie Gilmore was turned into a martyr, it was incredible; there were so many out there who got what we were doing. People were actually tearing down and defacing the missing child posters.”

Pete could vouch for that last part. There’d been days when David’s posters would be gone within an hour of being put up.

“Everyone was behind us,” Eklund went on, “and if you were really here to clear things up, it might’ve gone back to the way it was then, before people were ashamed to show their support.”

Pete looked down at the camcorder. He could feel himself trembling. The entire family had spent ages chasing down even the barest hints of a lead, and after all that time, David was still gone. This had been Pete’s one chance to find him, and the plan he’d stuck to religiously, the plan he’d staked everything on, had failed him, had failed David.

He felt a sudden urge to throw the device right at Eklund’s head. It wasn’t like Pete needed the footage now, and it might even kill the monster.

No. That would just create more problems for everyone. Pete turned and looked at his briefcase. For all he’d accomplished, he might as well have kept that list out in plain sight. He clenched his teeth. He might as well have waved that list in Eklund’s face.

Pete froze. Maybe that was it.

He turned back to the camcorder. It was still on and was still pointed at the angry convict. He might have one last chance. Pete’s face had given him away; maybe Eklund’s would do the same. He looked into those remorseless eyes.

“You win,” he told Eklund.

The criminal didn’t move a muscle.

“You’re completely right. I thought if I told you I was a teacher, buttered you up and kept you talking, you might let something slip.”

He took a breath, held it a second and said the one thing he thought he’d never say.

“Now, there’s no one left to question, except Simon Lars Johnson.”

Eklund didn’t say a word, but the annoyance on his face changed into disbelief, then horror. After five seconds he managed to will his expression back into a scowl, but the guard had seen everything, and Pete had recorded it.

“Well,” the guard said.

Eklund closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose.

Pete’s job was done. He had proof and an eye witness. He’d just made Mr. Johnson the investigation’s main person of interest. David was still out there, but Pete had taken a huge step toward bringing him home. In fact, though Pete had no idea at the time, his contribution would bring David, Angie and all the missing children home in just four days. In the meantime, he wasn’t at peace, but his hope had returned.

Eklund might have sat there forever if the guard hadn’t walked over.

“I take it you’re done?” the guard asked.

Pete nodded.

“Okay,” he looked at Eklund. “On your feet, now!”

Eklund complied, not taking his eyes off Pete. The guard and prisoner made their way to the door.

“Wait,” said Pete.

The guard swung Eklund around.

“You got something else to say to our new informant here?” the man in uniform cheerfully asked.

Pete nodded again, then looked right at the grown man with a little boy’s haircut.

“I just wanted to say that I don’t appreciate you calling my nephew a skull.”

The End