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Number Eighteen

The last peach-orange rays of sunset punching through the clouds would have been beautiful, Mags thought, if they didn’t herald the prospect of starting her investigation alone in the swamp after dark.


The notion groped around in Mags' mind with cold, grubby fingers. She squeezed the squad car’s steering wheel just a little tighter, glancing at the passenger’s seat, where the case file and other equipment - her sidearm, tablet, flashlight, and couple extra magazines - jostled with each bump of the pothole-puckered highway. The name on the folder said Detective Marsha Billings, but those closest to her had always just called her Mags.


Not that there were a bunch of folks around these days who still used that name. Instead, to most of Valor County, Mississippi, she was “Bloodhound”, a name the townie cops had started and which she knew had as much to do with her looks as her knack for cracking cases. She could handle the heat when it was just the other cops saying it - her older brother Benny made sure her skin was plenty thick - but hearing it twenty-odd times a day from everyone she met was beginning to wear her down.


It’d all started with a feature in the Gazette:


MARSHA “BLOODHOUND” BILLINGS CELEBRATES CLOSED CASE NUMBER SEVENTEEN WITH MAYOR DRIPP AND SHERIFF CROWE


She knew the paper had been trying to do right with the photo-op lunch. It was their attempt to shine a light on the progress she was making against Valor County’s considerable backlog of cold cases and unsolved disappearances. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had fed the paper the nickname with malicious intent, as nearly everyone in the county now referred to her as “Bloodhound Billings,” much to her chagrin.


Not long after that lunch, Sheriff Crowe had assigned her the Waim file.


“That case is radioactive, sir,” she said, glancing at the folder on his desk. In one tragic night the mangled bodies of Valor High School’s star quarterback, Julius Fletcher, Jr., and his cheerleader girlfriend, Anne-Marie Cullins, had been found on the side of the road. Three years later, the Deputy who’d discovered them - Harlan Waim - was still missing.


Part of the reason he’d never been found was because once Fletcher Jr.’s body had been recovered, Fletcher Sr. had been keen to have the investigation concluded, to the outrage of many locals. But, as the owner of seven of the nine car dealerships in the tri-county area, he was able to make a sizable contribution to Crowe’s re-election war chest, after which the Sheriff started shifting men and resources to other issues. He’d also paid for a nice memorial service for both Cullins and the missing Deputy.


Swell guy, until you realized - as Mags had - that there was no mystery about the actions of either Fletcher. The boy’s phone had them pointed toward Greskell, Florida: a little town whose main claim to fame was an abortion clinic accessible to Mississippi residents who were willing to make the drive. Fletcher Sr., meanwhile, primarily sold cars to Bible-thumpers, and wanted to make sure word never got out about the true reason for his son’s ill-fated trip.


“You’re the Bloodhound,” Crowe said, taking his feet off his desk and sliding the file toward her. “Radioactive should be a walk in the park for you.”


“Why now, sir?” Mags asked. “Is Mrs. Waim threatening to go to 20/20 or Oxygen or something?” The widow was the only one still making noise about the case to anyone who’d listen. The Cullins family had long since moved away - either for privacy or at Fletcher Sr.’s behest, depending who you asked. Still, Mags knew she’d crossed a line. Crowe sat forward, placing his elbows on his desk.


“You let me worry about why, Detective. You’re the best I’ve got. So get it done - quietly.”


Though the compliment had been a nice surprise, it didn’t do anything to assuage her feeling that she was a pawn in some larger game. But there was nothing for it, so she’d started digging.


The only real clues to Waim’s disappearance were a dashcam recording from his vehicle, along with some garbled audio that’d come in over the radio a few days after he’d gone missing. The state troopers who’d found the abandoned cars alongside the highway - and the teens’ bodies - couldn’t find anything suspicious about his car.


Besides their testimony, there were some pictures in the file which hadn’t been released to the public. Waim’s cruiser was untouched, but the Fletcher boy’s pickup looked like he’d run into a fourteen-point buck. The grille was crushed in, the windshield cracked, and the headlights hung like eyeballs popped out of a skull in some slasher flick. The driver’s side quarter-panel looked like it’d lost a fight with a can opener.


The dashcam video wasn’t particularly helpful, either. Mags practically had it memorized now - she’d been watching it on repeat ever since Crowe foisted the case on her. It was mostly footage of Waim waddling around the pickup and taking in the damage, then calling uselessly for Fletcher.


Of course, it had been pitch black on the road; Mags could barely make out Waim’s rotund figure at the edge of the cruiser’s headlights.


The only thing she couldn’t square was toward the end of the video. Waim was crouched, inspecting part of the pickup, when his head suddenly snapped around, as if he’d heard something. But there was nothing to hear - only the music coming from the cruiser’s radio. Whatever it was, it prompted him to abandon the pickup and wander off into the marsh.


Maybe he thought he’d heard one of the teens? Per the coroner, both would’ve already been dead by that time. Something about it didn’t add up, so Mags figured the next best thing would be to drive out and have a look at the site, although what she expected to discover three years later, she couldn’t say.


Beyond the case itself, Mags was still chewing on why Crowe had dropped it into her lap when he did. Had she rattled a few too many cages near the top of Valor County society? Some of her cases had her knocking on doors down at the country club, but the only time the DA ever seemed to hand down indictments was when her suspects didn’t have the means, wits, or connections to defend themselves.


What Crowe didn’t understand was that it’d never really been about the indictments for Mags anyway. Justice was often a squishy, ephemeral thing. She just cared about closure; about finding people - or their bodies, usually. Even a corpse could bring the beginnings of closure and finality to a family, which was more than she’d ever gotten when Benny disappeared.


Mags cursed as the prowler lurched from a particularly nasty pothole. She had to get out of her own head: being stuck in the bayou after dark was already bad enough; she couldn’t afford a flat tire out here on top of everything else.


She reached over and turned on the radio, but it was all static, no matter how much she spun the tuner. No surprise this far out from civilization: where she’d grown up, the only radio choices had been right-wing news, gospel music, and a rap station with so many censored lyrics that it sounded like dead air anyway.


Finally, she found a station. It wasn’t playing music, though - it was more like an absence of anything, filling the cruiser with a silence that was somehow heavier than before she’d turned on the radio. She moved her hand back toward the tuning dial, but just before Mags could give it a spin, a wailing blast of saxophone music erupted from the prowler’s speakers.


Mags screamed, instinctively tensing her body. The motion caused her to swerve briefly into the oncoming lane, prompting another scream. Once she straightened out in her own lane, she took a deep breath and exhaled. Had she really left the volume that loud last time she’d driven? She shook her head and turned it down, then actually started to listen to the song.


Mags groaned as she recognized George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Of course Benny would be screwing with her from beyond the grave, and of course he’d wait to do it until she was so deep in the bayou that her headlights and the moon glowering overhead were the only illumination.


Her older brother had made an art of filling her head with all kinds of ghost stories, but there was one in particular he’d delighted in telling her, even after the meth had started to steal everything else.


It was about an ancient entity known as Chur’goth.


She’d hated the story, but something always happened to him when he told it; it was like the clouds lifted, and for a few moments, he could just be himself. Maybe it was some rote memory or something for him. Mags didn’t care. It just meant the world to see the real Benny from time to time.


To hear Benny tell it, the monstrosity either lurked within the marsh or lived at the depths of the Gulf, depending how he wanted to spin it that particular day. No matter where it lived, the last thing its victims always saw was its single, great, yellow eye, as long across as a semi trailer. It called to its victims using music. Then, over a three-day ritual, twisted and molded them into grotesque, sadistic shapes like a hyperactive toddler with a wad of Play-Doh.


Legend held it fed on their agony, flavored by their screams. She’d always interrupt the story around this time to tell Benny how campy that was, and he’d ignore her, and talk about how the swamp god released its creations back into the bayou to seek other wayward travelers. It was all part of Benny’s storytelling ritual, culminating in what was either the climax or the punchline: the song the dark entity used to call its victims was, invariably, “Careless Whisper.”


She could still remember the last time Benny had ever told her the story. They were sitting on the porch, her with a can of Arnold Palmer and him sweating out his last meth run. He’d gotten a heads-up about a forthcoming drug test, and he needed to piss clean so he could keep his job, which covered his habit and little else. He’d just finished telling her once again about the swamp god, and was looking at her with a self-satisfied grin.


“Why would an all-powerful deity use a George Michael song as its calling card?” she asked. “That’s not even campy; it’s just dumb as hell. It makes the whole thing less scary.”


“I put it in there because it’s true,” he said. His voice was tinged with surprise, as if she’d questioned some fundamental truth like gravity.


Mags frowned. The idea that the last song the creature’s victims ever heard was “Careless Whisper” seemed like stronger proof of Hell’s existence than anything she’d had ever heard in church, but it never sat right with her. Still, for as much as that undercut her terror, the idea of some enormous creature living at the bottom of the Gulf had always given her the willies.


But something had been different that day. Instead of moving on to some other banal topic, he’d looked her right in the eyes.


“I’ve told you the part about the cult before, right?” Before Mags could accuse him of trying to mess with her, he’d launched into a story about how the rich and powerful of Mississippi had taken it upon themselves to capture victims to bring to the swamp god, seeking the entity’s favor.


It was at that point that she realized Benny had slipped back into his drug-addled delusions. Not long after that, he’d gone on another run, then just simply up and vanished. When Mags and her father went to the police and the community, they shrugged their collective shoulders: Benny was just one more missing addict.


That callousness - the utter refusal of people she’d trusted to see the human behind the addiction, meant Benny was one of the folks who stayed lost, leaving a void that’d come to consume her family and her world like a black hole. Just before her high school graduation, Mags’ father took his guilt and grief into his own hands. She’d been the one to find his body.


As they’d loaded him into the coroner’s van, she made up her mind: fuck college. She was going to go to the police academy, work her way up to detective, and make sure no one else had to deal with this shit if she could help it.


And if she happened to pick up a clue or two about what’d happened to Benny along the way, so be it.


Mags blinked herself back to focus. She didn’t even remember pulling off the highway, but her hand was still hovering over the tuner. George Michael was still wailing about his guilty feet.


And just up ahead, glowing pale against her cruiser’s headlights, was the small cross the bereaved Mrs. Waim had planted - right where Deputy Waim had found the Fletcher boy’s empty pickup before vanishing himself. The sun had long since gone down, and it was like someone had draped an enormous piece of black felt over the bayou, through which this cross had somehow emerged.


Just how long had she been reminiscing about her brother? Had the cross drawn her to itself, just as the swamp god reeled in its victims?


And if she’d been driving on auto-pilot for twenty minutes or so, then why the hell was “Careless Whisper” still playing? In spite of herself, Mags glanced through the cruiser’s windshield, half-expecting to see a semi-sized yellow eye glaring back at her.


Just as she sat back in her seat, something darted between the cruiser’s headlights and the cross, and Mags realized how long it’d been since she stopped for a piss break. She turned on the search lamp on the side of the car, shining it around the edge of the road, but saw nothing.


The saliva started to thicken in her mouth. Was this one of the swamp god’s victims, come to drag her off to the bottom of the Gulf? She maneuvered the light, and sighed with relief as it revealed a small herd of deer grazing near the edge of the road.


Damn it, Benny. She turned off the radio, dismissing it all. The repeated song had to be a coincidence, some station hand asleep at the wheel. But in the silence that followed, something clicked into place in her mind. Mags reached for her tablet and pulled up the dashcam recording.


The radio, she thought. She’d never really paid attention to it before. What the hell were you listening to, Deputy?


Deep down in her soul, Mags already knew the answer, but she had to confirm it. She dragged her finger across the tablet, rewinding until just before Waim heaved himself out of the car.


And there it was.


Fuckin’ George Michael, Mags thought, frowning. It had to be a prank station someone was operating out here - someone who knew the legend and had way too much time on their hands.


Mags glanced out the window once more. The deer had moved on; it was just her and the swamp now. She blew out a huge sigh. This had been a stupid idea. She should’ve turned around as soon as it was clear she wasn’t going to make it here before dark - what did she expect to find when she couldn’t even see her own shoes without a flashlight?


She was about to turn the cruiser around when she caught sight of the lonely little cross up ahead once more. Dark swamp or not, it felt wrong somehow to come all this way and not at least pay her respects. She went to open the door, then spied her sidearm sitting on the passenger seat. Mags reached for it, hesitated and chided herself, then grabbed it anyway, along with her flashlight. She would not, however, take the safety off.


No way would she give Benny the satisfaction.


She took a deep breath and opened her door. The car let out a cheerful, droning ding ding ding to let her know she’d left her lights on, but the sound was quickly lost in the din of the swamp. Even in near total blackness, the bayou was alive: crickets chirped, frogs croaked, and the wind rustled the scraggly trees dotting the marsh.


She started toward the cross, clicking on her heavy-duty flashlight. Her sidearm felt silly in her hand. Why was she letting everything get to her?


Something rustled in the trees lining the road. Thinking it was another deer, Mags turned her head just in time to see a figure rushing toward her. Her breath caught in her throat. She raised her flashlight.


“Stop right - ungh!” The figure slammed into her, easily knocking her over. Stars filled her vision as she hit the asphalt. The hand holding her flashlight smacked against the road, and suddenly the flashlight was skittering away, revealing her assailant in a frantic strobe.


It was only barely recognizable as human, its features twisted and contorted as if shaped by something with only a vague idea of what a human being looked like. Mags’ eyes widened. Were the legends true? Was this the work of —


Chur’goth


The name was a throaty rasp in her ear and a rumbling echo in her mind, hurled to the surface from unimaginable dark depths. The marshes rippled as if in homage to the swamp god.


Then the creature before her shrieked, and the moment was lost. It started toward her again, but Mags had already raised her sidearm. Shooting one-handed from a prone position was a recipe for shitty accuracy, but the creature’s bulk was in her favor.


With each muzzle flash, she saw ragged wounds blossom across its chest and midsection. It twisted from the impact of the bullets, but would not be deterred, lumbering towards her and sucking in shuddering, ragged breaths.


Was it struggling to breathe - or was it crying? Had the swamp god left some semblance of awareness inside its thrall?


Mags scrambled backwards, dropping the empty magazine out of her pistol and reaching instinctively for a new one. Then she remembered they were all still in the car. She rolled to the side and pushed herself up. The creature had almost closed the distance, but one of her shots must have hit its leg: it was limping badly. Mags dodged around the creature and hurled herself into the cruiser, casting frantically around on the passenger’s seat for her spare magazine, scattering case materials everywhere.


Her fingers finally closed around cold steel, and she turned to close the door, but found herself face to face with the nightmare. In the dim glow of the squad car’s dome light, she could make out more of its features: it looked as if someone had left the heat on in a wax museum, and then brought the resulting aberration to life.


The creature was holding the door open, reaching for Mags with quivering, bony fingers. She slammed the magazine into her pistol and sent two slugs through its face.


All things considered, it was an improvement.


Blood and gray matter erupted out the back of its skull. The creature shivered then slumped over, banging its head against the side of her cruiser on its way to the pavement.


Mags didn’t move for several seconds afterward, her pistol frozen where she’d been aiming at the creature’s head. Finally, she pulled in a long, shaky breath, then exhaled. She left the car and retrieved her flashlight, then brought it to bear on what was left of the creature’s face, already knowing what she would see.


She’d found Sheriff’s Deputy Harlan Waim, all right.


Mags grimaced. Had Benny known the truth about Chur’goth all along? And if so … what else had he been right about?


Something out in the darkness bellowed a throaty, mournful howl. Mags nudged Waim’s corpse away from the cruiser’s door, shut it, and locked it. She knew it’d make little difference if something else came plodding up out of the swamp, but it made her feel better anyway.


She sighed. So much for case number eighteen. How the fuck was she going to call this in?


As she considered the question, the cruiser’s radio crackled to life once more, filling her ears with a wailing saxophone solo Mags was coming to know all too well.




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