Iron Angels – Snippet 24

Chapter 14

The wail subsided, but the goose bumps on his arms remained.

The group of people, perhaps a half dozen, stood on the cracked sidewalk in front of the house on Ivy Street, a drab aluminum-sided number with a screen door hanging askew and a crumbling brick walkway — pretty standard for this section of town.

“Any of you the owner?”

They all shook their heads. “What’s going on?” a reedy Hispanic man asked.

“We don’t know yet,” Temple said. “Anyone know the owner?”

“He’s some crusty old white guy,” the Hispanic man said. “Yabutski or something.”

“A get-off-my-lawn sort of fella?” Jasper asked.

The Hispanic man smiled, revealing a bit of gold in his grill. “Yeah.”

“Do me a favor, you all stay back a bit while we check this out.”

“You cops or something?”

“Or something.”

Jasper nearly yanked the screen door clean off and rapped on the door.

The door whisked open and he was met by a whiskery old man, peering at him with one eye squinted almost shut and wild white hair resembling a bird’s nest. “And what do you want?”

“Uh, are you Mr. Yabutski? Didn’t you phone in a complaint earlier?”

“Yeah,” the old man said, “to the no-good cops around here. Who in the hell are you two? The mod squad or something? And it’s Yablonski, goddamnit.”

Jasper rolled his eyes. “You want us to check out the disturbance or what?”

“Don’t you have some identification?”

Temple flipped open her credential case and thrust it in the man’s face.

The old man pulled back. “Hey, what is this? I asked for the cops, not the goddamned G-men, err, G-women. Oh, never mind.”

“We’re FBI, and interested in a few other goings on around this area. Mind if we check out the animal attack?”

“Pfft, ain’t no animal attack if you ask me.”

“Then why did you phone in a complaint?”

“Because no one would have taken me seriously if I told them my real thoughts, and don’t think I’m not aware you all maintain a crazy file.”

Jasper grinned — the old man wasn’t wrong. “Okay, so what do you believe? Take us back.”

“Come inside. Come inside. Can’t have all those people,” he nodded toward the crowd on the sidewalk, “nosing about my business. As it is, they think I’m off my rocker. But I’m not that far gone, not yet.”

The interior was about as Jasper expected — an old man’s idea of freedom. Dirty dishes on a TV tray next to a recliner, and another stack on an ottoman not used as a footrest for quite some time. Thick dust covered much of the available surfaces save for the recliner. Pictures on the wall were off kilter and faded from sunlight, and cobwebs laced the room nearly as much as the drapes covered all the windows. Mustiness mingled with rotten food and body odor created a miasma making Jasper want to head for the backyard and confront the danger rather than breathe in and taste the nastiness inside.

“It’s little green men,” the old man blurted out. “Or a chupacabra, all those Mexicans around here, you never know.”

“For crying out loud,” Jasper said.

Temple sighed.

“I’m not crazy,” the old man said. “You go.”

“We will, but first put on your tin foil hat, that’ll help protect you from the rays of Uranus.”

“I’m not crazy. There’s aliens, I tell you.”

“Yeah, or a chupacabra, I heard you.” Jasper took a deep breath and regretted the exasperation as he’d allowed all the foulness of the air to penetrate his lungs.

“The wailing ceased as you two walked up, now you gonna check it out or what?”

Jasper motioned for Temple to follow him. He flicked the back light on, a bright spotlight that could burn the hairs off the healthiest head of hair and peered through the back door’s grime-caked window. “I got nothing. Gonna open the door.”

He cracked the door and listened.

“Still nothing.” He crouched, lifted his left pant leg, and removed his baby Glock from the ankle holster. “You packing?”

“Already have mine out, you ready?”

Jasper stood and opened the door. He performed two quick peeks, but saw nothing along the walls on either side of the door.

“What else is out back?”

“A shed and a few lines for hanging laundry.”

Temple snorted. “This guy probably only gets around to doing laundry once every couple of months.

A slurping noise got Jasper’s full attention.

“Hold on, I hear something.” He held a finger to his lips, but kept his focus on the back yard. He reached over and flicked off the interior lights — no point in giving whomever or whatever roamed back there a glimpse of them before necessary.

Jasper hesitated. Temple’s hand found his shoulder, as if at once providing both comfort and a nudge to exit the house.

He eased open the door and took a hesitant step out, scanning the areas of danger for any movement, but saw nothing. The wood step beneath him creaked under his full weight. He winced.

The slurping ceased.

“Must be behind the shed,” he whispered.

Temple squeezed his shoulder.

Crimson haze enveloped the ramshackle shed. That was perhaps a trick of the light, but the haze was nowhere else. A strange odor — not exactly putrid, but definitely not pleasant — smacked him in the face. He imagined a dead deer on the side of the road for a few days along with a sickly sweet twist, as if someone had dumped a bottle of cheap perfume on the poor animal.

“There’s something behind the shed.”

The slurping erupted into a sloshing, squishy noise.

Jasper ran for the shed, flashlight and Glock at the ready to expose and deal with whatever horror lurked.

“Wait!” Temple cried after him.

He slipped on the wet grass and slid into the front of the shed. The old man must have run his sprinklers recently, even though there hadn’t been any shortage of rain over the past couple of weeks. The grass was pretty slick.

The haze congealed alongside the shed, but then disappeared behind.

Jasper scrambled to his feet.

Temple cried out something inarticulate, halfway between a warning shout and a scream.

He glanced back at her and his body chilled. Her eyes and mouth were wide and her hands shook, causing her Glock to wave about wildly. Jasper spun back for another look at the shed and was met by what appeared to be a rather large beast — but strangely ephemeral as if occupying two worlds at once, not fully in one or the other. He shook his head, and stepped back, raising both Glock and flashlight.

The shape before him was similar to the dragon shape outside the Euclid Hotel. The dragon’s crimson tendrils extended from the broad snout and reached for him, groping the air, but yanked back when Jasper thrust his Glock forward. The dragon’s shape morphed, now resembling a giant sea creature, something prehistoric. Then, abruptly, it vanished.

“Holy shit.” He hadn’t smoked in years, but the habit suddenly appealed to him again. A stiff drink sounded better, though — too bad he didn’t carry a flask.

“I told you,” a voice said from behind him, and coughed. “See?”

“Sir, you need to get back in your house.” Temple’s voice trembled, all her fierceness vanished.

The door rattled.

“The old man’s back inside,” Temple said.

“Let’s check this out.” He took a step, but hesitated. Stopping now was out of the question — he was charged with protecting others — but he felt so inadequate at the moment, as if the beast stole his courage upon vanishing. He turned toward Temple. “Did you see the strange shape?”