Mrs. Fullerman jolted awake. “Henry,” she gasped, furiously jostling her sleeping husband. Her gnarled fingers curled like talons into his shoulder. “Henry!”
He grunted, rolling back just enough to glare at her out of the corner of his eye. “What is it, Winnie?”
“I heard something! There’s something outside! In the chicken coop!”
Henry listened intently for any sound of distress coming from the chickens—or any of the animals they kept: it was as quiet tonight as any other. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Besides, the animals are all locked up. Go back to sleep.” He was already well on his way.
“Something’s not right!”
Henry groaned. “Alright… alright….”
He sat up, finding his slippers with his toes before sliding them over his bare feet. He peered out the open window, surveying the moonlit fields of his farm. A gentle breeze wound its way through the corn, rustling the stalks, but the warm night was otherwise still and quiet. “Winnie, I really don’t—“
“Just go! I know I heard something!”
He raised his hands in protest, before grabbing the shotgun from its spot in the corner. “Okay, okay, I’ll go.”
Standing on the porch, Henry surveyed his property. From his spot against the wall, Rusty, his faithful old Labrador retriever, scrutinized the old man but never raised his head from its resting place on the porch floor. The full moon provided plenty of light, which allowed Henry to see clearly most of the way down the half-mile drive. There was nothing there. He sighed and turned to head back in the house.
Just then, Earl the rooster crowed.
It was going on four in the morning. The rooster never crowed this early, usually waiting until just before dawn, which at this time of year wasn’t for another couple hours. Setting the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder and keeping the muzzle raised against the night, Henry crept down the steps of the porch and around the corner of the house toward the chicken coop. Rusty followed him. Moonlight lit the back yard, the coop a silent sentinel in the waning night. There was no sound. He did his best to sneak up to the next corner of the house, hoping to catch sight of the fox he was sure he’d find. Winnie mashed her face against the screen of the backdoor.
“What is it, Henry? What’s out there?”
“Shush, woman! I think it’s a fox in the henhouse. Now be quiet!” He wasn’t succeeding at being too quiet himself.
Creeping out from the shadow of the house, Henry inched his way toward the chicken coop. There were feathers everywhere. He’d seen the aftermath of a fox attack before, and usually all that remained of the confiscated bird was some feathers, but this was different. The coop yard looked like someone had beaten a feather pillow to death. The door to the coop was hanging by a hinge. It looked as though the door had been forced open from the inside, but that wasn’t possible. There was no way a chicken was gonna be able to break that door. Then he noticed that the chicken wire on the other side of the coop from him was torn open, leaving a gap big enough for a man to walk through.
Earl was nowhere to be seen.
“Winnie!” he hissed, trying not to be too loud as he called out across the yard. “Winnie! Call the sheriff! This ain’t no fox!”
Henry made his way around the pen to where the fence was torn open. He stepped into the pen, and took a look inside the coop. His half-dozen hens were all clucking quietly in their roosts. Dumb birds. They wouldn’t be smart enough to know if they were in danger anyway.
A sound behind him made him jump. Whirling around he turned his gun on a disheveled Winnie.
“For God’s sakes, woman! I nearly shot you! Don’t sneak up on me like that! Did you call the sheriff?”
She tried to answer, her mouth forming words but no sounds were coming out.
“What? What is it?”
“I- it- th- there-“
“What? What happened? Are you okay?” Henry was concerned now.
“I saw it! In the field!”
“Saw what?” his concern turned to confused frustration.
“Earl? Where did you see him?” He was confused. Winnie’s eyes widened as a shadow rose behind him, a silhouette against the full moon standing atop the coop. Her mouth hung open, her lungs frozen in fear. All she could do was raise a shaking arm and point. Henry turned.
“What in God’s—“
The sound of both barrels of his shotgun erupting echoed through the night, only to be swallowed by eerie, penetrating silence.
“Wagner, need you to head out to the Fullerman’s. Winnie called in, said they got an intruder on the property.”
Wagner sighed, feigning annoyance at his oh-so-intense game of Solitaire being interrupted. That record score would have to wait until later. He peeked at Mona over the top of his computer monitor. “She say anything else?”
“Nope, just that Henry was out in the back yard, and told her to call us.”
“It’s probably just another fox or coydog.”
“Maybe, but she sounded genuinely scared this time. Even if it is, it gets you out of my hair for a little while.” She winked at him.
He leaned back in his chair, running his hand over his neck. She was right. At least it got him out for something other than just another random cruise through the county and would break up the monotony of a night that didn’t seem to want to end. He downed the last of his stale coffee in one big gulp, setting the cup on Mona’s desk as he coasted by on his way out the door.
“Hey! Keep your mess to yourself!” she protested. He grinned.
“I’ll make it up to you when the shift ends. Breakfast. My treat. You pick where.”
“Like there’s a huge selection to choose from in this town,” she muttered. He didn’t hear her, being outside and at his cruiser already.
The deputy’s cruiser turned onto the Fullermans’ gravel drive, its headlights illuminating the front of the house. No lights were on inside. Wagner flipped the spotlight on as he idled up the drive, sweeping the yard and the edges of the fields for any sign of anything suspicious. The only thing suspicious he noted was the lack of Mrs. Fullerman on the front porch waiting for him. Rusty wasn’t anywhere to be seen either, and that old dog was sure to make himself known every time anyone pulled on to the property, first with a couple of barks, then with his demands for attention and requisite petting. Wagner radioed Mona.
“Dispatch, 33-David-11. I’m on site. Standby.”
“33-David-11, dispatch. 10-4. Please advise.”
Wagner stopped the cruiser two-thirds of the way up the drive, racking the slide on his Remington 870 and chambering a round as he got out of the car. He did his best to move cautiously up onto the porch and to the front door, which stood open behind the screen door—not an unusual occurrence on a cool summer night. He knocked. There was no response.
“Dispatch, 33-David-11. No answer at the door. I’m entering the premises.”
“10-4. Do you need back up?”
“Negative at this time.” Hodge was on the other side of the county anyway. It would take him a while to get here from there, and he was probably still dealing with the mess from that semi hitting that cow. Wagner pulled the screen door open.
“Hello! Mr. Fullerman? Mrs. Fullerman?” There was no response. “Henry? Winnie?” Still nothing. Working his way from one room to the next on the ground floor he eventually found himself at the back door.
“Dispatch, 33-David-11. The house appears to be empty. Going out back to check the rest of the property.”
Wagner’s foot hadn’t hit the first step of the back porch stairs when he caught sight of the lifeless form on the ground of the chicken yard. He raised his shotgun, its mounted light illuminating what was left of a body. One foot cautiously placed in front of the other, he crept toward the motionless heap, the muzzle and light of his shotgun sweeping the area. It was a bloody, eviscerated mess. But he could still identify it.
“Oh no…” He dropped to his knees. “Dispatch, 33-David-11. Mona!”
“Go ahead, 33-David-11.”
“Better wake the sheriff. Send an ambulance.” Wagner paused. “And the coroner.”
Mona felt like she’d been kicked in the gut. She resisted the urge to demand details. Ben was on scene and dealing with it and needed not to aggravate his stress by adding to it. She composed her thoughts and radioed her acknowledgement before making the call to the sheriff.
Sheriff Cole arrived on scene not long after the ambulance. The crew hadn’t bothered trying to perform life-saving measures. Henry was dead. There was no way anyone would have survived the kinds of injuries he’d suffered, though “injury” wasn’t an apt word for it. Wagner couldn’t fathom what could have done this. He never considered a “who,” so savage was the appearance of things. Something torn Henry open. And apart. Blood pooled between pieces of him.
“What in the hell is going on, Wagner?” Cole’s voice echoed in the night air. His question was answered as he came in view of the carnage. “Dear God…”
Wagner waited to answer, giving the sheriff a moment to collect himself.
“This is how I found him. I’ve checked the rest of the property. Winnie’s gone. So is the dog. There’s a blood trail that leads off into the corn over there, but I didn’t follow it. I was waiting for you to arrive.”
“On the other side of the county. Truck hit one of Johnson’s cows.”
“Another one?” Cole shook his head, then nodded at the body. “Any tracks?”
“Nothing I recognize. Whatever this was, it wasn’t something we’ve seen around here before.”
That was an understatement. Pike County was about as normal as normal could be. The biggest excitement of the year was the county fair, which was conveniently packaged with the annual Heritage Days Festival, complete with parade. There were other community events throughout the year, such as the HarvestFest, but nothing like the fair. A few years back there was a big to-do about a record Boone & Crockett buck being taken during the hunting season; that was a big enough story to warrant a news crew to come down from Indianapolis and do a story, but other than that, Pike County was one of those quiet rural counties where everyone knew everyone and nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. And most of the people there were content for it to be that way.
This was the kind of thing that happened in other places—wild places. Not here. There weren’t any known predators around these parts. Unless a bear had made its way down from Michigan. It was the kind of thing that was going to cause a panic in the community and draw the wrong kind of attention to an otherwise quiet and unknown town. It was already weighing on Wagner and Cole.
“No,” Cole said. “I’ve been working this county for thirty-four years… Hell, I’ve lived here my whole life. Never seen anything like this. I don’t even remember the last time there was a real crime committed here, ‘cept when I had to arrest Old Man Kuhns for drunk driving.”
The sheriff went silent. Wagner, too.
A monstrous, crowing roar tore through the darkness, distant enough that neither Wagner nor Cole felt an immediate threat, but closer than either of them were comfortable with. Trailing out of the sound came a woman’s scream.
“Winnie!” Wagner said.
Both men pulled their guns.
“I’ll go,” Wagner said, looking at Cole.
“We should wait until Hodge gets here.” The sheriff’s voice cracked.
Winnie collapsed, gasping for breath. She’d run just about as far as she could. She wasn’t exactly old, but she sure wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. Henry’s name fell in ragged whispers over her lips in desperate breaths. That thing tore him apart in a matter of seconds and it was all she could do to just run. The cornstalks raked and clawed at her as she ran through the field, but she’d not felt it. Hope was gone from her now, and she lay there waiting for the darkness to take the pain from her poor, broken heart.
The corn around her rustled. Something snorted in the darkness. Then came another sound, a different sound. It reminded her of a chicken’s clucking, only deeper, throatier, and menacing. But it was also familiar.
“Earl?” she asked the darkness.
It was the recently-arrived Deputy Hodge who found Winnie’s body in the cornfield. After collecting himself and radioing for Cole and Wagner, he noted something curious about the scene. Feathers were scattered everywhere. Hodge picked one up, realizing that while it looked like a chicken feather, it was too big to be one. Hearing movement in the corn behind him, he turned to show Cole and Wagner.
“Fellas, what do you make of—“
Fear and surprise froze the rest of his words in his throat as he looked up. Standing before him was the largest, most terrifying chicken he’d ever seen. It was easily as tall as him, with large, hooked talons rising from its splayed feet. Where its wings should have been were feathered arms ending in haggard claws. Its beak-like maw opened to reveal a mouth full of teeth. The beast roared and leaped at the deputy.
“Hodge!” Wagner broke through the wall of corn at the same instant, his shotgun belching fire and lead. The monster slammed to the ground, knocked off its trajectory by the shotgun blast. But it wasn’t dead; it didn’t even really seem that hurt. Regaining its footing, it roared at Wagner and lunged at him.
Wagner fired again.
The chicken ran.
“What the hell was that?!” Hodge was picking himself up off the ground.
“You okay?” Wagner asked.
“Hodge! Wagner!” Sheriff Cole appeared abruptly, out of breath. “What was it? What happened?”
“It’s some kinda mutant chicken!” Hodge announced.
Wagner loaded more shells into his shotgun. “I’m not sure, Sheriff. It did look like a chicken. But…”
“But what?” Cole asked.
“It looked like a dinosaur.”
“A dinosaur? What are you on about, Wagner?”
“It sorta looked like one of those velociraptors I saw up at the museum a while back. But only sorta. It was more like a cross between one and a chicken.”
The sheriff studied his deputy’s face in the greying light that signaled the oncoming dawn. Wagner was serious, and he wasn’t one given to exaggeration. Except maybe when it came to fishing. Whatever it was, this thing was out there and had already killed two people. Cole took off his hat and ran his hand over his head.
“Sun’ll be up soon. If we’re gonna hunt this thing—whatever it is—we’re gonna need help. Best if we get Winnie seen to and call in some extra backup. Hodge and I will stay here; Wagner, you head back to the station, grab our extra gear, and have Mona make some calls.”
Hodge shot Wagner a look that made it plain he was less than thrilled with the sheriff’s words. Wagner turned to head back towards the house. The first rays of dawn broke over the eastern horizon, spilling gold against the green of the corn.
Back at his coop, Earl the rooster crowed.