This is a new project designed to let readers test read these first few chapters, and then give me feedback to let me know what you think. We’re starting with just Chapter One, and then adding a chapter a week to see how things go…[poll id=”2″]Chapter One
Officer Brady froze the moment he heard the angry hiss from the branches above him. He looked up to see a shadowy shape swooping down toward him. It hurtled into him forcefully. Plowing into his chest. Bowling him over. Knocking the air out of his lungs.
Officer Brady scrambled back to his feet. Desperately sucking in air. Frantically peering at the surrounding trees. Wondering what had struck him and where it had gone.
He then caught a glimpse of its yellow eyes glowing in the undergrowth ahead of him.
It hissed, releasing a mad chortle of glee.
It hissed again, and a dozen more luminous, lime-green eyes appeared in the woods beyond the trail. It was not alone.
Trembling with terror, Brady clawed at the pistol holstered at his waist. Like many veteran cops who had never fired their weapon in the line of duty, he’d always considered himself lucky. Twenty years on the Omaha PD, and he’d never even drawn his gun. Retired now and security chief for a research facility located in the middle of the Missouri River, Brady still had never drawn his revolver. Or used the tazer he’d also been issued as a safety precaution; one that he had been strictly ordered to carry while making his nightly rounds patrolling the island.
Tonight, however, he drew both weapons.
It then sprang from the bushes beside the trail, launching such a fierce attack that it sent Brady’s pistol and tazer flying out of his grasp. A burst of blue sparks erupted from the tazer, briefly lighting up the terrifying features of the sharp-fanged beast closing on him. In one last desperate act to save himself, Brady fought back. Hammering with his fists. Kicking with his feet. Latching onto the black-furred creature swarming all over him.
Its razor-sharp talons slithered down the length of Brady’s forehead, then pierced his eyes with uncanny precision, causing blackness to fill his vision. And fortunately, Officer Brady died a few seconds later.
It stood there gloating for long moments, while the others crept from the undergrowth beside the trail, their luminous green eyes fixed on the dead security guard sprawled before them.
It hissed in warning, causing the others to back away from its kill. It then cocked its head, listening to the faint sound of voices coming from the distant shore beyond the north end of the island.
Half a mile upstream from the island, two young boys stood at the edge of a riverside cove, warily watching the black waters of the Missouri swiftly roll past them.
“Looks like a ship,” Connor said, gesturing at the moon rising above the dark river. “A ghost ship setting sail on a sea of stars.”
Slightly mesmerized by the silver radiance shimmering on the river’s surface, he added, “And those sparkling zephyrs? They look like water sprites racing across the waves.”
Sweating heavily in the sweltering heat of the summer night Daniel’s thoughts were a little more dark and twisted. “You know a boy could fall in that river and never come out. Especially at night. Especially on a summer night like this one. Those currents could suck a boy under. Maybe pull him down to the muddy bot-tom where the eels and the leeches lurk.”
“Point taken,” Connor replied, his sweaty strands of blond hair plastered to his head in wild tangles. “But check out the island. I see a light in the tower.”
Scanning the shoreline of the island a half mile downriver, Daniel flicked long, black bangs out of his eyes. “Then it ain’t abandoned,” he said. “Someone’s out there. Security guards would nab us the second we banked the canoe.”
“Scared?” Connor asked.
“Yes,” Daniel admitted. “Scared shitless. Kids say it’s haunted. In the 1800’s, river pirates had a fort out there. Indians slaughtered them all one night, leaving their ghosts really pissed off about the way they died!”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Connor said. “Besides, if you were a ghost why would you haunt a deserted island, when you could haunt the entire lower east side of Omaha a mile upriver?”
Pointing down at the aluminum canoe resting on the edge of the sandbar, he said, “Come on. Help me get this thing launched.”
Connor then suddenly froze. “What was that?” he hissed, his eyes gone wide. “Did you see that?”
Daniel suspected that Connor was simply trying to turn up the notch on his suspense meter. Not real hard to do when they were only fourteen-year-old boys. Out there alone. On a sandbar along the edge of the deep, black waters of the river. A wooded grove behind them. A strange island before them. And far from the safety of the city.
Daniel joined Connor at the edge of the sandbar. “What did you see?” he asked.
Using long, slender fingers to feather back his jagged bangs, Connor narrowed his eyes. “I thought I saw . . .”
His words trailed off and he peered hard at the distant island. “I could have sworn,” he started to say, then fell silent.
Daniel wanted to tell Connor he wasn’t falling for his lame attempt to creep him out. But it wasn’t that kind of feeling he got when he followed his gaze out to the island. It was strange. He could feel someone watching them. Not staring at them curi-ously. Not spotting their fire, wondering if they were catching any fish. No, the eyes locked on them held no wonder or curiosity in them.
Connor finally spoke then with so much conviction that Daniel had to take him serious. In broad daylight he would have laughed. Maybe joked about him needing to take a drug test. But there in the night, with the silver moon hanging above the black river, Daniel shivered as Connor said, “I’m not kidding, Danny. I saw a dark, scrawny thing with leathery wings.”
Daniel said, “Lots of owls live along the river.”
“No,” Connor said. “It looked more like a bat. Only it was really big.”
“An owl,” Daniel said, his tolerance of Connor’s wild imagi-nation stretched too thin. “Quit trying to freak me out!”
For long, silent moments, the two boys scanned the dark, distant island, watching and waiting for something to move.
Finally, Daniel said, “Well, come on. Let’s go on your stupid quest!”
Together they then launched the canoe, sliding it into the cove beside the sandbar. Daniel kept it from drifting out into the swift-flowing river by holding onto the rope tied to the stern.
Suddenly, a shadow passed over the boys.
They both looked up to see a black creature swoop down toward them, its long, slender wings momentarily blocking out the moonlit sky.
A low, angry hiss came from the bat-like thing, followed by a gurgling noise, then a solid Thunk! as something small and dark dropped down into the center of the canoe. A horrid stench im-mediately filled the evening air.
“Gawwd!” Connor complained in disgust. “That thing just tried to shit on us!”
Glancing at the black creature winging away from them, Daniel used his paddle to remove the foul smelling object from the floor of the canoe. “Sick!” he said. “Would an owl do such a thing? Do owls even shit in flight?”
Glancing back, Connor watched Daniel flick the small, smelly turd off of his paddle and into the water. “I don’t know,” he re-plied.
“Did you hear it hiss?” Daniel asked. “It sounded really pissed.”
Connor watched the winged thing melting into the shadows on the far shore. “That’s what I saw earlier. Owls have feathers. That thing had leathery wings, and a thin body like a monkey.”
Daniel said, “Yeah, but monkeys don’t fly.”
Connor muttered, “Well, this one sure did.”
The canoe smashed into the island with a sickening crunch. An eerie Screeeechhh! immediately followed as the alumi-num craft scraped against the rocky shoreline, then vio-lently bucked beneath the two boys.
Connor flew forward, flipped over the bow, and landed in a pile of brush. Daniel was catapulted high into the air. Terrified that he was going to fall into the river and be drawn down into a whirlpool, he flailed crazily with his arms and propelled himself forward, barely managing to land on dry ground.
Dazed from the collision, they both watched the canoe smash up against a boulder and shoot away through the churning water. It listed badly to one side, then spun around and capsized, filling up with water. Too much water. And down it sank. Its silver stern bobbed up and down like the nose of a drowning man poking up for one last breath. It was then gone. Down to where the leeches and eels lurk.
“Great!” Daniel muttered. “How we going to leave this place?”
“I’m sorry,” Connor quietly said. “I guess we’re now trapped. Unless we find another boat. Or throw ourselves at the mercy of whoever has a light on in the tower at the center of the island.
I’m real sorry, Danny.”
Daniel said, “One helluva situation! But it could have been worse. At least we’re on land. Not down there at the bottom of the river with your old man’s canoe.”
Connor muttered, “How will I explain this?”
Daniel said, “Tell him a river boat swept us out underneath it. After hearing a horrific survival story, your dad will be so re-lieved you’re alive, the canoe won’t be no big deal.”
“Are you pissed at me?” Connor asked.
Daniel leaned in close to him. “Maybe,” he said, smirking.
He then slipped one arm across the smaller kid’s shoulders, pulling him away from the shoreline. “Come on, punk. Let’s find out if we’re as badly screwed as we think we are.”
Connor allowed him to lead him to a trail snaking its way into a small forest of cottonwood trees ten yards from the river. “Sorry,” he offered one more time. “I never figured on this happening.”
Daniel gently punched him in the chest and said, “Least ways with me being trapped out here, Travis Washington will sleep safely tonight. Ain’t no way I can gun him down now. So your plan worked out after all. Sort of.”
They had traveled thirty feet down the trail winding between the cottonwoods, when Daniel tripped and fell over a bulky shape on the ground. Scrambling back up, he peered down at what ap-peared to be a dead man sprawled there on the path.
“God!” he hissed. “His eyes have been gouged out! His nose hacked off. And the rest of his face is torn away!”
“He’s a guard,” Connor said. “Or he was a security guard. Uniform. Badge. Gun belt.”
Daniel kneeled down to check the dead man’s holster. “Gun’s gone,” he whispered.
Craning his neck, he turned his head back and forth, trying to determine if the guard’s killer was still out there somewhere in the trees. Watching them. Wanting to kill them. Wanting to tear their faces off, too.
“What could have done that?” Daniel asked, hoping that some psychotic killer didn’t suddenly appear beneath the trees beside the trail. “Who would do something like this? Or what would be capable of doing this kind of damage?”
Peering into the shadows beneath the nearby trees, Connor said, “Looks like he’s been mauled by a grizzly. Only there ain’t no grizzlies here in Nebraska, but the cops shot two cougars up by north Omaha last year. Could have been a cougar.”
Daniel studied the dead guy for several seconds. “He’s not been clawed or bitten anywhere on his body that I can see. What-ever did this just centered on his face. If it was an animal, we likely scared it away. Maybe it’s watching us, determining if we pose a threat. Maybe we’re in the way of its meal.”
Connor said, “Let’s head back down the trail.”
Looking off into the trees, Connor froze. Daniel shot to his feet. Both boys saw something move on the trail ahead of them. A shadow detached itself from the shadows beneath the cotton-woods. Then slid back into the undergrowth. There for a second. Definitely there. But now gone. Hidden once more in shadows.
An eerie voice startled both boys, and they looked down at the dead security guard. At first, they thought maybe the poor guy hadn’t been dead, that he was now weakly calling to them for help. But when they heard the voice a second time, there was a distinct crackle in its tone.
“Walkie-talkie!” Connor said, pointing down at the man’s belt.
Daniel flinched as the walkie-talkie crackled again.
After long, low hiss, a young girl’s voice came from its small speaker: “Base to Rover Three. Come in, Three. Do you copy?”
The girl paused, then spoke again, more urgently. “Rover Three, do you copy? Brady? They’re loose! Oscar’s opened all of their cages! They’ve gone on a rampage! Brady, do you copy?”
Daniel kneeled down, reaching for the walkie-talkie.
“What are you doing?” Connor whispered. “You want to let someone know we’re trespassing?”
Kneeling beside the guard, Daniel asked, “Do you really think it matters? We just found a dead guy. A really gross, disfigured dead guy. And did you hear what she about some guy named Oscar letting them all out of their cages! What in hell do they keep in cages out here?”
“Probably,” Connor said, “whatever tore that poor guy up.”
“Exactly!” Daniel snorted. “I’m all for a trespassing ticket, if someone will just come save us from whatever might have went on a rampage and ripped this guy’s face off!”
He reached down and removed the walkie-talkie from the dead guard’s belt. “Base to Rover Three!” the girl’s voice squawked. She was almost crying now. Her voice sounded shaky, like maybe she knew she wouldn’t be receiving a response from the guard. “Brady, if you can hear me, get to the tower! Lock yourself in! They’re not alone! Oscar freed Mock! He’s leading them! He’s already tried breaking in here, but I’ve sealed the doors!”
Silence followed her warning. Connor and Daniel turned around in the center of the trail, scanning the undergrowth around them. Both stared down at the walkie-talkie in Daniel’s grasp as the girl said, “I’ve scanned for the Nigerian males with the implanted tracking devices. They’re milling about the east dock. Don’t take that route. Go quietly up the southern gully. Brady? I’d wish you’d answer me!”
Daniel pressed the orange button on the walkie-talkie. “Uh, hello?” he said. “Can you hear me?”
He released the button. Silence. “Hey,” he said, pressing down on the button once more. “Talk to me, will you?”
The girl’s voice came out of the walkie-talkie: “Who is this? How did you get on this frequency?”
Pressing on the button, Daniel said, “Me and my friend crashed our canoe on the north end of the island. We found a dead guard on the trail. I’m using his walkie-talkie.”
He bent down to read the name on the guard’s badge, then said, “This Brady guy, the one you’re trying to contact? I think he’s the dead guy we found.”
He let up on the button. The girl said, “Brady is dead?”
Daniel spoke into the device, saying, “Oh, yeah. I don’t mean to sound rude, but he’s like missing most of his face.”
The girl said, “You are in danger. You need to get yourself quickly off of Rivermoon. Get back in your canoe and head to either shore!”
Daniel responded, “Our canoe sank. What did you say about a river?”
“Rivermoon,” the girl said. “It’s the name of this research facility. Now listen carefully. If not, you’re dead.”
Daniel and Connor exchanged worried glances. They waited. It took several seconds, but finally the girl asked, “Can you swim? That is, do you think you can swim the river and make it safely back to the shore?”
Considering her suggestion, Connor turned and looked back down the trail, peering at the river barely visible between the giant cottonwood trees at the beginning of the trail. It must have been at least ten yards away, but right now, it seemed to be too far. Even if they bolted and ran toward the river, Connor had the feel-ing they would not make it. Something would definitely stop them.
He then saw it move. A dark figure slithered between the cotton-woods at the head of the riverside trail. It shifted ever so slowly, keeping to the shadows, moonlight reflecting from its yellow eyes.
The thing then vanished. Either it ducked down and scurried through the thick undergrowth. Or it had slid up against one of the trees and was hidden there. Watching them. Waiting to see what they intended to do. Wanting them to make a run for the river. It would then pounce on them. Or else, glide out in front of them, gleefully gloating as it blocked their path.
Daniel hissed, “It’s in the tree! It’s that winged thing we saw above the river! That damned winged, monkey-thing!”
And Connor silently nodded in agreement.