SPEARFINGER EPISODE THREE: “STIFF-LEGGED”
Despite gripping the steering wheel with all his might Sylvester could not stop his hands from shaking. It wasn’t entirely because of his experience at Beetlewood. All things considered, his jog coming home from the incident had been completely uneventful save for his own paranoia. Everything seemed to be working properly when he plugged the memory cards into the computer, and once he finally started watching the footage he almost gave up halfway through because nothing seemed to be happening.
Then it happened.
It caused him to slap his laptop shut as it was still rolling. If only he hadn’t taken the decision to survey the material alone in his dimly lit basement; he was utterly paralyzed with fear. Such was the horror emanating from the screen.
It confused him as much as it terrified him. It was bizarre, seemingly impossible; so much so that he felt he needed someone else to see it alongside him, so he could be reassured that he wasn’t out of his mind entirely. Fortunately, he knew precisely who to call in such a situation.
He was parked in that very person’s driveway right now, at the end of which stood the individual’s place of residence. It was a smaller house than the town average, with a wild, unkept exterior: faded red brick walls, one or two windows with flower pots that overflowed with every type of plant matter other than flowers, an overgrown lawn infested with dandelions. It goes without saying that the occupant wasn’t very good at appearances.
Philly was the man’s name. Since childhood he had largely kept to himself, not because he was exceptionally unpopular or unable to reach out to others but simply because he was most comfortable when going alone. When he did feel like socializing he mostly hung out with the same two or three guys in his class, Sylvester being one of them.
To these select few friends Philly never failed to demonstrate exceptional degrees of loyalty and kindness over the years. Sylvester spent many a late, troubled high-school night sitting on the steps of his porch with Philly at his side. No matter what the trouble was or who it was with, Philly would stare into the distance, nod solemnly when Sylvester needed him to nod and would always find a way to say the right thing at precisely the right time. Despite being a man of few words, Philly was the kind of quiet person whose mere presence had a calming effect on whoever he was with. He was a discrete soul, but one that never went unnoticed.
Philly’s absence had been particularly noticeable these past few years, given that Sylvester never had time to see him with Marigold in his life. Yet in spite of the fact that he had never met Sylvester’s better half in person, Philly was the first one to show up at her funeral and was the last one to leave. Again, he didn’t say much. But his presence did wonders to temper the inner hell that threatened to swallow Sylvester whole during those trying times.
Toward the end of the somber event, Philly gave Sylvester a firm handshake and simply told him that Sylvester should come by his house one of these days. Overwhelmed by his turmoiled emotions, Sylvester had only been able to give him a distraught, mute nod for an answer. Last evening though, he felt it was the right time to ring up Ol’ Philly and make good on the invitation. Sure enough, Philly picked up the phone; after a bit of small talk, he promptly proposed that they meet the next day.
So here was Sylvester, parked in Philly’s driveway. Only this time he hadn’t come to spill his guts about a juvenile breakup. Much bigger preoccupations clouded his mind as he got out of his car, dragging an old canvas bag containing the memory cards from the cameras along with him.
Every time his grip on reality had been shaken to the core, Philly had always been there to help him find his way back to clarity…
Right now, Sylvester needed that more than ever.
Just as Sylvester was climbing up the last couple of steps leading to the porch, the door swung open without so much a knock or a ring of the doorbell. Standing in the doorway was Ol’ Philly; he hadn’t changed a bit. Long strands of greasy, dark hair tumbled over his wide, square shoulders, mingling with the equally bushy beard masking the greater part of his face. For all their depth and sharpness Philly’s eyes were a little near-sighted, hence the unassuming pair of round glasses perched on top of his nose.
This just about summed up his physical defects, though. Indeed, Philly’s plain, black extra-large t-shirt looked like it would burst at any moment from the bulging hulk of muscle mass on his chest, arms and biceps. Even after the greater part of a decade, the regimented fitness that been drilled into him during his military service was obviously still in effect.
Another thing that hadn’t changed was the warmth of his aura. Upon seeing Sylvester, his furrowed brow and snarled lips metamorphosed into a radiant smile. Before his guest could say anything, Philly waved his old friend inside and gestured for him to follow as they walked through a quaint, surprisingly tidy living room to a discrete door nestled underneath the staircase, which he unlocked with a key he produced from his denims back pocket. He swung the door open, reached inside and pulled on a string hanging from the ceiling. This turned on the lights, revealing steep stairs that led down to the basement.
They descended into the abyss, the old wooden boards creaking under their every step. In the flickery radiance of a solitary lightbulb hanging loosely from the rafters one could clearly see that all of Philly’s hobbies were congregated here: on one side was a wide workbench, stained beyond repair with every kind of varnish, oil and paint. Half of the bench was cluttered with clamps, level meters, hammers, screwdrivers and bottles of chemicals, as well as several compartmentalized chests filled to the brim with nails, screws and bolts. Finally, in the centre of all the chaos, the cathedral in this dismal village: an unfinished birdhouse.
The other half of the bench was allocated to a much deadlier craft. While gallons of paint filled the shelves on the side of the birdhouse, in this case it was all about shell casings, primers and assorted bullets. No less than two presses were bolted securely to the side of the desk, with one significantly larger and more complex than the other. The devices had apparently been active lately, as a tray half full of pistol cartridges sat on top of the table. Additional rounds sat in the dies of the larger machine, waiting to be made whole one day. A couple of jugs full of gunpowder were also present; Philly made sure to dismiss Sylvester’s comments about the risks of explosions with the assertion that the plastic containers were static-proof, although Sylvester still wasn’t entirely convinced of the safety of his friend’s setup.
But there was no time to fuss about such things. Philly had already moved on to the other side of the room, where his computer desk was located. Looming over the screen on the wall behind said desk hung the majestic antlers of Philly’s proudest hunting achievement: a monstrous elk whose weight Philly claimed had busted the previous state record. Whether that was true or not remained to be verified, but Sylvester said nothing; for now, more important matters were at hand.
“Right,” Philly mumbled in his incredibly low-pitched, gruff voice as he crashed into his armchair and shook the computer mouse to wake up the hibernating screen. “So it’s my understanding that you got some game cam footage you want me to look over with you, correct?”
“Yeah, here,” Sylvester answered as he dug into the canvas bag and retrieved the memory cards.
He put them on the table. Philly reached over and picked one out at random, which he then popped into the computer’s flash card reader. A few clicks later, images from the camera’s perspective filled the screen.
Both men leaned forward and squinted in the bright blue aura of the screen as the footage unfolded before their eyes. For the time being, nothing seemed to be happening. They could see the ghostly figure of the Beetle in the middle, with the tree sprouting out of the top and all the bushes and ferns in the background. But aside from the occasional squirrel or moth bolting across the frame everything was still. Philly glanced at the timeline cursor crawling at a snail’s pace at the bottom of the video player interface.
“You’re not expecting me to sit through all seven hours of this, are you?” he asked Sylvester.
“Oh, no, no, of course not,” Sylvester said as he snapped out of his thoughts. “Go to the middle, around the three or four hour mark.”
Without saying a word, Philly followed the instructions to the letter. Once he had reached the designated time mark, he slowly dragged the frame forward, then backward, then forward again, even farther this time. Every second or so, Philly let the reel move along at normal speed. They scanned every inch, every pixel, trying to find an anomaly.
Something, anything at all…
Maybe it was the distance of time compounded by the fact that he was watching a computer screen, or perhaps it was all due to Philly’s contagious serenity. Either way Sylvester felt much calmer now, even with the prospect of seeing it again. Such was the power of having even a single companion at one’s side while facing the terrifying unknown. Far from being reticent about coming face to face with his nightmare, Sylvester scrutinized the moving images cooly and confidently. He was eager to point at the screen and make the object of his torment be known to his compatriot, to prove that it hadn’t all been inside his head. And with good reason: after all, what could be possibly more terrifying than a deadly, overwhelming foe whose existence could never be verified? Surely there was no worst enemy than the projection of one’s madness…
Minutes passed by as Philly kept on sorting through the frames. Poor Sylvester was starting to have doubts: when would it show up? Where was it hiding?
Right there. In plain sight.
“Well hello there,” Philly crooned as he let go of the mouse and leaned even further toward the screen, until his nose was literally pressed against the surface.
As for Sylvester, he wanted to look away but his eyes were glued on it… Even though what he saw remained nothing more than an amalgamation of ones and zeroes contained within a flash card, his mind was immediately dragged back to the memories: the night terrors and the bear and the blood on the night gown and the missing liver…
…And the hooded figure that shuffled its way timidly to the centre of the clearing while Sylvester slumbered away in his perch.
In a stroke of luck the apparition in question faced this particular camera’s angle. Even then, it was difficult to make out what it was exactly: was it some sort of cloak or a coat of animal fur? Was it wobbling about on all fours, or was it bipedal? Frustratingly enough, the sight of this strange revenant elicited more questions than answers.
The creature halted at the foot of the Beetle. With stubby, arm-like appendages it picked up the night gown and examined it for a few seconds. Then, abruptly, the apparition dropped the gown back down and froze up.
It was reacting to a perceived threat: an out-of-place noise, or something visible off camera. Neither Sylvester or Philly could see what it was that bothered the creep, but it was definitely on high alert.
With blistering speed, the revenant suddenly lurched out of the camera angle. Philly was visibly annoyed by this unexpected development, as he had been deeply concentrated on analyzing and dissecting the creature’s anatomy and its movements. He reached for the mouse to fast forward some more…
Just as he was about to press the mouse button, another visitor lumbered its way into the clearing. It was the brown bear, drawn to Beetlewood no doubt because of the perfume on the night gown. With a leisurely, majestic gait, it approached the gown and curiously sniffed it. In this neck of the woods the maroon behemoth was on the top of the food chain; it had nothing to fear.
That was until the revenant crept back into view.
It stalked the bear from behind; the poor animal had no clue whatsoever about the creep’s presence. Before long the two creatures were merely inches apart. Out from underneath its cloak-like covering, the apparition produced a monstrous blade-like limb, measuring three feet long at least, and thrashed it into the bear’s ribcage. For some thirty seconds the bear quivered helplessly, slowly shaking its head from side to side in agony. Finally, the felled leviathan loomed precariously over the night gown and crashed to the ground.
The apparition reached out with the lesser of its two arms and stroked the creature’s furry coat as it probed inside the bear’s gut with the blade-like apparatus. Then, the latter was whipped out in a single motion. Curiously enough, no blood flew out of the wound or dripped from its fingers. However, it did flow out of the bear’s flank, staining the night gown’s delicate fabric as it accumulated on the forest floor.
Much to his dismay, Sylvester found himself staring straight into the featureless abyss of the liver thief’s face as it glanced up at the camera. The icy terror didn’t last long; next thing he knew, the creature bolted out of the clearing, never to be seen again.
For a good half hour, the footage slithered past their eyes; both men looked at the screen vacantly, utterly silent as they tried to sort out what they had just seen.
“Huh,” Philly finally muttered as he straightened up in his chair.
A few more seconds went by. Whereas Sylvester was downright terrified of what he had just seen, Philly was surprisingly calm. He wasn’t scared at all; to him, the creature in the video was just another critter for him to seek out and catch, another occasion to feed his ravenous curiosity.
At last, Philly snapped out of his thoughts and looked Sylvester straight in the eye. His brow was furrowed but his lips were curled into a cunning grin. This wasn’t a hapless amateur. Here was a seasoned expert who had already flirted with death countless times before, at the hand of men and beasts alike…
This was precisely what Sylvester needed.
“So,” growled the grizzled warrior. “Want a beer?”
“Are you sure about this?”
Should the huntsman not been a good friend of his, Sylvester would have been insulted outright by what came out of Philly’s mouth.
“Yes!” he reiterated. “I have to do it… For her…”
Simultaneously, both men put the ends of their bottles to their mouths and tipped the bottoms up, all the while reclining in their respective seats at Philly’s kitchen table. For a moment the only sound in the room came from the clock, hanging from a nail above the passageway connecting the kitchen to the living room. It kept on ticking away as Sylvester squirmed in his chair. Philly’s eyes were locked onto his, silently deliberating in his mind whether or not he should push this distraught wreck further into his obsession.
“Right, you have to,” Philly finally mumbled grudgingly, looking out the window over the sink.
Sylvester followed his gaze. It was dark outside; the hour was late. The clock’s hands confirmed this, indicating in no uncertain terms that it was a quarter past midnight.
“For all we know this might not be what it seems,” Philly said, his eyes captivated by the darkness oozing out of the window panes.
“What do you mean?” Sylvester retorted, incredulous.
“I don’t know, Sly. It could be a homeless guy or a crazy person or something… Look, what I’m trying to say is that we can’t be one hundred percent sure that this is the perp that you’re looking for.”
Upon hearing this, Sylvester flared up.
“Explain to me then: why else would that thing show up at that particular clearing to pick up Marigold’s gown and practically bury his nose in it? Face it, Phil: we got a real psycho on our hands!”
He was livid at the thought and made no effort to hide it. Philly looked at him firmly, but not without sympathy. He shook his head and shrugged.
“Uhuh… So, let’s say that he really is a Ted Bundy type. How do we get our hands on him? Didn’t you see what he did to that bear? This is one smooth criminal we’re dealing with, here.”
Sylvester broke into a smile. The skeptical huntsman sitting across the table from him clearly thought that he was nothing but a raving lunatic, that he didn’t have a plan. But Philly was wrong about that.
“Back when we were watching the footage, I noticed that the creep never looked up at the trees where I was sitting, not even once. I was there the whole time and he didn’t notice me…”
“Right,” Philly nodded. “Go on.”
“So that means that the gig isn’t up. I say we double down on the stakeout: we go there and plant a fresh animal carcass at the spot where the bear died, with all the organs intact, especially the liver…”
“Yeah, I checked the bear and the liver was gone. That’s what the creep is after: livers. So I say, we give him what he wants. We put the night gown on top of the animal, we pour the whole bottle of perfume on it and we wait. When the bastard shows up we drill him full of holes. If something happens to one of us, the other’s there to finish the job. No escape…”
“What do we do with the body?”
“Burn it, bury it, leave him for the coyotes to pick up later: I don’t care! I just want him dead.”
Another fifteen minutes went by. The huntsman gazed into Sylvester’s soul. On one hand Sylvester knew that his state of mind unsettled Philly, but he also knew that Philly would never let him spiral out of control alone.
He already knew the outcome: Philly was going to meet him halfway. The experienced huntsman didn’t approve any of it, but deep down inside he felt obliged to accompany Sylvester in this fool’s errand, no matter how insane it sounded. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to live with himself knowing that Sylvester had gone off on his own without backup. If anything happened, he would feel personally responsible for Sylvester’s fate.
As always, Philly couldn’t resist Sylvester’s call for help.
“Fine,” he sighed. “Let’s do it. But I’m telling you right now: I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it. At all…”
“I know Phil… Look, I’m sorry I put you in this position,” Sylvester lied through his teeth. “But we need to do this. For Marigold…”
Philly nodded slowly.
“For Marigold then,” he said grimly, raising his beer.
TO BE CONTINUED…