This is part of a serialized novel. Reading this chapter is not going to make much sense to you unless you’ve read what came before.
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Marla scrambled to reach her cruiser as the mob of crazed children bore down on her. They were out of their minds, she realized, and she didn’t want to seriously injure any of them (the thought of the paperwork alone sent a chill down her spine) but neither could she allow them to get to close to her. She might be able to shake off one or two, but if they all set on her at once — well, one look at the poor dead bus driver told her all she needed to know on that score.
She fired another warning shot into the air, and took advantage of the moment it bought her as the children hesitated briefly. Throwing herself into the car, she turned the key and winced as the radio screamed at her at full volume that it was hungry. She slammed her hand on the dash, silencing the voice for the moment, and put the car into reverse and pushed the gas pedal to the floor, sending a spray of dust and gravel into the faces of the children who were still advancing on her. As she pulled away frantically, she watched in her rear-view mirror as some of the children chased after her while others collapsed in the dust and began to cry.
“I got reports of shots fired,” her radio squawked. “Officer Bergeron, come in. Dammit, Marla, what’s going on out there?”
“I’m here, Suzanne,” Marla responded. “Bunch of kids got out of control on the school bus. They, uh…”
What was she supposed to tell her? That a bunch of ordinarily good kids went cannibal and killed their bus driver? Like it or not, Marla knew how she had to handle this. She knew of at least one other officer who was connected to the Faithful.
“Marla?” Suzanne prompted. “Come in.”
“Things got out of hand, Suze. I need you to send Officer Hendricks out to where Hereford Road hits the highway. There’s a school bus there, and — Suze, tell him to be careful, and that he should bring back up — whoever he needs to.”
“Sure thing,” Suzanne answered, “Is somebody hurt?”
“Tell him to bring whoever he needs to bring, even if it’s a civilian, do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Shit,” Suzanne muttered, and then replied that she understood loud and clear.
Leroy saw the smoke coming from the direction of his BBQ Shack, and his initial thought was that perhaps someone had already beat him to the task he had in mind. But as he came up the hill from his house down by the bayou, he saw that it wasn’t his shack that was on fire, rather that someone had created a makeshift BBQ pit and was cooking long slabs of meat over an open fire. The windows of his restaurant were smashed, and the door hung by its hinges. A group of maybe a dozen people gathered around the fire, with pieces of the strange meat impaled on makeshift skewers. Others weren’t waiting for it to cook, and had bitten into the flesh and eating it raw. Leroy saw Mrs. Lafontaine, his old fifth grade teacher, laying on the ground convulsing, black ichor smeared around her gaping mouth, her hands still clenching a slug-like piece of meat stolen out of Leroy’s meat cooler. A man Leroy recognized as the Baptist preacher chased another man down, pushing him to the ground and beating him until he gave up the piece of meat he had been carrying. He pounded the man’s face into the dirt again and again, punctuating each smash of his face with the insane declaration that he was Hungry! Hungry! Hungry!
Leroy smelled the cooking meat and began salivating involuntarily. Part of him longed to partake. He fought the urge to run into his shack and grab his own piece of meat to sink his teeth into. Instead, he forced himself to turn around and walk back down to his house, where he kept a box of shotgun shells filled with rock salt and a pump action Mossberg in case of emergencies.
By time he walked back down to his house, his mind was a little clearer, and he realized the folly of walking back up to his shack by himself. Not for the first time, he cursed the Chief’s absence. Despite his reservations, he called up the police to report the break in and ask for assistance, only to be told that Officer Bergeron was already on her way.
Calls came in one after the other, and Marla was kept busy with incidents of domestic violence and other strange behaviour. Then Marla got a call from Olivia on her cell phone, telling her to get over to Leroy’s BBQ Shack right away to clean up a mess.
“Stupid, foolish man,” Olivia spat. “He’s going to ruin everything, just like his father!”
Marla didn’t know exactly what was meant by that, or what she was supposed to do to fix whatever had gone wrong.
“What do you need me to do?” She asked.
“Round up whoever you need to, put folks in the drunk tank until they calm down — it’ll pass. I’ve seen this before.”
“What’s going on, Aunt Olivia? I had a little girl try to take a bite out of me this morning!”
“Ne’er mind,” the old woman said. “Just find that sonofabitch Leroy and tell him to re-open his BBQ Shack. The sooner he starts serving up the flesh, the sooner things get back to normal.”
The woman then spoke in the tongue of The Faithful, and Marla felt an involuntary chill.
“C’thu rhys loban hai loban eothyn hai. C’thu rhys C’thuN’chuk.”
“I can feel his anger,” Olivia said. “I’m trusting you to fix this, Marla. Tell that Cajun… fuck that he doesn’t need to fear our wrath. C’thuN’Chuk’s fury will come down on his head, and there is nowhere he can hide.”
Marla’s police cruiser came to a screeching halt in front of Leroy’s BBQ Shack, followed by two big Explorers. Leroy was already there, scattering the looters with the threat of his shotgun.
“Stand down, Leroy!” Marla yelled as she approached the shack. “We can take it from here.”
Three other officers and two civilians emerged from the vehicles, armed with batons and pepper spray, and began to move toward the fire pit. Michael DuBois, who worked as a mechanic, and did all of the work on the police vehicles, was fighting with one of the waitresses from Mel’s over a piece of meat the size of a man’s arm. When one of the officers tried to approach them to break the two apart, Michael got violent, and needed to be sprayed. The waitress, a buxom girl whose on the job strategy for maximizing her tips was a complete aversion to undergarments of any kind, used Michael’s distraction as an opportunity to grab the rest of the meat and run. She didn’t get very far before one of the other officers tracked her down and put her in handcuffs. She began to howl and wail, a high-pitched inhuman scream.
Marla called the girl’s name, trying to get her to calm down, but when the girl turned her head to the sound of Marla’s voice, she let out a shriek and then abruptly stopped. When she opened her mouth again, black ooze spilled out of it, and she began murmuring words that, of the people present, only Marla herself understood.
“C’thu N’rhys t’honai ghili rythN’Chuk!”
“What the fuck was that?” The man standing behind Marla asked, and Marla shook her head.
“Marrr-laaaa,” the waitress moaned in a voice not her own. “I’m hungry, Marrr-laaaa.”
One by one, heads turned toward Marla. People who had eaten the flesh raw stopped their convulsing and retching and stood up.
“Marla,” they moaned, almost as one. It sounded like the longing voice of a lover calling out in a moment of passion.
“Stay back!” Marla commanded, and the other officers formed a line on either side of her. Marla pointed Leroy’s shotgun at the small mob, and prepared to use it.
“What the hell is going on?” Ricky Hendricks asked from her left. “First those kids, and now this?”
“I have no idea,” Marla lied. “Just take them down, will you? Don’t wait for them to come to you — these people are obviously out of their minds.”
“Marrrr-laaaa,” a man wearing nothing but a ratty pair of New Orleans Saints boxer shorts reached for her, and Marla knocked his hand away easily enough with the barrel of the shotgun. He didn’t seem to like that very much, but when he tried to move on her again, Marla pressed the barrel into his fat stomach and he seemed to get the idea. She kept him held in place as one of the other officers put the man in handcuffs and threw him in the back of one of the Explorers with the others. Once they were subdued, they almost seemed to wilt, and became disoriented and upset, as if they were unaware of their surroundings.
One by one the rioters were rounded up, until there were only three remaining people lying on the grass, two of them passed out, and another with eyes wide open, lips moving, whispering in a language she’d never spoken before that day. Marla recognized her as a girl that she’d known her whole life. They’d played together in diapers and had gone to school together all through the years. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hair had gone nearly white. She gripped a raw piece of flesh in her hands, and had been feeding on it.
“I saw…” She whispered, and Marla had to crouch and move her head closer to make out what the woman was saying.
“Careful,” Ricky Hendricks said from over her shoulder.
The woman turned her head and her bloody eyes showed first recognition, and then hatred.
“Marla?” The woman asked.
“Yeah, Elsie, it’s me. Are you okay?”
“How could you keep this from me?” Elsie asked, her face contorting into a mask of rage. “I saw… everything. They were cast out, Marla. They were cast out. Remember that they were cast out. They’re monsters. They’re…”
Elsie began choking on her words, and a black bubbling bile burst from her mouth like a backed up septic tank.
“Turn her over!” Marla cried, and pushed the woman on her side so she wouldn’t drown. She reluctantly put her old friend in handcuffs and sat her up. She held her for a moment and then, with the aid of Officer Hendricks, helped the woman to her feet.
“Keep an eye on her,” Marla requested. “Don’t let anything…”
From behind her, Leroy had crept up unnoticed and put a vice-like arm around Marla’s throat.
“Marrrr-laaaa,” he whispered with the voice of the thing that lived in the bayou. “Marrrr-laaaa.”
Leroy was pummeled from behind with three different batons, and released his hold on Marla, who coughed and wheezed, and then turned on the man and pointed his own shotgun at him. He had collapsed to his hands and knees and was retching up a black, syrupy mess, all the while screaming and convulsing.
“Leroy?” Marla asked cautiously, not removing her finger from the trigger.
Leroy kept hacking and retching, but didn’t acknowledge her. Neither did he make a move toward her, so Marla thought that was progress.
“Leroy?” She repeated, and when the man looked up, his eyes seemed lucid, and he held his open palms up in a gesture of surrender.
“Oui, cher,” he said. “You goan tell me what de ‘ell’s going on ’round ‘ere?”
Marla looked at Ricky Hendricks, and then back at Leroy.
“Ricky, put Mr. Angell in the back of my cruiser, please.”
Marla looked at Leroy, who looked like he was looking for an explanation.
“You okay now?” She asked him, and he shook his head as if to say he wasn’t sure.
“Best put him in handcuffs just in case, Ricky.” She allowed. “Sorry, Leroy. Just being careful.”
Leroy allowed himself to be put into cuffs and pushed into the back of Marla’s car.
Marla gave instructions to take all those in custody to holding cells, and that everyone was to be kept under observation.
“Give them plenty of fluids, maybe get a doctor to take a look at them.”
“You think it’s some sort of fever or something?” A young officer asked. “You think maybe it’s catchy?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Marla said absently. “If you aren’t sick by now, it’s not likely you will be.”
She sent them on their way, and got in her own car, exhausted and frightened.
“This is your fault, you know,” Leroy said from the back seat. His voice startled her.
“How do you figure?” Marla asked. “I have no idea what’s going on! I don’t know what’s making people crazy!”
Leroy leaned forward and looked at her through the cage that separated them.
“You really don’t, do you?” He said, intrigued.
She shook her head.
“Huh,” Leroy said, sitting back. “They really don’t tell you anything, do dey?”
“My Aunt,” she said, fighting back tears. “She told me you needed to open your shack again. She said that everything would stop if you started serving your barbecue again. Why would she say that?”
“It’s the meat,” Leroy said. “It makes you fou. Crazier than a shithouse rat. More you eat, more you wanna eat.”
“But what is it?”
“Please, cher,” Leroy said. “Don’t insult me. I know you seen that before. Or else you seen what it do to people, yeah?”
Marla sighed. “Yeah, fine. I hear things. And my mother told me never to eat it — that it was not for us to touch. Sometimes my Aunt would ask me to help break into your meat cooler and steal one for her, but she never told me why. What is it, really?”
“Your Aunt,” Leroy repeated.
“Aunt Olivia,” Marla replied.
“Of course,” Leroy sighed. “Bien sur. Well of course Olivia Hereford’s mixed up in dis.”
“She’s not mixed up in it, Leroy. She’s at the top of it all. And she knows all about you. And Oscar.”
“Where’s Oscar?” Leroy demanded.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“I don’t know!” Marla insisted.
There was a moment of angry silence between them, then Marla repeated:
“What is it you’re cooking up, exactly? Is it pieces of her?”
“Dat what you so concerned about? Dat mebbe I’m cookin’ up pieces of your swamp monster god?”
“No,” Marla said, chastised. “But I’m beginning to wonder if maybe you’re not just as bad as them.”
Leroy laughed. “No, cher, you got it all wrong! I’m much worse. What they do, they do outta some sense of religious zeal or whatnot. Me, I was only in it for l’argent. Money, honey, nothing more.”
“You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” Marla sneered.
“Neither do you, cher.” Leroy spat back. “And by the way, if you really wanna know — I’m pretty sure that it’s Chuck’s babies that people just can’t get enough of. Wrap your pretty little head ’round dat, you really wanna have some nightmares.”
“Good God,” Marla whispered.
“Depends who you ask, cher.” Leroy mused. “Me, I reckon He sittin’ dis one out. But what about you, eh? I s’pose you want me to open up de Shack again? Start serving up shredded swamp baby sandwiches to all the folks in town?”
Marla shook her head.
“No,” she said. “You know what you have to do.”
Leroy cocked his head. Marla looked in the rear view mirror and met his eyes with her own gaze.
“Burn it to the ground.”