Sunday, 11:43 p.m. Highway 849, Mitchum Bay
I drove past Vern’s Blue Tavern (its plywood siding, despite the name, was painted piss yellow), counted ten Dingo motorcycles parked in the gravel lot, and continued another four miles to the intersection of Highway 849 and Camden Road. I turned right on Camden, proceeded another two miles, and pulled into the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel. There was a Pilot truck stop across the four-lane road, and unlike the restaurant, it was open, but there was too much activity, too many potential witnesses.
I navigated the Mustang to the back of the lot, beyond the reach of the security lamps, and popped its trunk. I’d dressed in old blue jeans, older sneakers, and a black T-shirt; the clothes weren’t my preferred choice of wardrobe for what was going to happen, but they were good camouflage.
I pulled a folded-up tarp and a backpack from the trunk. The pack was stuffed with a spare set of clothes, a towel, latex gloves, baby wipes, and a gallon jug of gasoline. I opened the car, draped the tarp over the driver’s seat, locked up, and slid on the pack. I set off for Vern’s, keeping to the shoulder of the road. Vehicles passed me, but I didn’t worry about that. Thanks to the truck stop at my back, I would be mistaken for a hitchhiker.
I reached the bar, hid my backpack in the weeds behind it, and sauntered to the front. I briefly considered sabotaging the bikes in some way–yanking wires, breaking whatever looked important–but in the end, I decided to get this over with and pulled the door open.
The interior was as I remembered from past visits: wood paneling decorated with Magic Marker graffiti, bumpy and faded linoleum flooring, mismatched tables and chairs in the center, booths that had been old when Nixon was impeached lined up on the wall on my left. Two battered pool tables were at the back by the bathroom, close by a surprisingly mint Rockola jukebox playing AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”. The bar was made of plywood and cinder blocks. I could see the bartender’s bluejeaned legs, along with a sawed-off shotgun clamped under the bar top. The walls and ceiling were plastered with posters featuring naked and half-naked blondes straddling motorcycles and giant beer bottles.
The lighting was the surprise: every bulb was on, from the glass Budweiser shades above the pool tables to the bare 50-watts dangling from dusty cords above the booths. Not only was Vern’s the size of a McDonald’s, it was lit up like one. The last time I’d been in here, the main source of illumination had been the white Christmas lights draped on the shelves behind the bar.
I headed to the bar. Vern’s still stunk of decades of stale beer, spilled whiskey, gray cigarette smoke, and B.O. I took a seat on a barstool. The barkeep was a skinny guy with a shaved head and small gold padlocks dangling from stretched earlobes. He tapped blunt fingers on the scarred plywood and asked me what I wanted to drink.
I pretended to carefully consider the two shelves of liquor bottles behind him. “Couple shots of Jack Daniel’s,” I said.
“Couple like two?”
I held up two fingers. “Two. Zwei. Dos.”
He turned around, his lips moving. The music was too loud for me to hear him call me a bitch, but I read lips pretty well when they form expletives.
He returned with two cloudy shot glasses and a half-empty bottle. What he poured didn’t smell like Jack, but it was whiskey. I thanked him, and he bared brown teeth in a sort of grin. Before I could wonder what jack-o’-lantern he’d stolen them from, a heavy hand clapped down on my right shoulder.
The guy who owned the hand leaned on the bar. He wore the gray jean jacket of the Dingos, and I quickly scanned the patches sewn onto the fabric. My eyes stopped on the left chest, on the black patch with the white lettering that gave his nickname: Haste.
Too perfect. I downed the first shot with his hand still resting on my shoulder.
AC/DC gave way to something by Waylon Jennings, played at a considerably lower volume. Haste smiled. His teeth were marginally better than the bartender’s, who was also leaning on the bar top. The bartender’s right elbow rested near a knife-scrawled sentiment I currently shared: FUCK EVERYTHING.
Haste’s fingers squeezed my shoulder. “Baby girl,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
I raised the second glass. “Getting a drink?”
“We don’t serve cops,” he said, and I paused with the glass halfway to my lips.
I’ll admit, my heart skipped a beat. I’d been in here before to break up the odd fight, but the bartender was a new face (and judging by the way he was hanging around us, I was willing to bet that he was a Dingo prospect). Likewise, I’d encountered the Dingos before, but not this bunch.
I downed the whiskey, wishing I’d gone with my original plan: change in the parking lot, kick down the door, and get to killing. Halfway here, I’d switched gears, deciding to draw it out. I set the glass down. “I’m not a cop,” I said. “I just stopped in for a drink.”
“Nuh-uh.” Haste’s hand gripped me tighter. “Don’t lie, baby girl. You’re with the sheriff’s. The fuck’re you here for?”
“I’m not–” I began, and then his hand moved rattler-quick from my shoulder to the back of my head. He slammed my forehead against the bar. I felt my legs go to jelly, felt my hands slide across the rough plywood surface. The next thing I knew, my heels were dragging across pink and gray linoleum tiles. Probably way back in 1981, those tiles had been red and black.
I realized my eyes were open. I blinked. My left heel caught an edge of tile that had peeled up, and peeled it back farther as Haste dragged me backwards. His arms were squeezing me around the chest. We were moving away from the front door, past the pool tables. A Dingo sat on the edge of one of the tables, cue stick propped on the floor between his legs. He was laughing.
Behind us, a door banged open. Smells of lemon-scented disinfectant, urine, and shit wafted out. We were going into the bathroom. Oh joy.
Doorframe on my left. I grabbed it. We jerked to a stop, Haste grunting in surprise. “No way, baby girl,” he said, and dropped me.
That was unexpected. My hand slid off the doorframe. My butt hit the floor. Rough hands clutched my throat and chin. Haste tried to yank me to my feet. When I resisted, the hand around my throat tightened. Given the choice between standing or strangling, I went with standing. As soon as I was upright, he whirled me to my left. My stomach whammed into the edge of the stainless steel sink mounted to the wall. I woofed out breath, found my reflection in the water-stained mirror above the sink. I had a purple splotch on my forehead just below my hairline. Had I been normal, that might have been a pretty sizable goose egg.
Haste kicked the door shut with a heavy boot. Then he was behind me, his breath hot against my right ear. “Baby girl, honey child,” he whispered. He gripped my hips. “Think we might run a train on you.”
“Might want to reconsider that,” I said.
He pressed closer against my back. I pressed my hands to the paneled wall and waited. He chuckled. His breath was rancid. “Why, cause you’re a cop? You think that matters? You think I give a shit?”
“No, but . . . it smells like you’ve been eating it,” I said. Not my best quip, but I was coming back from a possible concussion.
He sighed. “That was bad.”
His hands moved around to my chest. They stopped when I said, “Why’d you have to kill the little girls?”
In the mirror, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, man. We’re about to get intimate. Let’s not spoil it with lies.”
“The fuck is this–” he began, and I shoved backward. His back hit the opposite wall. I rammed my elbow into what felt like his ribs, took a couple steps forward until I was close to the sink, and turned around. Haste was slumped against the wall, a hand pressed to his side. “Bitch,” he spat.
I hit him in the face, throwing the punch as fast and hard as I could. His head whipped to the right, his nose flattened and spurting blood. I hit him again, this time in the jaw, and I’m still not sure if the cracking sound I heard was his jaw popping loose or my knuckles breaking.
His ass hit the floor, his mouth askew and dribbling a mixture of blood and saliva. I pulled off my shirt and tossed it into the sink. He watched me undress. I didn’t care.
I knelt in front of him, braced my knuckles against the linoleum. My teeth twitched. I took a deep breath. “I really . . . wanted to take my time with you.” Something in my back popped. I winced. I was holding out against the impending change as much as I could, but I was losing. My neck jerked to the left on its own. “Is what it is,” I sighed. My teeth jiggled again, and I finally gave up.
The transformation only took a few seconds, and when it was over, I rose to my feet, the muscles in my lupine-jointed legs still trembling from the exertion. Haste made noises, little grunts and wheezes. His legs kicked. If he was trying to stand up, he was failing. I swung an arm that ended in bony talons and opened his throat.
I left him to bleed out below a Bud Light poster and opened the door. The guy who’d been sitting on the pool table had crept close to the door. When the five-foot-ten werewolf (I gain a couple inches in the change) opened it, he blinked. I rammed my claws into the soft underside of his chin and tossed him up. His back slammed against the plywood ceiling. He hit the floor. I stepped on him on my way to the others.
I don’t remember much after that. I have flashes of memory, now and then: The bartender screaming while he tries to yank the shotgun free from under the bar. The guy with the Santa Claus beard and the ragged hole in his gut. That same guy flying at the bartender, knocking him away from the shotgun. The pool table flipping over and pinning a large man named Gnat (how original! how clever!) under it. Mostly what I remember is the smell of blood, wet and coppery in my nostrils.
I came back to myself in the parking lot. I had changed back, and my feet hurt; I was standing on gravel in the middle of the lot. I looked at my hands. They were slimed with blood and biker bits. They began to shake. I dropped them and gingerly made my way to the rear of the building, to my backpack.
I cleaned up, dressed, and headed back to the front, the backpack much lighter with the gallon jug of gas in my gloved hand. I ran my free hand through my wet hair. I’d discovered a water hose back there, and had sprayed the blood out of my hair. I stared at the ground as a car passed by. Once it was gone, I stalked back to the bar.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. I popped the top off the jug and emptied it near the bar, thinking the liquor bottles would help the flames. I didn’t think, as I splashed the gas, about slaughterhouses and monsters and how blood smelled when it sizzled on hot lightbulbs.
I tossed the jug away and dug a book of matches out of my pocket. I lit the book and threw it at the bar on my way outside.