The sweltering day had followed into evening, and nighttime air was heavy and lifeless. Minutes into their hike and laden with gear, Reggie and Wayne were soaked with sweat. Minges dogged the men, inflicting countless wounds, despite salves and sprays to ward off insects. Their only advantage was a brilliant moon overhead to illumine the way without exposing their presence with flashlights. They labored along taking care not to trip over roots and boulders or getting mired in thickets.
“Worst hike yet,” Wayne spat, stopping to reposition his pack basket. “All this work to make a few measly bucks.”
“I hear yah, buddy, but this should be one of our last trips out here,” Reggie returned, his voice winded. “Buds should be ripe, and we can dry out the crop closer to home. We should get enough to last through the winter and maybe enough to vacation in Las Vegas.”
“Always goin’ on about Vegas,” Wayne remarked. “What’s the big draw?”
“I haven’t been out West before, and I wanna see the desert,” Reggie answered. “Hell…I haven’t been out of Maine since the Army.”
“Well, yah know me,” Wayne said. “I’m game for anything.”
“Good to hear,” Reggie replied, thinking about their situation.
Earlier that spring, they found a hidden locale for a marijuana operation that had exceeded expectations. Harvested several years ago by woodcutters, the surrounding area was now awash with stumps, branches, and pucker brush. Only the hardiest explorer could navigate the expanse of jagged brush and thorny blackberry bushes blanketing the region. In fact, it would take decades before mature woodlands returned. However, many landowners weren’t sentimental about forests, and they would dispatch skidders at the earliest opportunity to raze the landscape again.
With an acre of crops camouflaged from above and secluded from waterways, it was unlikely a fisherman or hunter would discover their garden. Reggie and Wayne had blazed indiscernible trails to their site and spent considerable time planting and tending crops. Camo netting and electric fencing had done well to conceal and protect their plants from overhead observers and foraging wildlife, and losses had been minimal from infestations.
Their only concern had been the disappearance of several people along Route 9 in Washington County throughout the summer. Within the barren miles between Lead Mountain near Route 193 and Route 1 near the Canadian border, four vehicles had been found abandoned with seven passengers missing. One vehicle had belonged to a mother with two children. Although State and County Police and Game Wardens searched the area thoroughly, the missing people had not been found. Canine units had tracked into the farthest woods south of Route 9, but after a couple miles or more, scents dissipated mysteriously. Fortunate for Wayne and Reggie, their clandestine operation was located a dozen miles north of the nearest disappearance, so they continued their work unimpeded—at least until another unlucky person should vanish nearby.
“How ’bout a break?” Wayne suggested, coming to a sudden halt. After checking the safety on his semi-auto shotgun, he leaned it against a boulder and dropped his pack basket. “Safe enough to have a smoke now, don’t yah think?”
Wayne was average height with a thick build of bone and muscle. His hair was close-cropped, and his face grizzled and rarely shaven. He pulled his sweaty flannel shirt from his chest and stomach and cinched his belt.
“Seems so,” Reggie agreed, setting aside his own shotgun and shedding his pack basket. “About halfway there, so unlikely the police will ambush us here. Just take care not to drop your butt in plain sight—your cigarette butt, that is.”
At thirty-eight, Reggie was a decade younger than his partner. Tall and lanky, he abhorred cigarettes, but he was a regular consumer of his marijuana crop. Living in Washington County, steady employment was uncommon unless you owned a skidder and had reliable access to wooded tracts of land. Although Down East was picturesque and had its appeal, life could be monotonous for native Mainers. Lucrative employment opportunities were scarce except for seasonal work like raking blueberries or digging clams. He wondered what it was like to own a boat and pull lobster traps, but he always lived too far from the coast to pursue this vocation.
“Yeah, yeah, don’t leave behind litter,” Wayne replied, cupping his cigarette and inhaling. “Any new guesses about the missing people? Nasty piece of work for someone to take a mom and kids. If we weren’t so busy being criminals, we could join in the searches ourselves.”
“Shit…outer space aliens for all I know,” Reggie said, his mind always attentive to the sights and sounds of the woods. “From what I gathered, vehicles were parked alongside the road with doors wide open—lights and radios on too. Footprints in the gravel median were leading into the woods.”
“Friggin’ mystery, that’s for sure,” Wayne opined. “I’ve driven that road a million times—day and night—and never had a problem. I hope they catch the bastard.”
“Me too, but let’s haul our crop outta here…”
Suddenly, nocturnal sounds ceased altogether. Crickets and peepers stopped chirping. Mosquitos ended their buzzing assault. Above the treetops, something unseen glided past the men. Instinctively, they grabbed their shotguns and flipped the safeties off. While Wayne kept his eyes overhead, Reggie looked all about, trying to discern movement and shapes through the moonlit trees. Within seconds, whatever flew past doubled back and circled above. Its presence was marked only by the sound of parting air and a vague blemish against the night sky. Soon, it moved out of range and didn’t return. The first tentative chirps returned as crickets and peepers settled.
“Drone?” Reggie whispered.
“Nope…no buzzing rotors,” Wayne replied quietly. “I glimpsed something shapeless, like a black sheet blowing in the wind. I wanted to shoot it, but yah never know when Joe Law is around.”
“Just as well…probably an owl or even a heron,” Reggie suggested. “Funny though? I felt something like a tickle in my head.”
“Maybe…but I’m not so sure,” Wayne said unconvinced, scuffing the ground in search of his dropped cigarette butt. “I don’t know about a tickle in my head, but the hairs on my head raised. Lots of strange things goin’ on nowadays.”
“That’s for sure,” Reggie concurred. “Let’s keep goin’ and figure it out along the way.”
A half hour later and now a hundred yards from their illicit garden, Wayne and Reggie separated and circled the perimeter in opposite directions. A roughly circular trail had been blazed during the spring, so vague, a casual interloper couldn’t discern. Their field was located on an islet amid a spruce bog, covered in a thick carpet of moss. Except for an occasional moose, the ground was largely unblemished by animal tracks. If wardens or deputies had located their pot plants, their presence would be known. For long minutes, the men probed both sides of the trail with flashlights for telltale signs. Eventually, they came together at the far end of the islet.
“Anything?” Wayne whispered.
“Nothing at all. Not even fresh moose scat.”
“Good to go then?”
“I think so, but there’s still the matter of who goes first,” Reggie said, shouldering his shotgun.
“I hate this game,” Wayne muttered, setting aside his firearm. “On three then.”
Counting at the same time, both men waved their right hands in a chopping motion, “One, two, three.”
At the end of the countdown, Reggie’s hand was flat in comparison to Wayne’s scissor fingers.
“Guess the worm has turned,” Wayne uttered with amusement. “You know the deal, buddy.”
“Yeah, yeah…if Joe Law’s waiting, I’ll give a shout, so you can beat feet.”
“No sense both of us goin’ to the hoosegow,” Wayne reminded. “Besides…with your delicate features, the boys will treat you extra nice in prison.”
“Go frig yourself,” Reggie said, cradling his shotgun.
Following a familiar path, Reggie hopped from one hummock to the next to avoid disturbing the mossy ground and sinking his leather boots into the wet peat. Despite the full moon, the dense trees blocked available light. Jagged branches scratched his face and arms and tried to snag his pack basket. Halfway to the plot, Reggie abandoned all facade of stealth. Instead, he readied his shotgun and approached slowly. Outside of the camo netting blocking the view of marijuana plants within, he stepped over a strand of electric fence, listened, and waited. The silence was unsettling. No nighttime sounds carried through the nearby forest. A cold sheen of sweat coalesced on Reggie’s face.
Abruptly, a disembodied voice spoke in Reggie’s head, “Welcome, Grower. I have awaited more than a few nights, and now, you have arrived.”
His body frozen, Reggie struggled to move. Adrenaline coursing, he could only take shallow breaths of air. Muddled imagery flowed through his mind. Something had invaded his psyche and commanded his corporeal form. Against his will, he dropped his shotgun and shucked his load. He parted the netting and entered. His body moved involuntarily. All bound in twine, he passed empty bags of fertilizer and pesticides. A collapsible tent colored in forest hues held supplies for cultivation, including containers of gas. After the men harvested, they had intended to destroy all evidence of their operation.
Among the plants, a tall figure stood. Though somewhat hominid in stature, it was not human. Its slender body was masked in something like an insect’s exoskeleton, blacker than night. It reached out with long-splayed appendages tipped with pinchers, plucking mature buds. The creature chewed noisily. Reggie sensed feelings of euphoria and a ravenous hunger whetted by a marijuana high.
“Your plants are delectable and ripe. You are here to harvest, no?”
Ignoring the compliment and query, Reggie croaked, his vision fading, “What are you? I can’t move…breathe…”
“My pardons, Grower, but your mind is stronger than my usual quarry, so I exacted added measures to keep you compliant. Allow me to lessen my hold.”
Immediately, Reggie collapsed to the ground. For long seconds, he drew deep breaths. Fouled by a metallic taste, drool streamed from his mouth. Outlandish images that flitted through his mind finally evaporated. A creature of inestimable age had held his mind and body. Its only weaknesses were human threat and an uncontrollable craving for their flesh and blood. For millennia, it had roamed the earth, moving place to place, assisted by psychopaths, who were rewarded with murderous participation, affluence, and promises of immortality. However, the creature was one of a kind and could not create another like itself. Eventually, his helpers aged and died or were dispatched for insubordination or imagined conspiratorial behaviors. With centuries of wealth at its disposal, it wandered when and where it pleased, and when spoils were lean, it went dormant while minions administered its affairs.
“You have gleaned much of me in a short time,” the creature said. “I am impressed with your capacity.”
“You’re a vampire?” Reggie asked, rising to his feet and standing on quivering legs. “Are you gonna kill me?”
“Why no on both counts. Although other creatures do abound throughout the world, I am something wholly different,” the creature spoke aloud, in a fierce whisper. “Though you are a gifted grower, you have other unrealized talents. Thus, I desire your services. Moreover, my current helper is becoming frail and ill-suited for service.”
“Do you offer a pension, or do you suck your employees dry like your victims?”
“Careful, Grower. Since you are unfamiliar with my ways, I will suppress my irritation,” it hissed. “However, you have an understanding of what I am.”
“You’re so old, you’ve forgotten how you came about. If not a vampire, then maybe you’re something like a spider that can hypnotize and control your prey. You simply told your victims to abandon their cars and walk into the woods. Once they came, you injected them with some fluid to liquidize their innards and drank ’em. Afterwards, you carried their withered husks faraway.”
“Indeed, you have gathered much from my thoughts. Usually, it is a long-mental process to make my helpers understand. Now, what is your pronouncement? Do you ally with me and reap the rewards?”
“And, the rewards again?” Reggie inquired, surprised by his calm acceptance of circumstances. Certainly, he conversed with a creature as alien as any in a Lovecraft tale. At the same time, Reggie’s curiosity was boundless, and inexplicably, the creature had yet to speak of Wayne’s presence.
“Why…anything that money can recompense. All human comforts: ornate homes, expensive cars, beautiful women. Opportunities to satisfy your own bloodlust and sadistic desires—though, I sense your wants are much simpler.”
“Women, you say? How about travel? Let’s say Las Vegas?”
“Of course,” the creature answered. “Anywhere I can satisfy my needs.”
For long moments, Reggie outwardly considered before answering, “Regrettably for you, there’s nothing you can offer to make me murder people, especially a mom and her kids. You’re just a nasty son of a bitch that needs killing.”
“Ruinous for you!” the creature spat. “I should have known than search for another in such a backwater place. The farther east I journeyed, the more difficult to read, much less sway the natives. Once I feed upon you, I will depart this—Down East—region.”
For a moment, Reggie felt compelled to approach the entity. Despite the manipulation of his mind, he was able to resist. The previous mental battle had triggered a part of his psyche that could thwart the powerful, telepathic influence of the other. At the same time, he wondered if it was possible to transmit a message of his own. Perhaps, he could warn his friend away, so he wouldn’t befall the same horrific fate.
Unfortunately, Reggie was still immobile. Only his right hand had strength of will to wander imperceptibly downward. He sensed the creature’s puzzlement and rage as large-membraned wings appeared from its back and lifted it from the ground. It closed the short distance and settled inches away. The creature exuded a noxious stench of bile and decay. It towered above looking down. Except for large black eyes and a wide slit for an orifice, its face was smooth and black like the carapace of a dung beetle.
The balmy night suddenly turned cold causing Reggie to shudder. A long-tubular shape emerged from the creature’s mouth, dripping an enzyme that would dissolve his insides. As the being knelt, Reggie averted his eyes toward the stark, merciless moon. His defiance could no longer dampen the impending horror.
The mental grasp evaporated as a succession of blasts sounded. Falling backward, Reggie observed the entity recoil and flail as buckshot pellets penetrated. Shrill screams carried through the night. The creature shambled toward the marijuana field. Unconsciously, Reggie palmed the handle of the Colt 1911 on his hip. He unholstered his handgun and fired eight rounds. His pistol spent, Reggie found his shotgun and walked toward the creature while unloading eight shells of double-aught buckshot. Mouth dry and ears ringing, Reggie reloaded his shotgun and inserted a fresh magazine into his handgun.
“I think you got it!”
“Yeah, dude,” he replied, reloading his own shotgun. “I heard your voice in my head…saw what you saw. Couldn’t believe it.”
“You dumbass! You should have run! Thing could have killed us both!”
“Yah know I couldn’t do that, man,” Wayne said. “Maybe leave you for the warden but not some bloodsucking monster.”
“Good for me I suppose,” Reggie admitted. “I imagine someone, somewhere is reporting our midnight shootout. We should go.”
“First, we need to burn that thing. Every movie I’ve seen, the monster always gets a second wind, so blast it again until it’s good and dead.”
After Reggie unloaded again at point blank range, Wayne doused the creature with gasoline. Standing back, Wayne flicked his cigarette butt. Heated air blasted the men as flames erupted. The fire illumined an impressive crop of mature plants, the nearest of which smoldered. Soon, the entire operation was enveloped in a conflagration. Dense, cloying smoke wafted through the air. For long minutes, the men imbibed.
“There goes our bankroll for the winter,” Wayne sighed. “All that work for nothing.”
“Well…we did kill a monster,” Reggie interjected. “That’s something, isn’t it?”
“I suppose, but not like we can tell anyone about it,” Wayne said. “We can’t pay the bills with heroics…quiet heroics.”
“I guess that’s true enough,” Reggie acknowledged, “and with Maine legalizing marijuana soon, it won’t be worth the effort to replant.”
“Yeah…and no one’s gonna bankroll a couple of outlaws like us,” Wayne added. “Hell…whadda we do now?”
“What if I knew the whereabouts of the creature’s lair?” Reggie mused. “In my mind, I saw bundles of cash and gold coins. Seems his only employee is deserving of killing.”
“You’re kidding? Where exactly?”
“Evidently, there’s a new camp on First Chain Lake,” Reggie answered. “Big log cabin near the south outlet.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
“Sooner the better,” Reggie suggested. “Before he gets wise and bolts.”
“Let’s go then,” Wayne said with a grin. “Vegas, here we come.”