The first thing I noticed as we approached the scene were the bags. There appeared to be a dozen or so, arranged in a wide, loose circle around the cluster of men and equipment she assumed was the crime scene. The bags were of the same style you could find in any grocery store, though lacking any logos, and the bottom of each one was stained with some dark substance. But, most unusually, each bag was placed high in the trees, well beyond the easy reach of a man.
"What's in the bags?" I asked the young officer leading us. The man glanced nervously back at us, then up at the bags, and coughed.
"Dunno yet." He said.
"Going to find out?"
"Not my job. Think they're getting a cherry-picker or something."
"A cherry-picker." Charlie cut in, a slight smile on his face. "In the middle of the woods."
"Yes suh." The officer swallowed hard and nearly tripped, pausing a moment to kick the offending stone to the side.
"Alright then." Charlie whistled softly and started looking around. But other than the bags and a few officers poking around the forest floor, there was little to look at. The only truly interesting thing was the huddle still forty or so feet ahead.
"Officer Matocha!" The officer jerked and looked up towards the huddle, where a large man in a sheriff's uniform was storming towards us. "Who the fuck are these two?"
Matocha started to stutter out an answer when Charlie smoothly stepped past him and extended his hand. "Charles Munner, reporter for the Smithville Times." The sheriff frowned and slowly shook the offered hand while Charlie gestured to me. "Mackenzie Byrd, my photographer. You must be Sheriff Reynolds."
"Yes, I am. And I don't want any reporters at my scene." Reynolds said, drawing himself up and resting his hands on his hips. "You two even have press passes?"
Charlie quickly fished the pass issued to him by the county police out of his wallet and I did the same, cradling my camera in my free hand. Reynolds spent several moments carefully examining both, looking at the pictures on the cards and then up at us, like we were kids trying to buy alcohol. Eventually, he returned both with a grunt and a frown, but remained standing in place. "Gonna have to deny you access so you don't interfere with the scene."
Charlie scoffed. "Bullshit. You didn't have any problems letting reporters into the double homicide two weeks ago.
"This is still a fresh scene, son. Don't need you two tromping around and disrupting evidence before the coroner arrives." Reynolds rested his thumbs in his belt and it gave him the appearance of trying to hold in his gut.
"Can we ask some questions? Who, what, when, that sort of shit?" Charlie asked, already flipping his notepad open and pulling a pencil out of his shirt pocket. But Reynolds shook his head.
"Well, fuck, Sheriff, glad you're cooperating with the press like you said you would during election year."
Reynolds' face started to darken. I gently kicked Charlie's leg and slightly shook my head, keeping my eyes wandering around the trees surrounding us. He sighed, having apparently gotten the message, and tapped his pencil against the notepad. "Look, Sheriff, we're both just trying to do our job. Rumors have already gotten out of the park about this and there's going to be a lot more people coming here soon. A lot more reporters."
Reynolds grumbled again and rubbed his face, so I put on my best smile and decided to back up Charlie. "We all live in Smithville. Let me take a couple of pictures, tell Charlie what you can, we can help the Times get a bit of a scoop before those fuckers from Austin strut in looking for the Statesman's front page tomorrow."
The sheriff walked in a slow circle, but the battle was over. There's very little a small-town cop hates more than the big city.
Reynolds rounded back around and gave a long sigh. "Alright, fine, take your pictures and I'll have one of my officers give you some info." He said, then called for Matocha to come back. The younger officer returned, still pale and shaky. "Answer these folks, but don't get too detailed. Just general knowledge." Reynolds told him, then turned to me. "You can't take pictures of the bodies, miss. Wouldn't be right for the paper." The sheriff then returned to the circle surrounding what the crime scene and squatted down.
"Alright, officer." Charlie started, his pencil hovering over the paper and the tip of his tongue sticking out between his lips. "Can I ask your first name?"
"Uh, Jim." Matocha said, resting his hands on his hips in a poor imitation of the sheriff. Charlie nodded enthusiastically.
"Okay, Jim, if I can call you that, just a few questions and we'll be gone. So this is a murder, right?"
"Uh, yes, suh, one, one body, badly, uh, badly mutilated."
"Mutilated?" Charlie was scribbling furiously, far more words than was worth what the cop had told him. "Uh, Mackenzie, can you just get pictures of the woods or the officers or something? Reynolds, if he'll let you. So, Jim, just how was the body mutilated?"
I wandered off from their Q&A session, hearing Matocha mention that the sheriff probably didn't want them to say that before I stopped paying attention. There was very little reason to bring a photographer to a murder scene, particularly one that sounded as unpleasant as this one, but Charlie was still used to working for a big city rag, where the right kind of people would love death and gore in their morning paper. I somehow doubted Smithville would go for the same.
I snapped a few shots of the officers roaming through the woods, noticing that more than a few were breaking away from the main huddle and just standing there, looking off into the distance and taking deep breaths. It was a nice shot, particularly with the right caption beneath it, so I made sure to grab several. I idly took a picture or two of some mildly unusual plants but there was precious little of those in a pine forest, so ultimately, I was just wandering in circles and pretending to earn the money I was getting by being out here.
Which is how I found myself beneath one of the bags. I had nearly forgotten they were there and they were hung high enough up that they stayed of one's normal field of view. I only noticed the one above me because I felt something wet drop into my hair. I started slightly and reached up to run my fingers through the short strands. When I pulled my hand away, the fingertips were red.
I've seen enough horror movies to know what happens next, so I opted to step out of the path of the drips, look up to orient myself slightly away from the bag, and then stuck my hand underneath, where I had been standing a moment before. A few seconds later, there was another drip and a sudden bright red dash of blood on my hand.
Well. Okay then.
I tilted the camera, took a few quick shots of the bag I had been underneath and a few more of the other bags and then hurried back to where Charlie was still trying to sweet-talk Jim Matocha.
"Hey, Charlie." I said, grabbing his arm. He turned his head and glared at me, but I didn't really care about his interrogation. "You wrapping up here? Mark's going to want the article soon."
"Just, just wait a second, okay." Charlie said, brushing my hand off his arm. He turned back to Jim, but the moment was lost. Matocha had stepped away and nodded.
"Yes, suh, think that's about all the sheriff would want me to tell ya'll." The officer said. Charlie's shoulders slumped, but he folded his notepad up and put his pencil back in his pocket.
"No, thank you, Jim, we'll be okay. Let the sheriff know I'll be waiting for he wants to give a full report." Charlie smiled, waved, and turned back towards me, his face abruptly less friendly as we started to walk back.
"I could have gotten more out of him if you had given me, like, thirty seconds." Charlie grumbled. "Jesus, are you scared or something? This isn't your first murder, you know."
"It's my first murder in Podunk, Nowhere." I answered. We passed beneath one of the bags and I eyed it warily. No red drops though. "Something creepy about this place. Just don't like it." Charlie said nothing to me, preferring to mutter to himself, so I tilted my eyes down to the camera's display and started flicking through the images. But immediately, from the first image I had taken of an officer squatting down to examine on the ground, nearly half of the picture was a distorted blur. The next five, all of officers in the woods, were the same. After that, as the subject matter changed to plants and bags, they returned to normal.
"Weird." I said out loud, interrupting Charlie's moping. He looked down at the camera and I flipped back to the ruined pictures in response.
"Camera fucking up or something?" He asked. I shook my head slightly.
"Shouldn't be. Still a pretty new camera."
"Whatever. Guess we can look at it when we get back to the paper."
Ian's Notes: This is terrible. There are six dozen things I would change about it, all related to me trying to rush it out to stay on schedule. Maybe some other time.
For now, this would be the first part of an untitled short horror story, revolving around a monster and, if I could pull it off, the spread of myths in this interconnected age. I will admit now that I take no credit for the actual monster itself, though I won't tell you what to Google so it stays a surprise should I continue.
For you Smithvillians, yes, that would be the Smithville and Austin we know and love. The forest this scene takes place in would be either Bastrop or Buescher State Park, essentially in my own backyard. It's traditional when writing speculative fiction about real places to change the names around and I'll do that when I can think up names that don't sound stupid.
Finally, Mackenzie is a consistent element of mine. Those are characters, places, or concepts that crop up through various stuff I've written, typically as placeholders, and share the same ideas from piece to piece that they show up in. Mackenzie is usually a quiet photographer and always ends up the protagonist of any horror bits I write, so I'm rather running roughshod over the poor girl.