Not A Place I Recognise
Several miles out of town, I finally find myself on a road I do not recognise. It’s more like a neglected track than a road: the pitted Tarmac is uneven; the verges are overgrown with weeds; the drainage channels behind the cracked kerbs are dried out and useless. This is exactly the kind of place I’ve been looking for.
I sense him before I see him, so I’m prepared for the sight of him walking in the middle of the road, shoulders hunched, feet dragging. He’s small, not much over five foot tall. He’s wearing a long coat, dark trousers, and big boots.
I slow down the car. I know he must be able to hear me but he doesn’t react, just keeps on walking. Finally, as I draw closer, he shifts at a diagonal to the side of the road, still walking at the same pace.
I slow right down as I come alongside him, sliding down the driver’s side window. The side of his face is pale and drawn. He looks young but tired.
“Need a lift?”
He doesn’t respond.
“I can take you a few miles up the road. There’s another town. You could probably find a ride with a trucker or a farmer there.”
He turns his face towards me. It’s a beautiful face, I can see that now. Like that of a Michelangelo sculpture. White and pristine and filled with a longing that is impossible to put into words.
“Yeah. Thanks.” His voice is normal. No accent. Nothing to make it distinct from any other voice one might hear.
I stop the car and wait as he walks round to the passenger side and opens the door. His clothing rustles softly against the upholstery as he slides onto the seat.
“I’m not going far,” he says, staring straight ahead. “Just looking for somewhere to stay.”
I push the accelerator and let the clutch pedal rise, moving slowly away.
“I have a place. I can offer you a bed for the night. No strings. Just one stranger helping another.”
“Thank you,” he says, his voice soft and quiet. “That would be good. It’s been a long time since I slept in a proper bed.”
I knew he would accept my offer. They always do. They think they’re the hunter and I’m the prey. They’re wrong, so very wrong, but they only find that out when it’s much too late to matter.
We don’t speak as I turn around and drive back to the cabin. It takes me a while to find the right road, but once I’m in a familiar spot I start to feel calm. Serene. I keep glancing at him but he doesn’t move, just keeps staring through the windscreen, at the dark and the road and whatever lies ahead. Making a good show of ignoring the small silver crucifix dangling from the rear-view mirror.
“We’re here,” I say as I pull up on the gravel outside the cabin. “My humble home.”
I get out of the car and walk towards the door, getting the keys out of my pocket. Behind me, the car door opens and then slams shut. Footsteps on the gravel. His presence at my back. For a moment, I almost flinch, expecting an attack, but then I remind myself that he doesn’t know anything and he’s biding his time, waiting until my guard has completely dropped before making his move. It’s how they operate: hit you when you least expect it.
I open the door and walk inside. He follows.
The door closes; I spin around, pulling the pistol from my inside coat pocket. I see him register momentary alarm, and then I move in, hitting him across the side of the face with the weapon. I think his cheekbone breaks. He stumbles, reaching out to grab the door frame, but I kick him in the knee and he goes down hard, face to the floor.
He’s still conscious as I strip him but he’s in too much pain to resist. Once he’s naked, I check his back, the curve of his spine. There are no signs there. His tailbone looks a little lumpen, the coccyx more pronounced than normal, but it’s still not what I expect to see. He’s hiding it well; this skinsuit is a good fit.
He struggles a little as I tie him to the wooden kitchen chair, but I’m easily strong enough to subdue him. His face is starting to bruise. His eyes are fogged. Once he’s securely tied, arms and legs bound against the chair, I walk across the room to the old chest of draws and take out the clippers.
“Please,” he says, but it’s barely audible, as if he realises it’s pointless to beg. Part of the act.
I return to his passive form and switch on the clippers. Rechargeable. No lead. Professional quality.
“Don’t move. It’ll be easier if you keep still.”
I start to shave the hair off his head. Blinking, he mumbles something, but I don’t listen.
Before long, his scalp is almost bare; just a fine layer of dark stubble remains. It’s enough for me to see, to find what I’ve been looking for.
They’re small, but they’re visible if you know what you’re looking for. Small nubs, sticking out barely an inch from the surface of his skull. It looks like at some point he might have tried to shave the horns down, or remove them entirely, but he couldn’t quite manage that last little bit of hard bone.
“I knew you were one of them.”
He stares at me. The expression on his face could be a smile or a grimace, I’m not sure which.
“Let me go,” he whispers. “I won’t tell anyone about this. You can trust me.”
I pause a moment before I speak. “De profundis clamo ad te domine.”
He begins to laugh, a low, deep chuckle; the sound of mocking. It’s all the proof I need.
It doesn’t take long. I use the short sword I keep in the bottom drawer of the dresser – the gun is only ever for show; it isn’t even loaded. The sword is a holy relic, meant for this task. When I found it buried in a field on the other side of town, it was rusty and worn yet still held the glow of something touched by grace. I cleaned it up and sharpened its edge.
Unlike some, he doesn’t make much of a fuss when the end comes. Just a whimper.
After cleaning up the blood and burying the body in the forest at the back of the cabin, I sit down on the tiny porch and drink a cold beer. It tastes good. It tastes…holy, somehow, like wine from His table.
The moon is full and bright, the stars are small and insignificant, punctuation points in the black sheet of sky. It’s still early. There’s time enough left for me to go out again. To see if I can get lucky twice in one night.
I know where they are, the places they like to wander. I hunt them on the lonely roads and byways, in the empty plots and forgotten edgelands.
All the lost and blighted places.
I’m the last thing they expect to encounter on a cool, dark night. The final thing they see as I end their bloody reign upon this earth.
I am the Good Shepherd, doing God’s dirty work. His servants – just like his enemies – must never sleep.
I am the road less travelled. I am the sword in His hand.
From out of the depths, I cry unto thee…
I finish my beer and lock the cabin door. Climb into the car and pick a route at random. I’m driving at night again, because it’s the best time to catch them. I plan to keep driving until this is no longer a place I recognise.
© Gary McMahon, 2022
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