#FFS Featured Free Story

Ths week I am giving away a story that was originally published in an anthology called: CANOPIC JARS Tales of Mummies and Mummification. The story is called Run-off 31. It was published by Great Old Ones Publishing, and edited by Gregory L. Norris.

It apperared alongside authors such as, H.P. Lovecraft, Gord Rollo, B.E. Scully, and many more fantastic authors. This is my all time favorite anthology.

I’m going to do this every once in awhile. If you dig my stuff please purchase one of my works and leave a review.

Anyhow, that’s enough of that, here’s Run-Off 31.

Enjoy

MJ

RUN-OFF 31

A Short Story by MJ Preston

1

Chicago, Illinois

Summer, 2013

The bodies started turning up in late July. Before long, police began to think that this was not the work of one serial killer, but two, possibly even three.  The only flaw in this thinking lay in the fact that every victim had been left with an identical incision from solar plexus to belly button. Some of the detectives called them the ‘X Killings’, because carved into each victims belly was an X that was not a symbol, but the end result of evisceration.  The reason they speculated the killings couldn’t possibly be committed by one perpetrator, the sheer number of victims. To date there were 44, and the dead weren’t more than a day or two old when they began turning up. Now, into the end of August, meant only one thing, the killer or killers, were claiming a victim a day on average, with the odd double.

Sean Woodman was not assigned to the case, he wasn’t even a cop anymore, but he followed closely through the papers. It reminded him of a case he’d worked back in his days as a Chicago Police Detective. A case that was never closed. He’d been young and cocky back then, but along with his damn-the-torpedoes attitude, he also had a talent for seeing things others missed. And with the exception of that one unsolved case, he’d cleared a lot of murders. Those cleared cases garnished a respect which would eventually pave the way to a door plate which read: Deputy Chief of Police. That was the end of the line for Woodman.  He wasn’t a cop anymore, just a PR man who practiced politics with the best of them. Truth was, he hated it. He missed the smell of an unsolved case and made it his business to poke his head in on a task force or two to get a whiff of that scent.

At first they thought he was some crazy micro-manager from upstairs. But Woodman proved a great help to his fellow officers; and even better, he took zero credit. Word got around, and after a while the task force cops started coming to him for insight.

Chief Jorgenson didn’t like it though when Woodman got down in the trenches with the troops. Woodman thought that dislike was born out of resent. Jorgenson had been a career pencil pusher and had no cred with the cops he commanded. Although Jorgenson disapproved, there was no real reason to put a halt to Woodman’s actions. Woodman had balanced his position while Deputy Chief with an occasional task force consultation quite well.  When a case cleared, the Chief did what any politician would do. He held a press conference – congratulated his officers, and basked unabashedly in their success.

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Then the unthinkable happened to Woodman. The unthinkable being, a car accident that resulted in the death of his wife Jesse. Then there was the trace amounts of alcohol in his bloodstream that hardly registered .04 on the breathalyzer. He hadn’t blown enough to be charged, he wasn’t legally drunk, but Jesse was gone and when word got out, the media hooked onto him like a pariah. They dogged him about the accident, and about how much he’d drank after someone leaked the blood alcohol tests.

His career ended in much the same way Jesse’s life ended. Abrupt and without mercy. He found himself standing before the Mayor and Chief Jorgenson. On either side of them, like book ends, a Public Relations Bitch and the City Lawyer. Set neatly on a table before them, a stack of paper roughly an inch and a half thick.

That’s the “The Big Fuck You”, he thought. Somewhere through that he heard the Mayor offering words of regret, and there was even a round of condolence. But it was hollow, the papers on that table spoke more about what was at play than these four assholes put together.  In the end he did the only thing he could do. He signed his resignation, took a handsome buyout and left them to pat each other on the back. That was the end of Sean Woodman’s career in the Chicago Police Department. And though he was gone, he never forgot that one big case that got away. The one with the Indian named Blackbird and the bodies of woman they found in the Chicago sewers. They had also been eviscerated,  but the belly’s of those girls had been torn open. They called the case Little Big Horn, because on the evening of the last murder there had been an exchange of fire which included the use of a cross bow. Considering that Daniel Blackbird had been of Native descent and was the one firing the arrows, the name stuck. 

Scott Emmett showed up on Woodman’s doorstep with a case file thicker than a city phone book. He liked Emmett, but he was adamant that his days as a cop were over. Emmett was the son-in- law of his partner and best friend, Brad Rosedale. Coincidentally, Rosedale had been a part of that forgotten case as well. Unlike Woodman, Brad moved on. In fact he moved all the way on down to Tennessee; somewhere between Nashville and Memphis with his third wife.

“I can’t do this Scott. In fact if Jorgenson found out you were on my doorstep you could find yourself in deep shit. You could lose your job.”

“Well, normally I’d say fuck Jorgenson, but to be honest, he sanctioned this visit,” Emmett replied.

“Don Jorgenson told you to come see me?”

“Yeah.”

Woodman laughed, not because it was funny, but because he couldn’t believe the bastard would have the nerve. “Nothing personal Scott, but you can tell Jorgenson to go fuck himself.”

“We need your help Sean.”

“Why should I care? I’m not a cop anymore.”

“The last one was a 10 year-old girl.”

“Jesus Christ.” Woodman sighed and pushed open the screen door. Emmett stepped through the doorway and followed Woodman down the hall of his two room bungalow. “You know that the whole ‘last one was a ten-year-old girl’ is pretty fucking lame, little girls get murdered all the time.”

“There’s something else.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“We have a suspect.”

“You’ve made an arrest? I didn’t read anything in the papers.”

“No, not exactly, but we, know … I need your help.”

“So, you want what? Me to sit down with this guy. Jorgenson can’t be agreeing to that. This is all over the papers. I could see the headline. High profile case pulls disgraced Deputy Chief out of retirement. As much as I would love to make that Fuck-Stick squirm, I still have my daughter to think about.”

“How is Stacey?”

“I don’t know, she hates my guts. I killed her mother after all.”

“There’s one other thing Sean.”

“What’s that?”

“The suspect says he knows you.”

“What? Who is he?”

“He doesn’t have a name, but he says he knows you and won’t talk to anyone else.”

2

They rode in Emmett’s car. Woodman leafed through the case file, Emmett briefing him as they rode. “He’s approximately 40 years-old, no tattoos and he’s huge.”

“You mean fat!” Sean was staring at one of the crime scene photos. It was the body of a woman, she was nude, her stomach unzipped.

“No, tall. Stands like 7 foot 3. Scary looking fucker.”

“Where did you pick him up?”

“That’s where we’re going now.”

“How would he know me?”

“I don’t know, but we found something.”

“What? What did you find?”

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Emmett turned toward him, his face serious. “It will be better if you see it. This guy identified you by name. He said you would know him if you met him and he said one other thing.” Emmett turned his attention back to the road.

“What?”

“He said: I am Number 4.”

“What? Where? What the fuck? Where the fuck are you taking me?”

“We’re going to the run-off.” Emmett glanced over, then back to the road. “ Run-off 31.”

Woodman fell silent, but his mind raced. Run-off 31. Did they? Was it possible? After all these years?  Had they finally caught him. His teeth clenched, turning his cheeks out into hardened contours of meat.

3

Being back down here, plodding through the sewers, sent tremors through Woodman. It wasn’t just the claustrophobia, it was the smell, the dripping sounds, and below the pungent order of methane and human waste lay something darker. Woodman thought about the Nazi death camps and the smell associated with them. Real or imagined, those who visited those dark satanic mills associated that smell with death. This place was very much the same and though it had been almost 14 years, he still recalled the bloated headless corpses in Run-off 31. They got more than they bargained for when they, Chicago PD, went down below. A log jam of  bodies, all headless and eviscerated, crammed into that run-off, like…

“Spoils.” Rosedale called from the past. “Like a bunch of fucking discarded chicken carcasses.”

Up front, Emmett waded through the sludge, stirring the septic slew with his hip waders, creating a tide of lurching waves that lapped against the scum coated walls of the underground tunnel. Woodman felt the pressure of the liquid pushing his own waders against his legs. Emmett had come prepared.

“You boys are going to bring the suspect through this shit, seriously?”

Emmett stopped, swung about, the beam of his flashlight gliding across the glistening walls. Facing Woodman, he said. “He’s already there.”

“I thought you said that you guys had him in custody.”

“Not exactly. He’s contained.”

“What the fuck is up here, Emmett?”

Emmett chewed his lower lip, eyes losing focus momentarily. Then his gaze hardened and he turned to continue on. “It will be better if I show you.” Woodman considered protesting, but his curiosity had the better of him and at this point complaining would accomplish little, if anything. So, he did the only thing he could do, he followed the young officer and they continued on toward the run-off.

They reached the mouth ten minutes later. The arch of concrete was a little over eight feet high. This section of the sewer was as old as the city itself. The walls pitted and worn, falling victim to the elements and toxicity of gas vapors. Emmett halted, tracing the beam of  light up the wall until it fell upon a rectangular plate stamped out of brass that had long since faded and turned green.

It read: RUN-OFF 31.

Woodman didn’t need the sign. This place was etched into his memory. Through that archway, thirty feet ahead bobbed the horrific memory of his cold case.

“Are you ready?” Emmett’s gaze was neutral, even distant.

“Yeah, lets do this,”

They waded forward; sloshing liquid bounced off the conduit walls announcing their presence to the subterranean wildlife. A rat scurried along the edge and dove into the slew dog-paddling away from them. Thirty feet in Woodman stopped, listening for the ghosts of his past, wondering if they were watching him now. Emmett said nothing, waiting patiently for the moment of silence to pass. It did and Woodman whispered, “Let’s go.”

Sixty feet in, they came to a Y-Junction, to the left, the run-off continued its course to wherever it was the water flowed. To the right, the path began to climb out of the murky liquid. At its base slimy cobble awaited, but further up it looked dry. The archway was still high enough to walk upright and for this Woodman was thankful. His back was thankful as well.

“What do you make of this?”

Scrawled into the cobble by their feet was a single word: CHARON. The inscription was not old, weeks, perhaps as long as a month, and it was done free-hand, chiseled into the cobblestone and blotted with what looked to be blood.

Woodman studied it, something in that name struck a chord, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. “I  don’t know. Could it be the name of your Perp?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Okay, that’s it! What in the name of fuck is going on here? First you tell me you want me to speak to a suspect, then you drag me down into the sewers. Now I’m taken back to the scene of an old case and you’ve been … well, cryptic seems to be the operative word.”

Emmett’s gaze was trained upon him, but he said nothing.

“Okay that’s it!”  Woodman swung around, ready to wade back into the septic stream.

“Wait.”

He stopped.

“Almost everything I told you is true, Sean.  We need your help.”

His back still turned, Woodman responded. “You want my help. Start talking.”

“Okay.”

He pivoted back around to face Emmett. “I’m waiting.”

Emmett took a long, deliberate breath then exhaled. “We tracked our suspect here this afternoon after the body of a ten year old girl turned up in St. Paul Woods. This was a fresh kill, crime scene puts it down to hours. The mother wasn’t even aware yet that the daughter was missing, let alone dead. She’s a turn key kid, with a single mom working two jobs. Some old homeless guy picking bottles and cans came across her, and he saw the murder.”

“He didn’t intervene?” 

“As I said before, the Perp is huge, I don’t think our witness could have done much.”

“Never mind, carry on.”

“The old man, he’s a mess. He said that the girl was screaming when the ghoul cut her open. Screaming and begging for her life.” Emmett stopped, took another deep breath and carried on. “So, when it’s over, the old guy says the Perp removed her organs and put them into some kind of carry bag then starts out across the park. The homeless guy decides to follow at a fair distance I might add, but God love him for showing some balls. He follows the Perp out of St. Paul over to Oakton Street all the way into Skokie. Two fucking miles, Sean. Guess where it leads him?”

Woodman said, “Little Big Horn.”

“You got it. Same place your guy was dumping bodies down the sewer. Same alley. Same fucking manhole. Except this guy pulls back the manhole cover and goes down the hole like a fucking … what did they call those underground moles in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine?”

“Morlocks?”

“Yeah like a fucking Morlock. Not far from there, there’s a community Precinct. After the Perp goes down the hole, the old guy makes for the Precinct. Takes him about 20 minutes to convince the community cop he’s not a loon, twenty more minutes to locate the body and another ten to call us. We were mobile within an hour and a half.  I figured he was long gone.  Then, on a hunch I decided to check the Run-off. That’s where we found him. Where he is now.”

“Why isn’t he in the tombs under lock and key?”

“Because we don’t have him in custody. We just have him cornered.” 

Anger bubbled up. “Cornered! You brought me to an apprehension?  I don’t even have a gun! What the fuck is the matter with you!”

Emmett reached into his jacket and produced a Desert Eagle 9 mm. “You can have this if it makes you feel better, but you won’t need it. He’s behind some kind of plexus-glass barrier.”

“Barrier?”

“Sean, please. Come with me, it’s only another 600 yards. He says he knows you. Says that he is Number 4, he won’t talk to anyone but you. The others are waiting. We’ve got ten armed cops down there, you have my spare gun. I need you to talk to this guy, he’s up to something, but I’m not sure what. I can stand here and debrief you for another hour, but it will be easier if you just follow me the rest of the way.”

“Is it the man from Little Big Horn? Do you think this is my guy.”

“I really don’t know. That’s for you to decide.”

Both men carried on into the darkness.

4

“This is Detective Emmett! I am entering the scene with former Deputy Chief Sean Woodman!” Emmett shifted impatiently from one foot to the other. “Answer, God damn it!”

“Okay Detective, it’s clear for you to enter.”

The light at the end opened up into a pumping station that had been cut in half by a barrier that indeed looked like plexus-glass. On one side, strategically positioned, police officers stood, weapons drawn and at the ready. On the other, a lone silhouette sat staring out at his captors over a sea of clay pottery. The lighting was dim, but Woodman caught the grin that suddenly formed on the strangers face and knew that this sudden show of pleasure was due mostly to his arrival.

“What the fuck is he doing here,” Woodman cussed when he saw Jorgenson walking toward him.

“I’m sorry Sean, I didn’t think you’d come if I told you.”

“You’re right, I wouldn’t have.”

“Thank you for coming Sean,” Chief Jorgenson stuck out his hand.

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Woodman turned his attention from Emmett to Jorgenson. “Put it away, Jorg, I’m not shaking your fucking hand,” he said, then raising his voice just slightly, added. “Would I be correct to assume that that pottery contains what was taken from the victims?”

“Yeah, that would be correct.” Jorgenson lowered his hand and placed it into his pocket. He took a cursory glance around to see if his subordinates had noticed; they had.

“How did he get in there?”

“We don’t know.”

Then, from behind. “Wood Man.”

Startled, Woodman pivoted to face the Perp.

He rose, strode forward, coming into the light. He was a giant of a man. His hands hung like machinery at his sides. His clothes still stained with copper, giving testament to the last killing. His face was hard and angular, bone and muscle pulled his skin back making him look gaunt.

“I have been waiting for you?”

“You have. Why?”

“Because you have seen him.”

“Who?”

“Keh Run of course.”

“I don’t know any Keh Run. Who are you?”

“I am Number 4.”

“How did you get in there? Who is Keh Run?”

The stranger frowned. “I do not like games, Wood Man.”

Woodman thought back to the inscription in the cobblestone.  Charon. “Was that his name at the base of the tunnel?  I thought it was pronounced Charon, not Keh-Run.”

“Yes, Charon.”  He smiled again, revealing uniform planks of yellow teeth, looking more like old fence boards stacked on top of each other.  He folded his hands neatly in front him, tilting his head downward.

“You said you knew me.” Woodman decided to ask the question that was eating him. “Have you done this before? Back in 2001? Was that you?”  He brought his eyes up to meet the stranger, steeling his expression and waiting.

The stranger’s smile melted back into his milky complexion. He turned and moved back between the pots, settling down on his pedestal; arms crossed. From there, shadows fell upon his face, making it look skull-like.

“What now?” Emmett whispered.

Woodman cocked his head right, catching Jorgenson and Emmett’s attention and glanced toward the opening of the pump room. They took the hint and followed. Once out of earshot, he began talking. “This isn’t my guy.”

“How can you be sure?”

“The girls back in 2001 were torn open, their heads literally twisted off. This wacko is emulating that, but he wouldn’t know the state of the victims were in. Does anyone have a cell phone that works down here?”

Emmett pulled out his iPhone. “Yeah, I have a signal.”

“Okay, Google Charon.”

From above, a muddy drop of water fell downward and splashed  across the screen.

“Fuck.” He wiped it with his sleeve or he tried to, then stopped. “It’s going to take a second, the touch screen doesn’t react well to liquid poo.”

Woodman and Jorgenson both laughed, but stifled their amusement when they saw the other sharing in the joke. “So what’s your contingency plan?” Woodman asked.

“I’ve got a SWAT team coming down with a fixed charge. If you can’t talk him out, we’ll go tactical and take the fucker out.” Jorgenson nudged Emmett. “How are you making out?”

“Give me a second, the signal is pretty weak.”

“There has to be another way in? Are you looking at that?”

“I’ve got a city works guy coming with blue prints, but these are some old fucking tunnels. When I called over the Chief of Operations he asked me if I was kidding.  Said that finding a blue-print of this section might take a lot of hours.”

“But he found them?”

“Yeah, he’s conferring with the SWAT Lieutenant.”

“Got it! Holy shit, if this is right, this dude has some serious expectations of you, Sean.”

Woodman reached over, took the phone and began to read. He didn’t have his glasses, but the font was large enough that he didn’t struggle too much. After he finished, he passed the phone over to Jorgenson and said, “Well, at least we know who Charon is.”

“He’s certifiable,” Jorgenson said.

“Really? You needed Google to figure that out, eh, Jorg? The whole evisceration thing didn’t tip you off?” Woodman regretted letting that out only a second after it spilled from his mouth. Bitterness would accomplish nothing here.

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Jorgenson glanced up, his face red and angry. “You don’t want to be here. I’ll have an officer escort you out. I didn’t end your career, you did.”

“Could we save this for another time?” Emmett interrupted.

Woodman didn’t give Jorgenson a chance to respond. He walked out of the pump room back to the plexus. “The boatman. You’re waiting for the boatman to arrive?”

The stranger rose. “Charon, yes. I have a tidy sum to give him.”

“Who are you?”

“I told you, I am Number 4.” He reached down and lifted the lid from one of the pots. “One left to fill, then Charon will come for me.”

“What is this? Why did you ask for me?”

The stranger smiled. “You will see.”

From behind, Jorgenson whispered, “ I just got word, they have found another tunnel that’ll lead them in. Tactical will be here in five, keep him talking.”

“Why do you call yourself Number 4?”

“Because I am not the first.” He stood, walked to the back of the enclosure. “I am the fourth servant, cast down to earth. But to find my way back to the Master, I must first do his bidding and payment must be made.”

“Payment to Charon?”

From behind, Jorgenson again. “Four minutes.”

“Yes, but he is also a servant. He will take my payment, but the cargo will not be his to keep.” The stranger reached up onto the wall and flicked a switch. The room lit up, shadows retreating into the walls and in their absence Woodman saw it all.

There behind him, amongst the many clay pots, smeared with copper that could only be coagulant held a new source of concern. Was it? Could it be? Beneath a tarpaulin standing upright was a figure that could only be…

“Behold, Wood Man!” The stranger said and pulled away the tarp.

Horror cut through him like rusty barb wire. Woodman’s eyes widened, his thoughts spinning and as shock melted over him he could hear himself screaming. “No! No! No! No!”

From behind, Jorgenson again. Panicked. “Keep him talking. Tactical is close.”

“Stacey!”

She was barely conscious, not a strip of clothing on her body, her arms tied behind her back, her belly exposed. Like a witch on a stake.

“Jesus Christ, no! Let her go, please. ”

“Forty five is the number, Wood Man.”

There below her, a pot was waiting. It’s lid removed.

The Officers at the scene raised their weapons. Safeties clicked off.

The stranger reached down and produced a knife, its blade long and curving into a hook.  He stepped forward and blew into her face. “Wake, child.”

“You fucking psycho, let her go!” Woodman was blubbering. “Please, take me instead!”

 Suddenly conscious, Stacey whimpered, “Daddy?”

 “It’s time, Wood Man.” He grinned and raised the blade.

“Shoot! Shoot the fucker!” Jorgenson ordered.

The underground room exploded in a barrage of gunfire. Bullets ricocheted off the plexus, one zipping past Woodman’s head. Another struck Jorgenson in the throat opening his jugular. Blood spurted out of the wound, splashing upward against the plexus; first defying gravity then it began to flow downward.  Another officer was struck in the ankle, bone fragments splintered from the skin in porcupine fashion.

The stranger seemed not to notice.

Woodman begged – pleaded – cried and then fell to his knees when the knife cut up into her belly on its first diagonal pass. Stacey stiffened, her eyes locking with her father’s. Then, after the second cut, she screamed, but only for a second; it was drowned out by her father’s howls of anguish.

Emmett ordered, “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” Then a bullet cut into his guts, turning his knees to rubber. As if in prayer, he dropped and let loose a groan that exemplified agony.

Woodman could only hope a stray bullet would take him, but the barrage fell silent, replaced by  ringing disbelief.  Stacey’s chin rested against her chest, her mouth opening and closing, her pupils dilating.

Woodman prayed, Take her, please take her now.

Then, with one hooked hand, the stranger who called himself “Number 4” reached inside and to  eviscerate her. She was gone before the audible plop, her insides warming the cool clay jar.

 The stranger came to the glass, and with one bloodied finger wrote the word: Charon.

“Your soul for hers,” he invited.

“You bastard, you fucking psycho piece of shit!”

From the headset that now lay beside a dead Jorgenson, he heard, “One minute to breach!”

The stranger returned to the center of the pots and stood on his pedestal. Then he began to pray aloud in some foreign tongue. It was rhythmic, rising and falling. Woodman had never heard the language, but it was indeed a language.

“You’re going to get the needle for this, you sick fuck!”

Shay-gra-che-Keh-Run-la-a-Jee,” he prayed, a chant of psychobabble. “Keh Run-la-a-Jee! Charon! La-a-jee! Charon! La-a-jee!

Something began to happen.

From each pot a light began to bloom, first growing then pulsing like a heartbeat. All of them, all 45 glowed in a myriad of color. The temperature plummeted, frost forming on the walls, turning breath into vapor.

“What’s happening?” someone asked.

The stranger began to change as well. His face hardening, the milky skin turning first to serape and then ashen. The radiance from the pots increased, the stranger raised a hand, his skin crumbling away like cigarette ash leaving only an accusing boney talon. “Behold,” he said.

Behind him, the wall began to ripple and then fade. Light dissolved the matrix of reality and the wall was no more. Reality buckled – came apart –  a corridor materialized; a long wide passageway set in stone bookmarking each side, halfway filled with water. Down that passage was a place that those who feared for their eternal soul would not dare look.

Woodman, mouth agape, remembered what he’d read.  Dark and dismal, the River of Acheson and across the Styx cometh the boatman: Charon to collect the payment for safe passage to Hades.

The light inside each of the pots rose and materialized corporeally.

First he saw a man, then woman, then a child, then Stacey. Behind them, the stranger continued to decompose, muscle degenerating, skin tightening, until only mummified bone remained.

 “Oh my God,” the officer whose ankle had been shot called out.

Down the corridor, pushing against the current, the boatman was coming.

The ghostly forms gathered about the one who called himself Number 4 as he stepped from the pedestal, following him to the shoreline as the boatman approached.

“Hades,” Woodman mumbled.

“What?” Emmett grunted.

“Your soul for hers,” he had offered.

There’s still time. I can save her. I can stop him from taking her!

Woodman reached into his jacket pocket, felt the gun, wrapped his fingers around the pistol grip. “I can’t let this happen! I can’t let him take her!”

Almost at the shore now, soon the boatman would be ready to take them aboard. 

“Sean! What are you doing?” Emmett cried.

Sean Woodman placed the gun barrel under his chin, closed his eyes and squeezed.

***

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Thanks

MJ

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