Thinning the Herd by Eric Montag

We’re thrilled to give you a Halloween treat– the winners of the Cult of Weird/ Milwaukee Paranormal Conference short fiction contest. We absolutely thrilled that all of our story winners (and honorable mentions) have been narrated by the extremely talented Darren Marlar on his Weird Darkness program. Light some candles and listen here:

And check out more Weird Darkness programs/ submit stories to Darren here: www.WeirdDarkness.com

We had 40 entries in our contest, a lot of unique and chilling takes. The only contest requirements were a 1500 word limit, a paranormal theme, and Wisconsin as a backdrop. Our top three stories were separated by a mere one point margin. Here is our third place contest winner.

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Thinning the Herd

By Eric Montag

My name is Harry Swinton, and when I went looking for Leonard Crowley, I was Police Chief Swinton. My youngest brother, Isaac, was a volunteer deputy, and he went with me. So did my younger brother Carl, a retired school teacher who had moved to the Northwoods.

Isaac owned a successful taxidermy business. He called one evening to tell me that Mr. Crowley, an Ill-Annoyan with a nearby cabin, had brought him a buck’s head to mount. He told me that he was certain that something had gnawed through the deer’s neck to separate the head from the body. He had even found five puncture wounds at the base of the deer head, and that the arrangement of these wounds suggested that whatever had done the gnawing had a thumb. He said, “Something held that deer down and chewed through its neck.”

And further, he also told me that he didn’t like the looks of Mr. Crowley. Said the old guy looked like a nut, and it might not be a bad idea to stop by Crowley’s cabin and do a friendly check-up. Just to remind him that he wasn’t in a lawless territory. Isaac even got our brother Carl involved. Each got the other wound up with theories about Crowley torturing animals, or running some kind of dog fighting scheme.

I told them that I’d go myself. It wasn’t the first time I’d done such a thing to get a good look around a place. Isaac went on badgering me, and reminded me that I was the only full-time officer in town, and it wasn’t smart for me to go alone. I told Isaac that he could ride along in the cruiser and wait in the car while I did the talking. He agreed. And then he invited Carl. Both agreed to wait in the cruiser.

I knew which cabin Crowley owned, and we went there. I parked behind Crowley’s car, a black Lexus with Illinois plates and tinted windows that looked out of place in the middle of the woods.  It was damn cold that day, with a biting wind that made my eyes water and nose burn. But that didn’t stop my brothers from joining me as I walked up to the cabin door. I had just enough time to cuss at them before the cabin door opened.

It was my first good look at Leonard Crowley. I had never seen him before. He was tall, maybe six four, with gray hair pulled back in a loose tail behind his head. He was wearing jeans that were tore up on his left side, and a flannel shirt that looked like it had been put on by someone who was just learning to put on shirts. There were buttons, but some were unbuttoned and some were buttoned wrong. Parts of his skin showed. He flashed us a grin that looked friendly from farther back and descended the stairs of his tiny porch. He was a little older than me, maybe mid sixties, but he moved smoothly, like there were oiled machine parts beneath his skin. “I help you?” he asked as we approached each other.

I introduced myself and told him that I had gotten some reports from hunters about a pack of wolves or wild dogs in the area harassing and killing animals. I asked him if he had seen any evidence of that.

As he approached, I could smell him. Even with the wind, I could smell wet dog. Only one thing smells like wet dog, and that’s wet dog. “I haven’t seen anything of the kind,” Crowley said. He was still smiling, except his smile looked less friendly. More like a gash in his face. Despite several days of beard growth, I could see that the corners of his mouth were raw.

I told him that I assumed he was a hunter, and I’d just come to warn him about potential wolves. Then I asked if he had any dogs that might get hurt by a pack of wolves. He didn’t answer me right away. Instead, he turned his smile to Isaac. Crowley was close now, and I could see his eyes. They were yellow. I wondered what kind of guy wears yellow contacts. “I am a hunter,” he said, “but I’ve got no dogs. I hate dogs.” I didn’t like how Crowley was looking at my brother.

“What do you shoot?” Isaac asked.

“Whatever’s handy,” Crowley said. “Aren’t you the owner of that little shop that I was in yesterday? Isaac, right? Isaac Swinton. And you two are Swintons, too.” He nodded like he had just told a little joke. “Three Swinton brothers, come all this way out to the woods to see me. How about that?”

Isaac crossed his arms in front of him as the wind picked up. “Just checking up. For your safety, Mister Crowley.”

Crowley nodded again, and turned back to me. The wind didn’t seem to bother him at all. It flapped the loose flannel around his body, but he didn’t so much as shiver. “Perhaps you three would like to come inside? We can talk about all this business where it isn’t so cold.”

“No,” Carl said. I turned to him, and saw that he was staring over at the edge of the clearing. There wasn’t too much snow on the ground to tell that there were dead animals over there. A deer, a cow, and something else that had either black or dark brown fur. From where I stood, it looked like a small bear. Or maybe a large bear. I wondered what in the hell was a bear doing out in winter.

Crowley followed Carl’s gaze. “The cold gets animals great and small. I found that cow there, froze to death. Must have wandered away from its herd. Meat’s probably okay.” It looked like the thought of a cow freezing to death amused him, and I decided to get my brothers out of there. Isaac, the fool, had left his gun in the cruiser, Carl had no gun at all, and I did not like Leonard Crowley one tiny bit. I told him that we had others to check in with, and thanked him for his time. Then he stuck a hand out for me to shake.  I didn’t realize until I had already taken it that my gun was hanging on my right side, and it would be unreachable if Crowley didn’t let my hand go. He did let it go, but before he did, he bent toward me, and sniffed. He sniffed me, and thanked us for stopping by to warn him. I remember that sniffing sound very well. I hear it in my nightmares now.

We left. On the way back to town, I asked Carl and Isaac what they made of Leonard Crowley. They both agreed that he was “odd,” but Carl reminded us that being odd was not a criminal offense. And he didn’t think that Mr. Crowley was into animal torture at all. He suggested that maybe Crowley was just a man who was passing off dead animals as hunting trophies. Isaac, the one who had gotten us all involved to begin with, agreed. He even said that he was probably wrong about the puncture marks. Probably just sloppy knife work, and not worth pursuing further. We should drop it.

That was the last we ever talked about it, the three of us. We came face to face with something evil that day, and we looked away and pretended it wasn’t there. Crowley had been completely without fear before us, and we had turned tail and not looked back. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am sure that he came to the Northwoods just to see us. Must have heard about three little Swinton brothers, and had to come see.

Carl didn’t have to live with that knowledge long. He died a month later. Heart attack while shoveling his driveway.

Isaac abruptly decided to close his taxidermy business. Didn’t even try to sell it, just packed up and left town. Told me he had the urge to move to a bigger city where there was more to do. Maybe live in an apartment building in downtown Minneapolis. And that’s what he did. Except that two months after moving, he vanished. I have not heard from him since.

I moved to Wausau, into the senior community that I live in now. There are lots of people around me, and I like that. But two nights ago, I woke up and saw a black Lexus parked in the parking lot. I could not go back to sleep. I stayed up last night to watch, and saw the Lexus again.

I’m going to stay inside and keep my gun handy, but I’m also going to write this down. Just in case.

Leonard Crowley.

Black Lexus.

Chicago, Illinois.

If you meet him, don’t look away.

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