The stark white light bulb swayed ever-so-slightly on its bare cord in the dark room, casting strange shadows on the shape bent over a workbench. It was vaguely human, but contorted as it worked on something intently. Something that would be deadly and vile and monstrous.
So far, the shape had only planned. Planned death, destruction, murder, torture, and terror. Planned to bring forth a darkness that would shake people to their core. To make death art, and to make it prolifically.
But no blade had split flesh, no bullet had puckered skin, no bomb had charred and blasted bone from bone. No victim had experienced absolute terror as they breathed their last.
A single ping made the shape turn its head, and the slight movement of the stark bulb momentarily illuminated a youthful face, the face of a man who was barely that. But it also showed eyes that were dark and devoid of hope or joy or even life. They were the eyes of a man who would kill you- if only the opportunity presented itself and his will was strong enough.
He moved over to the small monitor rigged up by his own hand, connected to a port that allowed him access to the blackest of black on the dark web. It had been in the recesses of the black pits of evil that he first dared share his dream of malice and mountains of blood. It was there he found...dare he say it? Friends. And that distinct ping told him that a particular friend had just sent a message.
Those blank eyes scanned over a simple message, while his fingers idly played with the object he had been crafting- a six-inch blade with sharp wings going in all directions for maximum carnage when inserted into a person.
The eyes ran back and forth over the simple words and numbers glowing white against a black background. He read it again and again, a tiny bit of drool beginning to form and ooze from the corner of his mouth.
The countdown continued to tick away. After a minute or so, the white letters began to wash in a blood-red shade.
He smiled, and for the first time, those dead eyes showed life.
His moment had come.
The sun bounced brightly off the yellow roof of the bus as it wound through the trees into a clearing. It was headed to the tiny town that lay just ahead, an unremarkable hamlet known as Kingston, Texas. It had two claims to fame- a little bar that served legendary cheese fries (Guy Fieri had been there once; they say) and an amazing six-man football team.
The bus was coming for the latter, as the former would not admit minors.
The third thing it might have been famous for- but would most definitely soon be famous for- was its isolation. Kingston sat on an island in a man-made lake in East Texas. Only one road led into the town, and that same road was the only way out. Unless you wanted to swim for it. The high school sat on a hill in the middle of the island, like a modern day Acropolis where footballs were thrown about instead of philosophies. A quaint downtown was just down from the school, and it was surrounded by modest homes and pine trees. Sitting on the edge of the water- a lake created when a nearby river was dammed a century earlier- was a massive sawmill. Aside from being a bedroom community for oil rig workers, the mill was the main reason for Kingston’s existence. And the only reason it had a law enforcement presence at all.
Alas, Tommy Hanover had no idea about any of those interesting (a term loosely applied) facts. As the bus flew past him, he knew only that his feet ached from walking, and that this would be the town he spent the night in.
Tommy was no stranger to sore soles and strange towns. Since returning from Afghanistan a few years earlier, he had lived a nomadic lifestyle. He would wander the countryside, doing odd jobs here and there, always moving. Never still.
Still was bad.
Tommy had never been diagnosed with PTSD- not formally, anyway. He knew he had it, though. How could he not? He had seen half a dozen friends slaughtered by insurgents before his very eyes. Tommy had done his job, returning the favor to those same twenty men with stolen American weapons they had taken from the corpses of countless and nameless other soldiers. He had not killed them alone. Not at first. But as the battle wore on, he found himself driving deeper behind the enemy lines and beyond the safety and support of his squad.
That was when he found three of them hunkered behind a dune. They were surprised to see him. But he was ready for them. And what he did to them…
Tommy snapped his consciousness back to the present as the deep rumble of a V-8 engine approached quickly. Tommy could tell it was a truck, an old one, and it was not in the best condition. He turned his head, raising his hand to the brim of his black cap to block the sinking sun so he could confirm his suspicion.
The truck was two-toned gray and rusted. A high-pitched whine was just barely audible from where the nearly bald tires met the asphalt. White smoke belched from the mufflers (that were most definitely not living up to their name) and a large and probably human shape hunkered over the wheel. The truck rumbled past Tommy as they both crossed onto the bridge going over the lake below, and he saw a tarp flapping over the bed. He imagined it to be some local hunter coming back with the day’s kill. It was deer season around these parts, after all.
Tommy knew things about the places he traveled to. He saw it as a survival instinct born from his time in the service. Tommy always got the lay of the land to make sure there was no ambush waiting, and to make sure he had an exit strategy.
Kingston- population 616, according to the green sign Tommy was passing- was a quiet town six days of the week. Friday nights were the exception because almost every citizen turned out to cheer on the Spartans. Tommy figured the mascot was a nod to the isolated nature of the town- one road in and out, surrounded by dense East Texas forest and murky water on all four sides. And, maybe, the fact that it was a town that made tough warriors.
Or they thought they were tough.
Tommy guessed you had to be tough to survive out here, with little work available, and the poverty rate so high. But people rarely left the town. The few that did often found their way back before long.
It was a Friday night, and so the small town would swell in size as a local rival came to face off on the gridiron. Maybe Tommy would catch the game- he had some cash left over from his last odd job. He was thinking this prospect over when a green sedan idled up beside him and stopped. A young guy with dark eyes leaned over and raised his voice over the sound of the clicking motor. “Ya need a-a lift?” The kid’s voice was shaky, nervous. Tommy made a mental note- probably a local scared of strangers.
“I’m almost there, but thanks. I think I’ll take you up on it. Think you could point me to a local food joint?” Tommy asked, running the mental calculations to see if he had the money for dinner even as he asked.
The kid shook his head, “I’m not from here- just in town for the game.” The kid looked around sheepishly, and Tommy thought the boy was watching out for traffic. As he climbed into the old car, he could smell sweat and a subtle hint of alcohol. Was the kid even old enough to drink? Tommy thought that might be a question that would come his way soon. Hey, mister, I don’t know where to get food, but I do know where to get booze. Buy me some in exchange for the ride?
But the question never came, and the kid put the car into gear, and they headed toward the town proper. Tommy was stretching his feet in his shoes, thankful for the respite. He noticed the kid was actively sweating, despite the cool of the night air swirling in through the open windows. “First hitchhiker?” Tommy asked.
“Huh?” the kid replied, startled. Tommy saw the boy’s left hand drop down between his seat and the door and stay there. The kid shot a glance at Tommy, and chuckled, “Y-yeah. That obvious?”
“Relax, kid, I only kill bad guys,” Tommy said good-naturedly.
The boy’s hand tensed on the wheel, almost imperceptibly, and the vein in his neck strained. Tommy narrowed his eyes at the kid and tapped the patch on his jacket that indicated he was Special Forces. “Or, at least, I used to,” Tommy said as the kid eyed the patch. The vein calmed down, and Tommy reasoned silently that the kid was probably not going to the game, but to the house of a girl whose parents were. That would explain the nerves.
Nevertheless, Tommy had a bit of a sixth sense about situations that seemed off. This was one of those. That bar that was famous for cheese fries appeared on the right, and the neon sign that said “Hot Food!” caught Tommy’s attention. “Hey kid, let me off here.”
The kid nervously looked over to where Tommy was pointing, and asked, “You sure?”
Tommy nodded. “Yeah, I need to eat. Thanks for the ride…?” He extended his hand to the kid as the car slid into park.
Tentatively, the kid shook the offered appendage, “S-Sean.”
Tommy looked in the back seat and, for a second, thought he saw an odd-shaped knife under a piece of black cloth. Then he turned his gaze back to Sean. “See ya around, kid. Enjoy the game.”
Sean blinked quickly, then added, “Y-you too!” His hand finally released whatever he had grabbed by the seat, then he drove away.
Tommy turned and started to walk into the bar- the Drunk Monkey. One thought kept running through Tommy’s mind:
Man, that kid had dead eyes.