Too furry for a deer and too big for a fox or dog, he thought as he caught the animal's stare. He didn't much care what it was. Once spooked, those bastards moved fast. The animal turned and fled. Jeff stomped the pedal and the old Chevy pickup lurched forward.
The creature lumbered along the highway's white marker as if it felt that safety lay straight ahead in the least unobstructed path. In Jeff's estimation such logic made it just another dumb animal fit for the hunt. Tonight's kill would be easy because whatever it was, its legs were short and its movements slow.
It mattered little to Jeff if the weapon were his sporting rifle or his half-ton pickup. Today he had already emptied a chamber into four squirrels without leaving the pickup, just to get in a little target practice. Shooting them or steering into them, it was all the same.
"Huntin's huntin'," he said if asked about the big pile of animal remains in the back of his truck.
But no one ever asked because Jeff was only a man doing the job Richard paid him to do. Six months earlier Mayor Jamal had given himself one hell of a task choosing an official title for that job, one that would not make the men on his force laugh themselves sick. The mayor finally settled on The Highway Sanitation and Animal Removal Patrol.
When Richard posted the job opening on the MorneauVille police station's bulletin board, the next morning only one man applied. Until that day Jeff's primary responsibility around the station house had been a janitor, cleaning up the mayor bathroom.
During those six months Jeff had redefined the boundaries of his duties as originally envisioned by the sheriff, although he never bothered to inform Richard of this. After the first week he requisitioned himself a cow catcher like those found on the front of old railway trains. He claimed the Chevy's grill had suffered damage when a deer had crossed the pickup's path. The impact had been so big that part of the animal's dripping hind leg had lodged in the grillwork.
Jeff chose not to inform the sheriff that he had chased the fleeing creature a good quarter mile before catching up with it. Richard took one look at the ruined dripping grill and the next day Sussex County's newest employee had his cow catcher.
Tonight the cow catcher had surely done its work. The truck had caught its target dead center without Jeff's hitting the brake, and the pickup sent it flying. The animal came down on Highway 96 like a sack of laundry, thumped a few yards, and came to rest along the soft shoulder about a hundred feet from where it had been struck. Jeff had to practically stand on the brake to avoid hitting it again, and as he swerved the rear of the truck dove-tailed into the muddy trench along the side of the road.
Jeff cut the engine and laughed a squeaky cackle. "Goddamn, that was close! If it'd been a snake, it'd bit him," he said. From behind the wheel he examined the dark lump that lay motionless near the front tire. He took his high beam flashlight from the glove compartment and flashed it on the creature, but it remained still. Slowly he stepped from the truck. The animal's dark fur had matted on the side where it had been struck and it lay in a gradually expanding pool of blood. Jeff still could not make out exactly what he had hit, and the animal's thick fur made it impossible to tell its front from its hind quarters. Jeff extended his leg and prodded the fur with the toe of his boot, holding the flashlight's beam steady on it, but he could not even locate a face beneath the fur. The creature did not move.
He turned to the truck and pulled out the large shovel from the cab. He slid it under the carcass, leaving a path of blood as he dragged the shovel back to the pickup. Getting the heavy animal into the back of the truck was no problem. The Mayor had added a lift to the pickup because it made the job more convenient.
He kept the heavily bleeding creature separate from the two dead dogs and six road kill racoons and rabbits in the back of the pickup. He again flashed the light on his kill for a moment it looked as if he saw the creature move, like maybe the thing might still be breathing. He moved the flashlight's beam along the animal's entire body, but he saw nothing.
He climbed back into the truck and turned the key. But when he threw the truck into gear the pickup rattled and shook without moving forward, the rear wheel spinning in the mud-filled trench behind him. Jeff tried popping the clutch but the wheel only kicked up tons of mud.
He paused for a moment, then quickly climbed out. Jeff pulled the flap down and reached for the shovel, the stench from the back of the pickup causing him to cover his mouth and nose.
The mud covering half the rear tire felt soft and it was not very deep, so Jeff expected no difficulty digging the truck out.
Fifteen minutes later he tossed the shovel back into the pickup and closed the flap. Suddenly he stopped and froze where he stood. What he saw took a moment to register...
"What the---?" Jeff spun around, then quickly looked back at the rear of the pickup, he ran his hand along the surface of the area where fifteen minutes earlier the had been. The sticky pool of blood had gone cold, but still had not dried. The creature from which it had spilled had shambled out of the truck leaving a trail of blood that led off into the weeds.
Jeff wiped the blood on his pants and remembered the sporting rifle he kept in his cab. It looked like he would be doing some more hunting tonight after all. He opened the door of the cab and reached behind the seat. His hand had just grasped the long barreled rifle when he heard the bushes rustle directly outside the cab. Holding the rifle in his lap he turned and looked out into the darkness.
"You out there, you son of a bitch?" he called into the bushes. The rustling stopped.
A thick gurgle came from the bushes. They suddenly parted.
Jeff's face went white.
It stood in darkness, a massive ball of fur whose face Jeff could not see. He saw only its eyes glowing from behind the thick folds of fur, and the eyes seemed to lock with his.
It lumbered from the shadows and slogged toward the light of the open cabin door. Jeff had hit it with a two ton truck, but it was alive and coming at him.
The creature seemed to grow right in front of him as it moved closer. But in the dim light of the truck's cabin he knew that was not true. It wasn't growing. Not at all.
It was opening its mouth, opening it wide. A liquid gurgling sound bubbled somewhere deep inside its throat. It was at the truck's door, much too close for Jeff to slam it shut.
"Holy ****! " It had a face, all right, and Jeff saw it clearly now. The thick matted fur that Jeff had thought was its body was its face. And most of its face was its mouth.
Jeff fumbled with the rifle, but his hands would not remain steady.
The drooling mouth opened and the entire bulk of the creature expanded like the lid of an enormous trunk whose insides contained rows of long pointed teeth from its top and bottom. A blood-soaked tongue lolled inside it like a fleshy rubber raft. Framed by teeth that protruded like peices of broken glass, the tongue moved toward Jeff dripping blood on his boots. Jeff kicked at it and pulled himself back.
His left hand tightened around the barrel of the rifle and the other on the trigger. He kicked again at the creature that had already pushed itself partly inside the truck.
The creature opened wide inches from Jeff's feet, and he aimed the barrel directly into its mouth.
He pulled the trigger. The rifle clicked, but nothing, he was out of bullets.
Maybe he could get some more bullets from the glove compartment.
But the mouth came down on Jeff's legs just below the knees. He heard a sound like the crackle of wood being burned in a fire place, and in the next instant saw both legs dangling from the creature's mouth, saw the creature back off, and watched his boots disappear down its throat. He screamed first at the sight of the two stumps that remained, then at the pain he felt.
He heard the creature chew into pulp the bones that were his legs.
A great darkness suddenly surrounded him. Jeff thought it was death coming to take him away. It was something much worse.
Jeff was inside the mouth of the creature. And it was all overÃ¢ÂÂ¦ It knew well what it had to do. It had to hunt. And it knew well where to find fresh game.
It slogged from the weeds to the strip of hard ground where the strange vehicles that carried its prey always passed. It crawled out to the white line in the centre and waited...