Steemhouse Publishing is pleased to announce the selection of our first novel for launch. “High Kill” is literary suspense, set in rural Appalachia and told from two perspectives: one of a local, and one of an outsider. Much of the novel is based on the author’s firsthand experience of living in the region.
The Writers’ Block is currently hosting a contest for cover art, and this chapter will help stage the atmosphere for that design. Read more about that contest HERE.
We don’t have a release date yet for this novel, but will announce that as soon as we can. This chapter is posted to generate interest in the project, and to give inspiration for artists and graphic designers thinking of participating in the contest. Let’s see some great cover design!
Veterinarians had to kill things. Eric Blevins got it. Students became doctors one necropsy at a time. If he’d started Tech that fall like he planned, they’d have had him cutting up a lot of dead animals before they ever let him lay a hand on the live ones.
But there weren’t any veterinarians on the mountain tonight. Just killers.
The dogs had a coon up a tree. Old Strut was barking short, and Eric could see a spotlight shining high on the ridge. Then another light with a smaller beam turned away and started moving down the hill. Junior Rasnick’s head lamp, bobbing and bouncing along the path.
Eric waited beside the pickup trucks on flat ground below, curious. It wasn’t like Junior to leave the hunt. He figured he’d hear the reason soon enough. And eventually there came Junior, crashing through the underbrush. Might as well have been a three-legged rhinoceros for all the noise he made.
“They must’ve got him,” Eric said when Junior got a little closer. “I know that bark.”
“Eh, fuck,” Junior said. “You seen Rosie?”
Eric blinked. “No. She not up there?”
“Hell, no. Took off after a goddamned rabbit ‘bout the time Strut went on the track.” Junior pulled a beer from the cooler in his truck bed and drank half of it in one gulp. “She turns up, throw her in the box. I’m headed down the holler to see if she went that way.”
Eric watched Junior move off with the shuffling, stiff-legged gait of a man who’d spent most of his life underground. Hips, back, knees—a body gave out early in the mines. Junior carried his rifle away from his side for ballast, making him look twice as wide as he actually was under the bulky Carhartt. Eric remembered him being a lot bigger before the roof bolts gave out in Low Fork No. 3 and Junior lay there for two days until they got the rocks moved. But that was years ago. Could be Eric’s memory was as faulty as Rosie’s tracking sense.
On the ridge, the spotlight bounced off the limbs of a naked hardwood, probably the big maple that hogged the outcropping. Eric had stood at the base of it many times, staring up the massive trunk. He’d seen plenty of coon taken out of that tree over the years. But the brutality got to him. Its effect was cumulative. At some point, he finally saw one more mangled gray body than he wanted to see in flashbacks when his head hit the pillow that night.
His Grandpap figured it out, but he never said anything. Lately, he just told Eric to watch the truck while they went up the mountain, especially if they left a dog in the box. Those Gillespies one holler over had a habit of taking what didn’t belong to them, and a good-hunting hound would keep them in pills for the next six months even if they couldn’t sell him with papers.
Killing for sport didn’t put food on the table. Grandpap didn’t eat the coon they took. It wasn’t about meat or pelts or nuisance pests. It wasn’t even about the trophies. It was all about the dogs—making them crazy for the hunt. And six months out of the year, the hunt was something Eric could get into. He’d have been right there with them on the ridge from April to September. But come firearms season when you took what you treed, he’d just guard the truck. And he’d never say anything, and nobody would ask. The coons would die, and he’d see them brought back torn to pieces, but by God he wouldn’t have to watch while it happened.
He heard her a few seconds before he saw her coming out of the dark, trotting along the old logging road with her tongue dragging. Rosie had no doubt run the ridge from there to kingdom come, tracking junk game she probably never caught. She came straight to him and dropped to her belly, rolling partway onto her side with her front leg curled in submission. Pretty clear she wasn’t looking for praise. Probably begging him not to boot her in the gut—likely what she’d get if Junior had been close enough to kick her.
“Come on, girl.” Eric reached for her collar. “Let’s get you in the truck.”
She heaved herself onto the tailgate and padded into the dog box. Flopped down on the cool aluminum and just lay there, panting.
Eric shut the door of the box. Should be about over, this hunt. Law said they had to be out of the woods by two, and it was well past midnight. He checked his watch. Closer to one, actually. Old Strut was still at the tree, carrying on. And now the pup had the scent, so his bawl carried down the mountain along with Strut’s.
Somebody would shoot this one down. Pup was too green to go home without fur in his mouth. Eric understood the logic. It was the doing he couldn’t quite follow through with. Sure enough, the shot rang out clean and sharp, and seconds after, sounds of carnage. Guttural, primitive—growls and snarls and, mercifully, silence from the coon. Hopefully he was dead when he hit the ground.
Eric busied himself cleaning old napkins from the glove compartment of his Grandpap’s Silverado. From there, he could keep an eye on Rosie recovering in Junior’s dog box, and see the lights start to make their way down the mountain. The bright one out front was Grandpap. Behind him, Junior’s oldest boy Josh bobbled along with a puny little glint of something that Eric could only see when the beam was pointed directly at him. Cell phone flashlight? Probably.
Junior must have been watching the lights, too, because he showed back up about the same time the others did. Eric shut the glove box and climbed out of the truck.
“And there she is.” Junior stared at Rosie in the dog box. “Worthless piece of shit.”
Eric pointed the opposite direction in the holler than Junior had gone looking for her. “Came from over that way.”
“How long’s she been back?”
“Since right after you left.”
Junior muttered something Eric didn’t try to interpret and slung open the dog box. He grabbed Rosie by the collar and dragged her out.
Eric’s Grandpap had reached the truck. He opened the door and lay his rifle on the seat. Behind him, Josh was using the coon carcass as a tug toy, locked in a battle with the pup. One glimpse of fluffy ringed tail and bloody, popped eyeballs was enough. Eric focused his attention ahead, on Junior and Rosie.
Junior clipped a leash to the big Walker hound’s collar and jumped her off the tailgate. He led her to a skinny locust tree a few feet away and tied her to its trunk. Broke his single-shot open and loaded a cartridge.
Eric’s heart rate jumped. “What are you doing?”
“I ain’t feeding that idiot,” Junior said. “Not even worth selling.”
Rosie wagged her tail. Slowly, in a wide arc.
“You’re going to shoot her?” Eric squinted, hoping he’d misunderstood.
“Well, I’m not going to marry her.”
Grandpap took a few steps toward Junior and pressed the backs of his fingers into the bulky padding of Junior’s Carhartt sleeve. “Not in front of my grandboy.”
Junior glared at him, eyeball to eyeball, man to man. Neither said anything for a long few seconds.
“Just turn her loose,” Grandpap said. “You’re far enough away from your house. She won’t go home.”
Eric clamped his teeth together. Don’t say a word. Not one word. His cheeks felt hot. Jaw ached. Fuck you, Junior, you ignorant bastard. There was enough rope in the tool box to tie Junior to that goddamned tree and draw a bead on him same way he planned to draw down on Rosie. Eric had half a mind to do it.
“Your grandboy’s a pussy?” Junior spit tobacco into a nearby bush. “That’s what this is about?”
“You ain’t shooting a dog in front of him. That’s all.”
“Well tell him to turn around while I do it. He ain’t got eyes in the back of his head.”
“I’ll take her home with me,” Eric said.
His Grandpap pointed a gnarled, work-stained finger toward Eric’s face. “Shut your mouth. You stay out of it.”
“You heard me, boy.”
Junior laughed and took another spit. “Next thing you know he’ll be crying over the coon.”
On the other side of the truck, Josh snickered. It was just loud enough to hear over the pup, whining and scratching to get back out of the dog box where Josh had put him.
“Let her go,” Grandpap said, towering over Junior by at least six inches. “Or I’m going to shove that rifle up your ass.”
Junior shot a look at Eric that would have withered tomatoes on the vine and unbuckled the wide leather collar from Rosie’s neck. She ran right back to the truck and hopped on the tailgate.
“Jesus fucking—” Junior didn’t finish the sentence. He grabbed Rosie by the hind legs and jerked her to the ground. She landed in a heap but didn’t complain, just lumbered back up again and wagged her tail.
Junior slammed the tailgate harder than necessary. “I’m gone.”
And he was. His boy Josh caught up with him right after he got the truck turned around and hopped in while Junior was still rolling.
Junior pulled out of the clearing and missed clipping Rosie’s front shoulder by inches. She ran alongside the truck until they disappeared at the fork, and Eric supposed she kept running alongside it all the way to the road because she didn’t come back.
Grandpap picked up the dead coon and tossed it in the truck bed. He pointed toward the cab. “Get in.”
“But what about—”
“Get in the damn truck.”
“You need to learn when to leave it alone, boy.”
That look. Eric had seen it his whole life and knew what it meant. It meant the conversation was over and if he kept pushing it would result in a backhand. He clenched his teeth and hauled himself into the truck. His cheeks burned like he’d already been slapped, hot against the crisp November air. He knew his place, knew better than run his mouth. But damn if he didn’t want to. Damn if he didn’t want to say exactly what he thought about Junior Rasnick and his fucked up way of doing things.
They met Rosie about an eighth of a mile from the hardtop. She was backtracking, nose to the ground, trotting along with her tail high. When she saw them she gave a little prance sideways, a big goofy hound smile on her face. Still just a pup, nowhere near finished. Eric sat forward, lowering his window as they got close to her.
“Put that window back up.” Grandpap didn’t slow the truck. “Ain’t none of your business. Just let it be.”
Eric stared hard at him. Didn’t say a word, but thought aplenty. He checked the mirror. Rosie loped along beside the truck, keeping pace. She didn’t seem anxious, just happy to be in sight of people she trusted. Not for long. Life as she’d known it was ending. Just as soon as the truck tires hit pavement, Rosie would be left behind, on her own, and catching the rabbits she chased would be a matter of survival, not sport. The last glimpse Eric caught of her in the mirror, she was still galloping behind them on the shoulder of Highway 12, a tri-colored speck fading to nothingness as the black night settled between them.
* * *
Eric didn’t figure he’d be much for sleeping once he got home, and he was right. No matter that half an hour after they rolled into the yard, Grandpap was snoring in the recliner with one boot off and the other unlaced, a half-full pint of bourbon on the end table beside him. Eric took a long pull off the bottle himself before he slipped back out the door. He whistled for Popper, and the grizzled old Blue Tick came crawling out from beneath the underpinning of the chicken hutch.
“Let’s go, boy,” he said. “I got a job for you.”
Eric put his dilapidated Ford Escort in neutral and pushed it to the end of the driveway, something he’d gotten good at his senior year. Either he never woke anybody up sneaking out or neither of his grandparents cared. Tonight might be a different story, because his Grandpap would know exactly what he was up to. As it stood, he didn’t know what the hell he was going to do with Rosie if he found her. Leaving her in those woods again was not an option he’d consider.
Popper rode shotgun all the way to the turnoff. He sat in the front seat like a real somebody, facing forward, looking as serious and somber as Eric felt. His floppy jowls wiggled with the movement of the car, long black ears dangling well below his jaw. With the inexplicable insight some dogs have, he’d sensed the gravity of their mission and conducted himself accordingly. Eric knew Popper had forgotten more about treeing coon than most dogs would learn in their lifetime. But tonight he’d help flush Rosie out of her hiding place, if she’d found one. Maybe then Eric could relax and get some sleep. That was out of the question otherwise.
Eric didn’t waste time. He drove to the clearing where the trucks had parked earlier, rolled his windows down, and called for Rosie. He avoided the ruts that could catch an axle and leave him stranded. Condensation swirled in the Escort’s high beams, tiny particles of moisture that gathered like a silent mob in the still hours before dawn.
Odd being back there, seeing the dead grass flattened and the tire tracks they’d made just a short while ago, when the clearing rang with the bawling of coonhounds and terse voices. The ridge lay blanketed under a layer of fog that hugged the Clinch, and when it came, it always settled just before daylight like smoke roiling on the ground. Easy to get lost in low visibility, so he’d stay in the car. But Rosie could find him, fog or not. He just had to be there in case she was looking.
He let Popper out before they started back down the holler, and the old dog loped along in the Escort’s low beams as they eased down the logging road. Eric whistled, called, gave the horn a few short beeps. So far, no Rosie. Just darkness, Popper’s tail waving in the headlights in front of him, and fog dropping a few more inches every minute.
Then Popper doubled back. His gait had changed. So had his stance. His nose came up and he was taking information from the air now, not the ground. He tracked sharply north, in the direction of the river. And disappeared over a lip of rock and down a grade that ended in a bog.
Eric and his Grandpap had hunted that land for years. He worried for Rosie, if she had somehow found herself on soft ground at the bottom of the hill. Couple years back, the neighbors had lost cattle in that muck when they escaped across downed strands of barbed wire. Eric had been part of the rescue party sent to haul them out with a tractor, but it was too late by the time they got a road cut.
“Shit,” he muttered, and braked to see what would happen next.
Somewhere several hundred feet down the hill, Popper let out a series of low whuffs, not his treeing bawl, and not anything Eric understood from Popper’s seven-year run as the best wide hunter in Southwest Virginia. Then he yipped, a sound Eric had never heard him make on the trail. Less than a minute later, he appeared over the rise and just stood there, looking at Eric like he couldn’t figure out why he was being ignored.
God damn it.
He might as well go caving without a rope, as take off down that embankment with fog rolling in. But in the absence of rope, he’d settle for a hound with a good nose. He checked his cell phone to make sure he had battery and signal. Grabbed a leash from the back floorboard where he always kept one just in case and fumbled around until he found the big handheld spotlight he never left home without. Switched it on—good. Strong beam, wouldn’t fade on him any time soon.
“Come here,” he told Popper. The dog hesitated, then obediently picked his way to Eric. Once the leash was clipped, Eric let Popper guide him down the hill.
The grade leveled off into the bog, about half an acre in the bend of the river that flooded often and was no doubt full of artesian wells. The footing was shit. Eric did manage to find ground he could walk on, but one misstep and he’d lose a boot, or worse.
“Rosie!” he called, hoping for movement, a whimper, a bark, anything that would give him a direction. “Rosie! Let’s go, girl. Let’s go home.”
Silence. Except a low whine from Popper.
Eric stopped calling and looked at his dog. Popper was telling him something—what? There was no game on the ground there or in a tree, or if it was, Popper ignored it. This was something else. Something that had Popper on edge—anxious, not eager. Eric let the leash fall slack, holding only the loop.
“All right then,” he said. “Show me.”
Popper seemed confused for a moment, then he moved off in the direction of the river, with Eric in tow. Rains had been heavy for the last month, but the water had receded and the entire bog lay covered in muddy brown scum.
Because of the monochrome of dried mud, the flash of blue Eric caught in his spotlight beam got his attention. He shone the beam along the ground and could see paw prints leading in that direction. Popper had been over there, had sniffed all around that piece of ground. Blue. A familiar blue. Eric should know what he was looking at, but didn’t—yet. It was a bright shade, something manmade. Plastic. Yeah, that made sense. One of those blue poly drums like the soap for an automated car wash came in.
Rosie probably wasn’t in the drum. But something was. The top had come partway off and hung by a busted silicone seal, one edge of it wedged in the muck. Whatever lay inside the barrel had Popper as upset as Eric had ever seen him.
“Okay,” Eric said. “I believe you. You say I need to go, so I’ll go.”
He followed the paw prints Popper had left earlier, figuring the dog wouldn’t walk on unstable ground. Easy does it, one inch at a time. Test the ground before committing to each step. So far so good. Didn’t seem like he’d get mired up but no use taking stupid chances.
Right there at the barrel, he noticed the smell. A deer carcass? It was early in the season to find gut piles and offal from field dressing with that degree of rot. Temperatures had been cool, so he figured whatever this stinker turned out to be, it had been in the barrel at least a month. And if it washed downstream in the flood waters, no telling where it came from.
He couldn’t see into the barrel without bending down, putting himself on Popper’s level. That didn’t seem appealing, so he nudged the barrel with the toe of one boot. It was heavy, partially filled with water and whatever, but once he kicked it loose from the wild grape vine holding it, the barrel plunked flat into the mud and didn’t roll. Eric gave the broken lid a quick tug. It came off in his hand. He tossed it aside and aimed the spotlight beam into the hole.
At first all he could make out were ribs. Maybe a deer, more or less the right size, still covered in tissue that looked almost freeze dried—but didn’t smell that way. Everything but the bones was that same shade of muddy monochrome. Except on one of the forelimbs, just above a joint that would correspond with the human wrist—something greenish. Putrefaction? Ink?
He could just make out the shape of a cross. A Celtic-looking cross, with elaborate shading and some kind of writing beneath it. Everything below the carpal joint was hidden underneath the leg bones, the body tucked and packaged into that barrel with no regard to proper alignment. Eric’s stomach started to heave. No way he was looking at what he thought he was looking at.
Then he saw the skull.
It wasn’t apparent at first, lolled off to the side and covered in muck. But as Eric revealed more of it with the spotlight beam, he saw empty eye sockets, matted hair of no distinguishable color, and teeth in a jaw that hung slack. One of the lower molars had a silver filling.
Eric didn’t make it three steps before he puked. He retched until it hurt, hanging on to the pinprick of light at the center of his blackening vision, knowing if he went down in that bog he could easily end up like the body in the barrel, and it might be a long, long time before anybody thought to look for him there.
* * *
Taylor Beckett has seen her share of corruption. She’s reported it, studied it, lost pieces of her soul to it. But she’s never seen corruption insidious enough to destroy an entire culture—until now.
It starts routinely enough. Three young men dead, stuffed in blue poly drums and dumped like trash in the Appalachian wilderness. Taylor isn’t surprised to learn that the truth about their killer is buried far deeper than the bodies. After all, it’s her job to dig for it.
But progress on the story comes at a price. Consequences of her decision to pursue it swiftly turn into collateral damage when a young local defies the community’s code of silence. Stereotypes pale in comparison to the real underbelly of the region, the Mountain Mafia with its political agendas and layers of disorganized crime. It’s a different kind of threat, one Taylor isn’t prepared to confront. But now they’ve hurt someone close to her heart, and Taylor has a history of retaliating hard.