Fever Cabin [2/5]
I'm a criminal profiler, but I can't explain my wife's mysterious disappearance from Fever Cabin
I sprinted up the rickety cabin stairs and barged into the bedroom, frantically searching for my wife. To my deep dismay, she was no longer dozing peacefully in bed. The uniformed man claiming to be officer Harry Bullock stood at the window, peering out into the woods.
“Camilla!” I cried out, my voice bouncing off the wooden walls of the otherwise silent cabin.
“She’s not here,” the fake officer said, turning to face me. He had not changed his clothes since the previous evening, and still wore the aviator sunglasses and police cap that obscured so much of his face.
“Where is she?” I roared at the man, “She was just here half an hour ago. What did you do to her?”
“Was it really half an hour, Paul?” that crooked leer again, “That would be understandable, wouldn’t it? Stepping out quickly, leaving your wife alone for a few minutes while you called for help.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?” I spat back, clenching my sweaty palms into fists. I knew I had to calm down and act rationally. Bullock’s gun was visible in a holster comfortably perched on his hip, and I would be of little use to Camilla if this turned into a bloodbath.
“Time works a little differently round these parts, Paul,” Bullock said, turning back to the window, “It’s a lonely sort of place sometimes. I’m glad to see a familiar face. Your face of all people, imagine my surprise.”
“We’ve met before then,” I said, knowing that even if we had, the disguise would prevent me from recognizing him.
“Only once,” the man grimaced, “Not nearly enough time to get to know someone well, is it?”
“What do you want?”
“Why, nothing much, Paul. I’d only stopped by to check in on the missus. Gorgeous one she is. You’re a lucky man.”
“What did you do to my wife?” I spoke, gritting my teeth as I tried to keep my cool.
“Oh I was nowhere near quick enough, Paul. We all have scores to settle in this place. She’s out dancing with the skeletons in a closet of her own.”
With that, Bullock walked past me and out the bedroom door. I followed him downstairs, trying to think of something to say. Without so much as a nod in my direction, the intruding fake cop undid the deadbolt on the front door and walked out of the cabin. I stood at the kitchen window, watching him walk up the dirt road and out of sight.
I could have followed him. Screamed and shot at him, demanded to know where he had taken Camilla. For better or worse, that wasn’t how I operated under pressure. I had made a living thinking, processing, and systematizing before taking action. The best thing I could do was stay put for a bit and gather my thoughts to assess the situation.
I looked at the refrigerator, remembering the bloody tongue inside, and wondered if this was the cause of my lack of hunger or thirst, or…
I hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day and it was now, what? Late morning? Noon? I wasn’t sure. I sat down at the old kitchen table and stared at my clasped knuckles, trying to tally up the facts. I had no phone, but I still had my handgun and car. My wife was missing, but it was unlikely that she was taken by the stranger who seemed to come and go as he pleased.
A gruesome thought crossed my mind, sending waves of panic through my body. What if Camilla was missing, but her body was still somewhere in the cabin? It was an awful thought, but I couldn’t push it away. I had to investigate.
I went back upstairs, processing my surroundings the way I would a crime scene. I checked behind the old furniture my uncle Jonny had crafted. Dropped to the floor to check under the bed. Scrutinized the portable shower and sink for any signs of blood spatter. Sniffed the air for bleach. Logically, I knew that I had not been gone long enough for someone to kill my wife, dispose of her body, and cover up the evidence, but logic was no longer the cornerstone of my thought process. Finally, I rummaged through Camilla’s things, hoping to find her phone, but it wasn’t there.
Giving up, I went downstairs to the only other bedroom - my old room. While the rest of Fever Cabin had only been abandoned for a couple of months since uncle Jonny’s death, the thick layer of dust that coated my childhood belongings indicated that no one had used the guest bedroom in years.
I stood in the doorway, indulging in the fleeting pang of nostalgia that my old Superman bedspread and paperback detective novels evoked. Even in my current state of anxiety, flashbacks from my childhood summer days filled my mind with happy, tender thoughts.
I realized I’d been standing there a while, grinning at my old bed like a fool, when what I really needed was to learn how Camilla had disappeared. Snapping out of it, I repeated the diligent process of searching the room for traces of my wife.
Anxiety crawled its way back up my spine as I threw one last appraising glance at my old summer dwelling. Alarm bells went off as I finally registered the slight discrepancies I had failed to pick up on while reminiscing. I had loved Superman as a boy, but now distinctly remembered that my uncle had actually bought me Captain America sheets.
“Well these were on sale, Paulie,” uncle Jonny had explained, “It’s practically the same thing.”
It wasn’t, and I remember my nine-year-old self feeling slightly disappointed, even though I appreciated my uncle trying to get something he thought I would like. I had never owned the Superman sheets that were now on the bed. Walking over to the desk, I picked up the pile of detective paperbacks. I had loved crime stories as a kid, probably one of the reasons I ended up pursuing a degree in criminal justice, but most of the titles didn’t ring any bells. These weren’t my old books.
It was like some AI computer program had downloaded my childhood memories, crunched the numbers, and produced this near carbon copy of a room with a few of the blanks filled in wrong.
I went back to the kitchen, scrutinizing every last detail. Had the table been square or round? Hadn’t uncle Jonny and I painted those stools white when they started to splinter? Was the mat at the foot of the stairs supposed to be red or green?
I could have driven myself insane, running around the cabin playing a mentally-ill version of spot the difference until I ended up banging my head on the wooden panels, muttering something about fake walls. That may have been the case if the screams from outside didn’t snap me out of my impending psychosis.
I ran out the back door, straining my ears to hear better.
“Paul!” a distant cry, “Paul come get me!”
“Paul!” followed by hysterical sobs, growing faint in the distance.
I blindly followed the noise, stumbling into the forest, the tall grass pinching my ankles as I tripped over hidden branches and rocks. My surroundings grew dark as the trees thickened, closing in around me. All the while, Camilla’s distressed voice grew quieter and quieter, until all I heard were the sounds of my own footsteps and frantic, panting breath.
I stopped for a moment, realizing how stupid it was to run blindly into a forest without a compass or supplies. Even if I had caught up to whoever had taken Camilla away, what would I do to them? I had my gun, but what if they did too?
If someone even took her, that is. Of course someone had. My wife wouldn’t just wander off into the forest on her own, crying for me to come save her as part of some elaborate scheme.
Or would she?
This train of suspicious thought made me turn around and slowly start making my way back. I could no longer hear Camilla’s cries, and I was going to get lost if I kept up my foolish journey into the thick of the woods. The tiny patches of sky above me were fading to purple. Could it be night already? No, must be clouds or something. I hadn’t been running for more than twenty minutes, I was sure of it.
I found the way out of the woods to be much more challenging than my way in. Though I followed my footprints carefully, there was less and less room to walk between the trees. I was at the point of squeezing through a triangle of birches, when my nose nearly brushed a black leech on the tree bark in front of me. I shuddered, jerking my head back, hitting it on the trunk of the tree directly behind me.
I cursed, reaching to rub the back of my skull in hopes of soothing the sharp collision pain. To my horror, something that was definitely not my hair grazed my fingers. Something cold and slippery, squishy.
A fucking leech.
Panicking, I gripped the vile thing with my fingers, desperately trying to claw it off the back of my head, but it wouldn’t budge. I hopped around in a manner befitting a tribal dancer, wincing and moaning as hysteria rose in my throat. The parasite wouldn’t dislodge its tiny teeth, and the spot where it had latched on was beginning to ache. In the end, I resolved to just get out of the damn forest and deal with the creature back at the cabin, where I could light a match and set fire to the thirsty sucker’s head.
When I snapped out of my anxious leech haze, I realized that the woods had grown significantly darker. If I didn’t get out of there soon, I’d be stuck outside in the merciless pitch black of night. I squinted at the ground, hoping to retrace my footsteps. What I saw made my heart turn to stone before dropping to the bottom of my already churning stomach.
Thousands of small black shapes were slowly making their way toward my feet. Fat, slithery, hungry mouths ravenously seeking out a patch of free skin to latch onto. The closest leeches were already at my boots. I staggered back, the ground beneath me no longer a crunchy patch of grass, but a nauseating cacophony of squish.
Then, it started raining leeches.
The slimy bodies hailed down on me from the branches above, latching onto my head, face, and neck. At the same time, the forest floor swirled in black as the tiny predators came for my shoes and legs. I reached for my weapon as a last ditch effort, hoping the noise of gunfire might scare the army away, but had barely managed to pull back the slider when a particularly thick leech bit down on the skin between my fingers, causing me to drop my semi-automatic.
The swarm of leeches had me covered head to toe, and I was entirely powerless to stop them.
The ones on my head busied themselves with sucking on my closed eyelids, crawling inside my ears, up my nose, and filling my screaming mouth. I let out muffled cries, flailing around blindly, trying to rid my throat and eyes of their sharp, jelly-like bodies.
It was getting harder to breathe.
My mind flashed back to all the times I’d sat at my desk pouring over strangulation cases in a calm, orderly fashion. Now that I was one with those victims, I felt the helplessness, all-encompassing pain, and pure terror of a human body struggling for air.
Just when I was on the brink of losing consciousness, the bloodthirsty bugs began screeching. It was the strangest sound I’d ever heard, a choir of tiny vocal cords vibrating in shrill unison. I took another shot at batting away the leeches on my eyes, surprised to find they fell away with ease.
I opened my aching, swollen eyes and saw a purple light filling the dark forest around me. The glow grew brighter as the screams of the leeches bombarded my eardrums. My vision cleared enough for me to see that I’d been enveloped in a painless fire that seared the remaining bugs on my body to ashes, silencing them forever. The purple blaze didn’t burn me or my clothes. Instead, the longer I stood in the fire, the better I could see, the less pain I could feel. I stretched my bloody arms and torn sleeves out in front of me, watching the wounds on my skin healing beneath the warm, flickering flames. Once the lacerations had scabbed over, the flames dimmed to a soft purple glow that radiated from my skin and illuminated the woods around me.
“Paulie, what did I tell ya about wandering into the woods on your own, boy?”
I would recognize that voice anywhere, but it couldn’t actually be...
“Uncle Jonny?” I uttered, my voice bewildered, but also hopeful, child-like.
There he was, casually leaning against a nearby tree trunk.
Jonny Fever - not the iconic TV show DJ (but a definite fan of his!) - only younger than I had ever known him to be. This must have been what he had looked like in his thirties. This younger version of the uncle I had known and loved wore a red plaid shirt, a pair of Levi’s, and a polished set of brown cowboy boots. He was lean and muscular, with a sharp face, clean shave, and a mischievous glint in his eye. I could finally see the family resemblance my aunts had always fussed over. Uncle Jonny and I looked like we could be brothers.
“Paulie, don’t expect me to come bailing your behind every time ya get into trouble,” he chuckled, spitting chewed tobacco on the forest floor.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“Am I dreaming?” I asked.
“I wish ya were, sonny. I wish ya were.”
“What is this place? And you?” I hesitated, “You are dead?”
“Some sort of dead, buddy,” he grinned, “Paulie look, I’d love-tah stay and chat and all, but it’s not easy for us to just show up for the living like this. I always had a soft spot for ya kid, so I couldn’t let ya perish without a chance-tah fight, ya know? But I can’t stay much longer.”
Uncle Jonny stood up straight and turned his back to me, “I’ll show ya the way out of the woods, but you’re on your own after that, champ. Ask me what ya need-tah know while we walk, and I’ll do my best to help ya understand.”
“Wait,” I exclaimed, searching the tall grass for my issued weapon, “I need to find my gun.”
“It’s not here anymore. Whichever bastard ya pissed off made sure of that,” my uncle said, already walking away from me.
With the purple glow lighting our path, my uncle and I started making our way out of the murderous woods. We walked in silence for a while as I gathered my thoughts into semi-coherent questions.
“What is this place?” I finally asked.
“Paulie, I can’t pretend to know something like that,” uncle Jonny sighed, “but if I had to guess, it’s a place where the walls between the world of the living and the world of the dead are paper thin.”
“And the cabin?” I had to know, “It’s not really ours is it?”
“Is that what you see?” uncle Jonny turned to me, smiling ear to ear, “Whenever a mortal stumbles into a place like this, they have some sort of anchor, a safe spot that keeps them rooted to the world of the living. The closer you are to that anchor, Paulie, the less power they have against you.”
“Who do you mean?” I asked, as the trees started to clear and I caught a glimpse of the cabin in the distance.
“Spirits, Paulie. Restless, cruel, vile souls, and you’ve gathered the whole lot haven’t you? I can’t pretend to know everything, but I sense they’ll do anything to get you back inside these woods just-tah tear ya limb-tah limb.”
“They have Camilla,” I felt my stomach knot up, “If the cabin is a safe spot, how did they take her from there?”
“The cabin is your safe spot, Paulie,” uncle Jonny replied, “She has to find her own anchor to the living world, if she has one. Ya have to understand something, everyone experiences this place differently. This isn’t the gate to heaven or hell, but it’s a path somewhere in between. Mortals are not usually welcome, but sometimes they’re not given much choice.”
We were out of the woods now. I continued walking, but uncle Jonny didn’t follow. When I turned to ask him if this was as far as he could go, he was already gone.
I still had so many questions.
I walked back to the cabin, mulling over the events of the day. The fake officer, Camilla’s disappearance, the leeches, uncle Jonny. Oh, and let’s not forget the damn tongue in the fridge. If logic was to help me navigate my way out of this place, it would have to be a different kind, one that accepted the impossible as reality.
The first thing I did when I got to the cabin was march upstairs and find my laptop. I was afraid it had stopped working like my phone had, but it seemed to be functional. Perhaps trying to connect to the outside world was what had fried my phone in the morning, so I quickly ejected my 4G modem from the laptop. I might need it more later on.
I brought up my work files and located the folder for the machete killer I had profiled when working with chief Earl Crawford’s local police department.
How could I have not pieced it together sooner?
Women had started disappearing from their tents at campsites not far from these very woods. The victims all fit a certain type - petite, light-haired women with blue eyes. Just like Camilla, I thought, feeling my insides churn. Their bodies would show up weeks after the disappearances. The killer would stage the bodies near campsites, using handcuffs to hang the victims from trees. The corpses were always found to be long-dead and heavily mutilated.
My team had come up with a profile that helped law enforcement bring three men in for questioning. Chief Crawford had called in a personal favor, asking me to interview all three men to see who best fit the profile. It had taken me approximately half an hour to say with almost complete certainty that Henry Briarwood fit the profile to a T. A forty-seven year old delivery man who lived with an overbearing mother, who had two prior charges for impersonating a police officer and attempted rape. Henry Briarwood, who had been seen lurking around the crime scene campsites. Henry Briarwood, who had hung himself in prison the day after the jury ruled him guilty on five counts of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
I now knew, without a shadow of a doubt, the true identity of the mysterious officer Harry Bullock.