Now that Bill had at least found the stream he needed to follow, he mused as to what to do next. He assumed that Pete still would want to avoid the locals as much as possible here. If the stream kept in the direction it was on, it would be on state land, so at least they'd have jurisdiction. Still, there was a difference between being in the right, and the possibility of having to shoot a cancer-ridden local. They were authorized to carry guns in the field; Bill wasn't carrying his right now, it was back at the hotel. In years of doing field work, he'd always found that trying to talk your way through something worked better than trying to outgun and out-authority someone. Besides, a lot of these good old boys had bigger cannons at their disposal, and plenty of places to dispose of someone.
His mind, already in turmoil, was thrown further off-kilter as he pulled up to his hotel. In the lot was another one of their office's fleet of state cars. More importantly, it looked like the one Pete liked to use, even during off hours. This had to be even more serious than he had already thought, if more serious was even possible! Pete hated leaving the office, so for him to drive all the way out here to Elm Peak meant this was of almost biblical importance.
The second he pulled up, Pete was already getting out of his car. Bill immediately called out, "Jesus man, I knew this was important, but you drove out here?"
Pete was holding his briefcase, and another heftier case as he got out, "Can we go into your room, so I can put this crap down and maybe explain?"
Once they were inside the room Pete quickly put his stuff on the bed, "While you were out, I was doing a lot of digging. The internet may be an amazing thing, but even more, amazing, the old man kept files down in the basement. I didn't even know they were there. He had a locked file cabinet of his own down there, and it turned out I've had the key the entire time buried in my desk. I decided to dig around where I remembered us putting the stuff from his time when he retired."
"So, what in the hell did you find that dragged you all the way out here?" Bill demanded, maybe even more curious than annoyed.
"Son, I hope you were able to trace where that water comes in," Pete's face was stark and grim while he said it.
It took a few minutes to relate what had happened today, but it went quickly because Pete wasn't asking questions, only intently listening. When he was done, Pete let out a low whistle, "Well, I got news, and none of it good. We have to find a way around that old coot now. And we better go armed for bear."
"Come on, it's just one crazy old man dying of god knows how many cancers," Bill shrugged.
Pete looked him dead in the face; Pete's face looked almost stricken, "Maybe not. I've been doing a whole lot of research in a little bit of time. I admit, my reading of the data could be way off, it's not like I had time to do an in-depth study here, but still. It causes cancer, oh yes it does, but if exposure is in utero, god alone knows for sure what it could do. "
"Like what? I mean what in the hell could it do so bad that you're out here with a bunch of files, and, yeah, what looks like gun cases?" Bill demanded, trying to be the voice of reason to his panicked boss.
"OK, let's both take a deep breath and let me explain. If this stuff got in an animal out there, who was pregnant, say a bobcat or a bear, or something, hibernating in the hole it's stuffed in, we don't know what could have happened, Bill. The stuff hyper-activates cell replication, that's why it causes cancer in the walking around, it just sets their cells into mass replication on cancerous paths. But in something still forming ... I just don't know, who the hell could?" Pete shrugged as he wound down.
"Ah ..." it wasn't a clever answer but it was the only one Bill had handy, "so that explains the enormous ..."
"Guns, yeah, I really don't want to do anything to the nut that's living out there, but ... Well let me put it this way, how fast can this thing heal? How big did it get? What if it's a predator? If it hasn't happened, it's exactly why we have to find this stuff, but if it has ..." Pete left it hanging in the air between them.
"It might go a long way to explaining the missing persons," Bill finished flatly.
"Yeah, those guns don't have play-around-kidding bullets either, military issue. A headshot from anything I brought, you'd be lucky to find teeth, and a good distance away from the body at that."
"First things first, we go see the Mayor tomorrow morning," Bill said quietly.
"Why are we going to bother with him? You don't possibly think he'd be of any use, do you?"
"No, but I'm willing to bet he knows a hell of a lot more about this than he's told me so far. I don't want to go back out in the woods tonight, and I don't want him warning anyone. Guess we're bunkies tonight, Pete, just like old times."
Even as they were pulling in to the parking lot, Mayor Johnson had already stepped out on to the porch to greet them. As they got out of the car, the man smiled and waved, calling out, "Come on inside, we can talk in there." They were just shutting the doors to the car when the door to the trailer itself banged shut.
The door creaked with rust as they entered, closing with a metallic squeal. The Mayor was sitting on his desk. He nodded with his head at the two seats in front of it, indicating they could sit. Neither of them did. Johnson's eyebrow briefly raised at that but it vanished in a warm smile, "Now Bill, I know you, but care to tell me who this older feller is?"
Bill managed a tight smile back before saying, "This is my boss, Pete. Pete Hatfield."
"Well, pleased to make your acquaintance there, Pete," the Mayor leaned forward offering his hand and a smile.
Pete shook it perfunctorily, before saying, "Mayor Johnson, we know what it is."
Bill noted the Mayor's face blanched a bit before he replied, "Well, now could you tell me what that it is you're talking about?"
"Well your cancer rates for starters," Bill supplied.
Since this was what he had told the Mayor was what he was looking for, it should have come as welcome news. Despite that, he could see the wariness in the Mayor's eyes as he asked, "You said for starters?"
Pete came out and bluntly said it, "How much do you know about the disappearances, Mayor Johnson? How much do you really know about what's been causing them?"
The old man slumped so hard at that, Bill had already moved forward, worried that he needed to catch him. Instead, the Mayor rallied, and without looking at either of them, walked slowly around his desk, and flopped down in the chair. Still, without a word, he pulled out a bottle that looked to be whiskey and a glass. He filled the glass to the very top.
The old man took a long swig, wincing before filling up the glass again as he looked up at them. Tears already stained his cheeks, his eyes red and tormented, "How much do you know? Can you do a damned thing about it? Standing there accusing me when I can't do shit is all good and well, but you tell me, can you do a damned thing about it?"
It was Pete who relented a bit and took the originally offered seat. He leaned on his elbows on his knees and answered, "Let me see if I've got this right so far. Some kind of animal is up there. Near the barrels or tanks, themselves. Nobody can go anywhere near the thing to get the tanks out, and everybody is afraid of the thing guarding them. Right so far?"
"Can't see anything wrong with that statement at all," the Mayor nodded twirling the whiskey in his glass. His face looked haunted, seeking absolution or forgiveness in their faces as he said quietly, "We think it might be part bear, or had been a bear, well fucked if we know really. So, we made a deal with ol' Tinker ..."
"Skin rotting off, ragged clothes?" Bill asked.
"Sounds like him all right," the Mayor nodded.
"He fired a shotgun at me yesterday."
The old man sighed and said, "Yeah, well, Tinker will do things like that. He's also the only person that can get close to the thing without it removing his head." The Mayor paused for a second and then leaned in, "Now I want you to know, we did TRY and kill the damned thing, I lost a nephew trying to hunt the thing down!"
"What kind of guns did they have?" Pete interrupted.
"Well, hell, I don't remember exactly, I mean they had guns! I'd say normal hunting rifles, maybe a couple of shotguns. You know what they had handy!" the Mayor seemed almost incredulous at the train of thought.
"Probably wouldn't have stood a chance, but you had no way of knowing that," Pete nodded.
"What on earth do you mean?"
"The thing heals like lightning. There is no wounding it and tracking it down until you get a better shot. With the tumors, you'd be hard-pressed to even guess what the perfect kill shot would be is my guess. Especially since it sounds like it only comes out at night," Pete explained evenly.
"Used to be, mostly comes out at night. It's only now only at night. That was part of the deal I had to make with Tinker," the Mayor drank another slug of whiskey, as if to wash the taste of saying it out of his mouth.
"Deal?" Bill asked.
"Simple, we leave some canned stuff up on the old logging road, and maybe some spare clothes for Tinker, he keeps the bastard in its den during the day, and it don't invade people's houses anymore."
"It ends today," Pete said quietly.
"Don't you think we ain't tried to kill the damned thing? We can't even find where it lives exactly, only Tinker knows for sure!" Johnson protested slapping his hand on his desk causing the whiskey in the glass to slosh over.
"We do, and we're bringing bigger firepower," Bill shrugged.
Pete got up, motioning for Bill to join him, but before they left, Pete reiterated louder, "This ends today. The poison, your monster the whole lot of it. It's not what I signed up for when I took my first ecology class in college, but it's what we're doing right now. Don't worry Mayor, if we don't get it, you can just plead ignorance, shouldn't be too difficult for you."
After the door slammed, Andy Johnson sighed, a loud and gusty thing, and emptied his glass of whiskey to the bottom. After re-filling it, he looked up at the ceiling and said, "Always figured them environmental types for being peace-loving tree huggers. Live and learn."
"Jesus, I didn't think we'd take that long with the Mayor," Pete gasped as they finally clawed their way on to the old mine road.
"If I thought you'd agree to wait another day, I'd have suggested it, " Bill pointed up the hill, "That's about where I ran into the nutjob last time. I'll try and make sure I make as much noise as I can to get his attention."
"Just keep him talking, hopefully, this all works out," Pete gasped before moving off into the woods in a different direction.
"Yeah, here's hoping he don't just shoot me this time," Bill muttered under his breath as he set out himself.
Bill had almost reached the exact same spot as before when he heard Tinker yell out, "Boy! I done tole you not to come on up here no more! So, you better get explainin' why I'm telling you this twice!"
Bill took a deep breath and yelled up the hill, "Look, I saw you were hurt! I figured if you wouldn't come into town, the least I could do was bring you up some medicine! It's not a doctor, but it's got to be better than dying up here!"
There was silence for a moment, but it was followed by a shuffling, dragging sound. A moment later he could see that it was Tinker coming forward to greet him. The cancerous wreck sighed, a deep shuddering thing, that made an ugly noise through the rotting side of his mouth. "Well, now, that is nice. It does my old heart good to see someone wantin' to do the good Christian thing by somebody in this day and age, but y'all shouldn't of come up here again, leastways, not this late. Y'all never make it back to your automobile fore it gets dark."
"But why on earth not? So, I have to walk a bit on the road in the dark, shouldn't be so bad," Bill looked blankly at Tinker trying to void out his disgust at the man's appearance, praying it didn't show on his own face.
Tinker sighed again, "I know you ain't from anywhere 'round here, or you'd know. Can't be up in these har' woods after dark son. Somethin' roamin' 'em, it eats little boys and girls who stay out after dark."
Bill's face looked incredulous, "Oh come on! Bears don't attack if you avoid them. Coyotes a
void people." "She don't avoid nobody, and nighttime belongs to her," the man's eyes looked almost sad as he said it.
"But you'll be up here too!" Bill protested.
"Yeah, but she won't hurt me none. Me and her, we got an understandin.' Met her a long, long time ago now. Figured I'd live off the land, do some ginsenging, maybe a bit a-huntin', live off the land. Found her, just a lil cub, rest of her litter died, same with her mamma, raised her from a cub, she won't hurt me none," Tinker explained sadly looking down at the ground. His eyes swung up again, a hint of the madness the pain he was in must surely have caused him showing in his orbs, and added, "Y'all can leave the medicine, and run like hell. Who knows, maybe you get lucky. But if you see the white bear, just lie down and wait, you won't feel a thing when she does it, if you just lie down and don't move so much."
"But --" Bill began but was cut off as the shotgun boomed across the mountain.
"Y'all don't get the hell out of here, I put the next shot right through ye, and just feed you to --"
What he would be doing with Bill's mortal remains would be a mystery as Tinker collapsed in a heap with Pete standing behind him, his arm still upraised from cold-cocking him with his gun.
"Jeez Pete, I hope he's all right!" exclaimed Bill, shocked by the force his boss used.
"He wasn't all right before we got here. But I don't think I killed him if that's what you meant," Pete shrugged.
"Come on, if what he said is right, we better hurry if we want to catch the thing sleeping," Bill said, walking past where Tinker lay.
With no other direction to guess at, they continued to follow the stream up the hill, both of them scanning as they went, looking for something specific. There had to be a place that the thing denned; it wouldn't be lying out during the day if there was an alternative. They were sure it would be an old mine, and close to the stream, but still, there was always a worry that they might walk right by its den if they weren't careful; the mine portals filled in over time a lot of the time leaving nothing but a small gap to show their location.
Pete slapped at Bill's arm and pointed up the hill just a slight way forward. There it was! A darker smear in a landscape of green. An abandoned mine portal, the perfect place for an animal to den up and make a home for itself. Or, the perfect spot for a chemical company who had bribed some locals to stash who knew how many barrels of a dangerous chemical without anybody knowing. You didn't go into abandoned mines if you could avoid it -- without the constant supervision of the men who created them, they could collapse in an instant. That wasn't the only hazard presented either, they often had pockets of poisonous methane and other bad air just lurking to trap the unwary.
Despite the need to hurry, both of them had slowed to a crawl. Neither of them could conceive fully of what awaited them inside, and the imagination preys on just those moments to create terrors out of the very ether of the mind. Pete called a halt when they were in clear view of the mine portal. Both of them could see that it was clear of debris, and scuffed in front; something had been going in and out of there consistently for some time now.
Pete set down the gun case he had been carrying and clicked it open. Inside was a pump action that looked almost artfully designed, and a compact but evil-looking pistol. Pete said quietly, "Now technically the ammo in those guns are bending so many laws I don't even want to consider the ramifications. But even if they were straight loads in there, that Colt Elite and that Mossberg would stop almost anything on legs. The explosive hollow tips, that are absolutely, positively not loaded in there, well who knows, but be careful with them. Anything you shoot at, is gonna stay shot, and more than likely splattered."
"Remind me to go over those files you found later, this has got you spooked something evil," Bill breathed out.
"When you've read them, you'll get me. Now, which one do you feel more comfortable with, I could do either," Pete replied gruffly.
Bill didn't even ask if Pete thought the locals hadn't already tried this. He knew they didn't have any kind of firepower like this. These people were poor, so while most of them had guns, they'd be relatively low caliber; they wouldn't want to spoil the meat they were shooting at by putting a gaping hole through anything. These things were cannons, cannons that were equipped with mortar shells for rounds. If this didn't kill whatever they faced, nothing short of a grenade was going to.
Bill picked up the handgun, he normally carried a handgun anyway, and had spent more time practicing with one. He hadn't really spent that much time on the range truthfully, so he was hoping it was Pete that got the clear shot, although to be honest, he didn't know how much time at the range Pete had either. He took off the backpack he had on, which really did contain medicine, adding veracity to their ruse with Tinker. Digging through, he came up with a flashlight and handed another one over to Pete.
"No time like the present huh?" Bill said with an obviously forced grin.
"I'm pretty sure any time beats this one, but it's the only time we got" Pete grunted as he shouldered his gun.
Fully armed, they resumed their way inexorably towards the dark low hole waiting for them. As the got closer the cool air wafted from the mine towards them. The smell it carried was indescribably rank and putrid, rot, mainly carrion and mold, but also a chemical note to it, something that confirmed both of their suspicions as to where the toxins had been hidden.
Pete had taken the lead. Gun in hand now, he waved the flashlight in front of him as he ducked to enter the dark portal. Just as he began to enter, a roar erupted from inside, followed immediately by the creature that had let it loose! Pete was caught by an enormous white paw which sent him flying back, his gun clattering on the ground as he flew away from it! The force sent him crashing into a tree with a horrific thump, leaving him moaning unconscious below it!
Bill had stumbled back and fell from the shock. Scrabbling backward, trying to hold tight to the gun in his hand, he could finally see the monster they faced as it emerged from the void. Its fur was white, albinism most likely the cause, but that was of minor note. It bore some resemblance to a bear, though much larger than any of the local variety. It was only a partial resemblance though, tumors had misshapen most of the creature, huge lumps protruding on all parts of its malformed body and showing through its mange-ridden pelt. The head was the most grotesque of all, its eyes made almost piggish and tiny by the lumps of flesh that crowded around them. Its muzzle and the enormous yellow fangs it now bared as it roared its defiance were the truest signs of the origin of its species.
Seeing one foe down, it turned its beady hate-filled eyes in Bill's direction. Even as malformed as it was, Bill could see its intent shining out from the swinish orbs. It reared itself on two legs, blocking out what was left of the sun as it turned to rend its prey limb from limb in its brutal paws!
Even as he was scrambling back to flee, finally, the thought got through to his adrenaline-poisoned brain, the gun! Fire the damned gun! As if remembering it for the first time he raised it and fired. There was no time to aim, and he was lucky to hit it at all. But strike it the bullet did. The creature let out an enormous yowl of outrage as part of its enormous shoulder vanished in a spray of red.
Forcing himself to recover from the massive recoil of the thing, Bill struggled to aim properly this time. Even wounded, this thing could kill him in an instant, and if Pete had been right about its ability to heal, it would be no worse for the wounding in a week. Concentrating as much as his terror would let him, Bill aimed, and fired again.
A moment later he let out a small scream as the thing landed partially on his legs. But at least what landed there did it without the head it had carried a moment before! The malformed visage had erupted with the force of the bullet strike
After sitting there for a few minutes, forcing himself to breathe again, Bill slowly worked his way out from under the carcass of the beast. His legs were completely soaked in the thing's life juices, but otherwise, he didn't feel any wounds or breaks. Which was a damned good thing, he still needed to get down off this mountain.
First, he needed to do some things here. He got up gingerly; just because no bones were broken, didn't mean there wouldn't be bruises tomorrow, and stumbled over to where Pete had landed. A quick check revealed this much, his boss seemed to be unconscious, but his pulse was regular. Hopefully, he'd come to soon enough.
Bill went over to where Pete's rifle had landed and picked that up, along with his own flashlight, and went back to the mine. He needed to know for sure that the chemicals were there. Everything else could be sorted through later, but if those chemicals weren't in there, they'd have to be back up there and taking samples again tomorrow to trace it.
Bill gagged a bit as the stench hit him full in the face as he ducked inside. He could only manage a duck walk going in, so he could only assume if they were here, the barrels they wouldn't be that deep inside. Bill swung the flashlight up and down the tunnel which was still cramped but had opened at least a little. In the distance, he thought he could just barely make out what he was looking for, the barrels!
He was about to start forward into the murky depths over the detritus that littered the floor to confirm his find when he heard the first piteous mewling. Bill cast his light into the direction of the noise. A moment later he staggered back and felt his stomach give up its contents on to the mine floor!
Kneeling there gasping, snot leaving a trail between his nose and mouth and the floor, he tried to ignore the acidic stench wafting up to him from his lunch. Bill forced himself up, wiped the puke from his jowls and turned the flashlight back the way he had looked before. There, writhing on the floor of the mine, were two wriggling balls of ... god what could they even be called? Cubs? But, they barely even looked like bears at all this second generation of mutation. They were more like writhing lumps of cancerous flesh with only spots of their mother's white fur sticking this way and that between rotten looking patches of flesh!
He heard one of them call in its piteous voice for its mother, who would never come, lying dead on the loam outside. Bill took a deep breath and shouldered the rifle. He moved closer, to be sure of himself, and fired! The noise of the first shot was deafening! In the light of his flashlight, he could see that almost nothing remained of the first little monster. The other abomination was now screaming in terror at the disturbance near to it. Bill ended it quickly.
His ears ringing, he took the flashlight again and looked further down the forlorn and abandoned mine. He sighed with relief, there they sat, rusty, the paint chipping off, and most certainly leaking by now, the barrels that caused this horror. Most likely water had been dripping through the ceiling since the day they had been hidden away. A steady drip, rotting out the barrels, and delivering it down the mountain, into the fish, into the animals, into the people of the town.
As Bill stepped out of the mine he considered what to do now. Pete seemed to have gained some measure of consciousness, he was sitting upright at least, but his eyes looked around him, blank and uncomprehending of his surroundings. He'd have to help him back down the mountainside, there was nothing for it.
It also meant leaving Tinker up here, vulnerable for whatever would happen during the night. Bill just couldn't concern himself with it. The man had nurtured and harbored this evil for how many years? A summer night out cold on a hillside, if only that was the worst thing to happen to him the old hermit could consider himself lucky. He'd leave his pack, between Pete and the guns, he couldn't carry it anyway. It had medicine, and a bit of food in it, it was more comfort than the crazy bastard deserved anyway.
Bill knelt down in front of Pete. "How ya' doin' buddy?" Bill asked, looking directly into Pete's eyes, trying to gauge how bad the concussion was.
"Ummm well ... I'm pretty sure I've been better, but, I ain't dead, so that's good, right?"
"Well, I'm gonna try and help you down the mountain and back to our car, would you like that?" Bill asked encouraged by what he heard.
"I think ... I think ..." Pete fumbled a little bit with his words, "I think I would like that very much."
A groan pierced the quiet of the late afternoon. Tinker rolled over slowly, trying to refocus his eyes. It took him a minute, but finally, he was able to drag himself to his aching feet. He had no idea what in the hell had happened, last thing he remembered, he had been running off that do-gooder. He looked down, there was his gun, nothing must have come of it. He looked at the sky, getting close to sundown, he should get back to the mine so he'd be there when she woke up.
Tinker hadn't gone far at all when he saw her, or what was left of her. He understood the scene and what had happened in an instant. Tinker fell to his knees, a low keening moaning cry came from him, starting from the depths of his broken soul and erupting into the still air.
They'd killed her, that had been the plan all along, to find a way around him and to kill her! His whole damned reason for living was just so much dead meat now, cooling on the mountainside! Tears created streaks on his dirty face as he sobbed, snot dripped from his nose on his misshapen lips. He didn't even realize he was crying, he just was, as his eyes locked on to the wreckage of his existence.
A noise finally got through to him, a sucking noise near the body of his companion. Not knowing what to do, fearful that it might be some predator desecrating the corpse of his only friend, he crawled towards the body, not even having the thought to climb to his feet first.
Tinker erupted with joyful laughter when he found the source of the noise -- there, suckling at its dead mother's teat, was one of the cubs! Tinker wouldn't be alone! Carefully he stroked the little thing, trying to smooth the patches of fur over its tumor-ridden body. "I ain't gonna be by meself after all!" he cooed to the little monster.
Looking around, he saw the open backpack, thought about what he had available and began to plan. Tinker scooped up the creature, and cradled it to his chest, "Let me grab my thangs, li'l one. But I got me another spot a ways from here don't no-one know nuthin' bout! We gonna go there, and I reckon', I reckon we gonna be all right, you and me!"