Prologue: A Reunion of Chance
Zachary's blood was dripping down his sleeve. It was soaking through the thick denim fabric of his jacket, and small drops were spattering on the ground with each step he took away from the pile of rubble that had once been an abandoned farm house. He'd been in the house at the time it had collapsed. Needless to say, he was in rough shape.
His car was a hundred feet away, but it was doubtful he would have the strength to drive it. Besides the bleeding, he had a concussion from the falling debris that had pelted him mere moments ago.
The tall grass concealed an obstacle; some hunk of granite or concrete that sat a few inches above the ground. It caught his toe, and sent his face into the gravel at the edge of the dirt driveway. The added pain was inconsequential, and he hardly noticed it.
That was as much as he had in him. As hard as he struggled, he couldn't lift himself up. He didn't expect to receive any help. This old farm was a quarter mile off a rural highway that was sparsely traveled these days. It was doubtful anyone had heard the building fall down, and it was even less likely that anyone would bother to stop and investigate.
The young man should have known better than to go chasing after ghosts, but Zachary McCain had never been one for leaving things alone.
His mind started to clear, and he sure as hell wasn't going to die with his face in the dirt. Using what force he could muster, he rolled over onto his back, and looked up at the late summer sky, pure blue with a hint of white cirrus clouds at the edge of his view. A slight breeze was picking up, and it rustled the leaves on nearby trees. Such a comforting sound to soothe the battered body and soul.
Assuming the worst, he thought this wouldn't be a horrible death, at least. He was ready to accept his fate. Though, fate wasn't done with him yet, as a faint whine started coming toward him. The sound grew louder and louder, then he heard tires crunching against the gravel of the road, so he turned his head to see a red motorcycle coming to a stop beside his car.
The motorcycle's rider pushed down his kickstand and rushed over to Zachary's bloody body. "Zach? Is that you?"
Zachary looked up at the man, and vaguely recognized the long chin and wild eyes of an old friend. "John Rage?"
Neither man had seen the other in almost ten years. They'd each taken separate paths in life since high school, but now fate had somehow brought them together on this sunny summer afternoon.
"You look like you just had a house fall on you," John said.
"I did," Zachary said, reaching up his right arm for assistance.
John Rage grabbed the hand and helped his friend to his feet. "Man, we've got to get you to a hospital."
"No arguments," Zachary said, pulling out his car keys. "Can you still drive a stick, John?"
"Better than you, probably," he boasted, "and call me Rage. That's what I prefer these days. There's a million Johns."
Zachary smiled as Rage walked him over to the car. He was feeling giddy from the physical trauma on his body, and the thought of his friend's last name made him chuckle. As a child, he'd often wondered where such a name had come from. It wasn't exactly common, and always sounded fabricated.
Rage pushed the button on the front passenger side door and lowered Zachary onto the seat. A silver seat cover caught a few stray drops of blood that dribbled down Zachary's left arm, but the wounds were clotting.
Rage rushed around and was behind the wheel in short order. He revved the antique Ford to life, and put it into gear. Unfamiliar with the shifter configuration, he accidentally threw it into reverse, and before he could stop he bumped into his motorcycle, knocking the thing on its side.
"First gear is up and in," Zachary instructed, glancing in the rearview mirror. "Sorry about your bike."
"It's just an old piece of crap Yamaha," Rage replied, "and I'm the one that hit it, so don't you go apologizing."
"Sorry," Zachary said, trying not to laugh. "I guess I'm just a little out of it at the moment."
"Yeah, shouldn't you apply pressure to that arm or something?"
Zachary reached over with his right hand and gripped his upper left arm. "I should have brought a first aid kit."
"The hospital's only five miles down the road," Rage said, pulling up to the edge of the highway. There was no traffic to speak of, so he pushed his foot down on the gas and squealed onto the pavement.
After half a mile, Zachary began to doze off, and Rage knew that wasn't a good sign. "Hey, wake up," he said, shaking his friend while trying to keep his eyes on the road.
Zachary grunted a little, but didn't feel like opening his eyes.
"Hey, this is your dad's car, right?" Rage said, hoping to keep Zachary awake with idle conversation.
"It was his car," Zachary responded drowsily. "He's been dead for nine years."
"What happened?" Rage asked with surprise, knowing Zachary's father had been healthy and far from average life expectancy.
"Car accident. At least, that's what the coroner said. He and mom both."
"That's a shame. What about your sister?"
"Gone. I don't know where. Could we talk about something else?" Zachary said, uncomfortable with the current line of questioning.
"Sure, how about you tell me what you were doing stomping around the old Leary farm."
Zachary laughed lightly, and said, "You'd think I was nuts, or worse."
"Nah, I doubt that," Rage said, swerving around a pothole.
"Do you believe in magic, Rage?"
"What, you mean in wizards and witches. That sorta thing?" He shook his head a little, keeping his eyes on the road. "Not one bit."
"You would if you'd seen what I have lately," Zachary said, feeling more alert. His left arm was numb, and the bleeding had stopped.
"You sure that's not just the bump on your head talking?" Rage said dubiously.
"I investigate the paranormal these days," Zachary replied. "It's what I've been doing most of the last decade."
"Why in God's name would you go and waste your time on that nonsense?"
"Love, and hate," Zachary replied cryptically. "The love I've lost, and hate I've found for those who took it from me."
They were approaching the outskirts of town, where houses began to line the sides of the road, and traffic was more common. They reached the first intersection and had to stop for an eighteen-wheeler loaded down with pulp wood. After the way was clear again, Rage took his foot off the clutch, and Zachary continued his explanation.
"I had a fiancée nine years ago. She was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. We were young and totally in love, and then she died, but it wasn't any ordinary death. She was taken from me, murdered by a creature beyond imagining. This... thing came at us. It could pass right through you, like it wasn't even there, or burn you with a touch. It talked in riddles, and murdered my fiancée just for kicks. The autopsy showed that some unknown energy source had actually cooked her brain in places, those same places where the creature had pushed its hand into her skull."
"No bull?" Rage said, turning into the hospital parking lot.
There weren't any spaces close to the door, but Zachary was feeling well enough to walk on his own. "Just drop me at the front door. I'll manage," he said, picking at his belt with his good arm. After a few tugs, he had it unbuckled and proceeded to remove the revolver he had strapped to his hip. "Make sure you lock the doors after you park."
Rage was able to find a parking spot on the edge of the lot, a few hundred yards from the entrance. Exiting the vehicle, he dug into his vest pocket and removed a pack of cigarettes he had stashed there. He hadn't had a smoke in hours, and the nicotine levels in his system were getting dangerously low. He ripped one out and lit it with a black Zippo. A single drag calmed his nerves.
When his last drag reached the filter, he chucked the butt on the ground and proceeded into the hospital to check on his friend. The orderly at reception made him wait around while Zachary got patched up, but he didn't have anything better to do, so he sat in the waiting room, watching a daytime news program on the muted television in the corner, trying not to think of his own problems. The time dragged on, but eventually his friend came walking out without a shirt, a spool of gauze wrapped around his left forearm.
"Hey, should you be walking around so soon?" Rage asked, surprised.
"I'll be fine. It was just a bump on the head and a slight laceration."
"Slight?" Rage asked. "It looked like you were gonna bleed to death when I found you."
"Let's just get out of here," Zachary replied. "I don't want to get stuck here."
Rage led him back to the car, and was prepared to drive off when a lady in a white doctor's coat rushed over and blocked his escape. She stepped up to the passenger side window and slapped her hands down on the window frame. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked.
Zachary glanced over at the red-haired doctor in her late twenties, the same one who had just patched him up in emergency. They'd gone to high school together, though had hardly acknowledged each other's existence back then. They'd had more words between them while she was wrapping his arm than at any time previously.
"Sorry to bleed and run on you, Melissa," Zachary said.
"Hey, you could die out here. You lost a lot of blood, and we haven't even done a CAT scan."
"I've been through worse."
"If that were true, I doubt you'd be so eager to run off without further treatment."
"I'll be fine," Zachary insisted.
Rage wasn't one to question the judgment or desires of his friends, so he decided to assist in the getaway. He revved the engine to life, and pushed it into gear. He let the car roll a few inches, enough to shake away the good doctor. She took a step back in fear of being run over, but the car stopped momentarily after her move.
"Hey, Mel, we'll see you around, okay?" Rage said.
Peeking over at the driver, Melissa was surprised to see the face that accompanied the familiar voice. "Johnny? How long have you been back in town?"
"Not long, and that's Mr. Rage to you, Ms. Graham," he said with a smile. He then finished backing the car out of the space and sped off, back toward the highway.
Once they were out of town, Zachary told Rage where to go. "You know where I live. It's the same house I grew up in, the old family estate."
"Oh yeah," Rage mentioned, quite familiar with the location. He'd spent many a day as a child there, exploring the woods with Zachary, playing any number of childhood games. Throughout it all, they'd avoided serious injury, and had formed a brotherly bond. Such bonds were unbroken with the passage of time.
"So, what are you doing back in town?" Zachary asked, as he extracted the revolver from the glove compartment and returned it to his belt.
Rage wrinkled his lips as he considered his reply. "I guess I've got nowhere else to be."
"Lucky for me, I guess," Zachary replied.
"You're lucky that house was full of plaster. I spotted the dust cloud a mile away. What the hell happened there, anyway?"
"Ready to keep an open mind?"
"What the hell. Fire away."
"It all started a few days ago. A police report came in about a bunch of kids that were found brutally beaten out near the derelict Leary farm. Most of them died from their injuries."
"So, you're a cop now?" Rage asked.
"No, I'm freelance. Please, let me finish.
"These kids didn't have any marks on their bodies. No bruises, cuts, scrapes; nothing. But their insides were almost pulverized. Half their bones were broken. One of them had his entire pelvis pulverized. The doctors couldn't make heads or tails of it. It was like some magical force had attacked them from the inside."
"There ain't no such thing as magic," Rage said, starting to feel in the mood for another cigarette.
"I'm not saying there is, but magic is just another way of explaining the inexplicable. Anything we can’t understand, or haven’t figured out yet, gets classified as mystical, and in many cases just gets ignored by those who aren't willing to entertain the existence of anything beyond the norm."
"I'll buy that. Nobody wants to believe in spooky stuff."
"Yes, but anyway, the only kid to regain consciousness talked about being attacked by a ghost. He described it as a faceless thing all dressed in white, and he swore it could drift through walls; that it attacked him from twenty feet away, without laying a hand on him."
"So, you just naturally had to run out to that farm and check on his story?"
"That's what I do, Rage. Like I said, I investigate the paranormal."
Rage chuckled before saying, "Hey, I read my fair share of ghosts and goblins when I was a kid, too, but that doesn't mean I believe in it."
"To every superstition, there is a grain of truth," Zachary rebutted. "I've found that out time and again. I did today as well."
"Now we're gettin' to the good part, right?"
"I went to the farm and poked around. I didn't find anything at first, until I scanned for infrared. Then, I spotted it lurking behind a kitchen wall. It somehow knew I could see it, because it dropped into the basement. The house started shaking right after that, and when I went down into the basement I saw why. The creature was shattering the entire substructure, pulverizing the basement walls, turning the floor stringers to splinters. It fired some kind of concussive force from its hands. I could feel each blast like a mini earthquake."
Rage wanted to roll his eyes in disbelief, but he didn't want to take his eyes off the road. He spotted the end of the gravel road that led to Zachary's estate and prepared for the turn.
"I ran as quickly as I could to get out of there, but I was only at the front door when the whole place came crashing down on top of me. I managed to avoid the worst of it, but as you can see I did get hit by a bit of debris."
"What the hell were you thinking?" Rage asked, pulling onto the gravel road that would lead them to the McCain estate. "If this ghost of yers was so dangerous, what gave you the idea to go chasing after it?"
"Because nobody else would," Zachary said. "Nobody wants to believe, but that won't make these things go away. I can cite you hundreds of incidents in recent years, of people being attacked by unexplained phenomena, and it all gets ignored as tabloid garbage."
"Probably because that's what it is," Rage said as the car came around a bend in the road, and the sight of Zachary McCain's home came into full view.
A quarter acre of lawn sat in front of the sprawling structure that had started out as a farmhouse during colonial times. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Zachary's ancestors had gone from poor farmers to wealthy investors, and the farm had been extended. The front of the house was nearly five hundred feet across. A long row of tall windows sat in the center of the complex, denoting the spacious living room once used to entertain dozens of friends and family. Left of the windows sat a patch of weathered siding that covered the outer wall of the kitchen. Beyond that sat a five car garage at the far west wing of the house, and a sizeable second story was built atop it, dwarfed by the third story of the main house that had once been home to three generations of McCains at the same time.
So much space had been meant to accommodate a large family, but now it was home to only one solitary man, whose life's purpose was far from his roots.
"If you don't want to believe, I can't force you," Zachary said as the car pulled to a stop in the gravel roundabout.
They stepped out of the car into the early evening air. The mid-July sun lingered behind the tops of the trees that surrounded the large clearing in which the house and lawn sat.
Rage took out a cigarette to satisfy his addiction.
"What, you smoke now?" Zachary asked, trying not to sound critical.
"I picked it up in the army," Rage said after his initial drag. "We all got our habits. Some of us chase goblins instead."
"About that," Zachary said, leaning his good arm against the roof of his car. "Are you looking for a job?"
"Heh. Depends on what it is," Rage replied.
"You said you had nowhere else to be, so why not stick around and find out if I'm really crazy. Help me with my investigations. I'll give you free room and board, and we'll work out a pay scale for each case we tackle."
"What are we going to be doing, exactly?" Rage said, chucking the remains of his cigarette.
"It depends on what turns up. Basically, you'll be my backup when we go into the field."
Rage stood there a while, in silent contemplation, considering the offer. It was certainly off the wall, a wild proposition, and at any other time in his life he would have certainly turned it down, but recent events forced him to think outside the box. Things hadn't been going too well for him lately, and at present he really did have nowhere to go, and nothing to do with himself. A day spent wandering around his home town had only served to remind him of that old saying; you can never go home again.
Then, on his way out of town, fate had led him to a friend in need, and that friend now offered him something he had been seeking for months; a purpose.
Finally, after a long silence, Rage answered. "Where's my room, Zach?"
Zachary slapped the roof of his car in happy appreciation. "My uncle's old apartment above the garage hasn't been used in twenty years, but we should be able to clean it up."
"Yeah, that would be great," Rage replied. "I've got a couple o' bags at the Lakeview Motel. I'll pick 'em up in the morning, along with my motorcycle."
"Great. In the meantime, we've got some catching up to do," Zachary said. He turned and started across the stone path that led to his front door.
Rage followed, feeling optimistic, but wondering if he had made the wisest decision.
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Excerpt from "The Rogue Investigations," Copyright 2009 by Martin T. Ingham. All Rights Reserved.