Here's an excerpt from my upcoming horror novel, Winter. Winter is the third book in my Crow Creek series and will be published through Gold Avenue Press in October. Preorders are now available on my website at www.tsdrago.com/winter/ for only $10 with free shipping. Thank you!
Saturday, September 17, 1960
Saturday, September 17, 1960
Pastor Aken dragged the limp teenager out of the passenger seat of his blood-red Chevy Corvair. She didn’t make a sound. Her smoky eyes fluttered, but she kept quiet.
It was after midnight. He’d kept Bishop Lundby waiting for over two hours. The girl had been difficult to snatch. Not because she’d struggled. She’d stayed with her boyfriend in Braxton Park longer than her parents might’ve wanted, had they known of her whereabouts. But that didn’t matter. The pastor had considered interrupting their tryst and slitting the boyfriend’s throat (he despised his oily hair and faded motorcycle jacket) but didn’t. They’d need someone to blame for her disappearance.
The early-morning sliver of moon glimmered as he traveled with her across the empty parking lot. He glanced at a toppled oak tree. Several thick branches rested against the roof of the church, peeling away the weathered shingles. Muddy leaves tap-danced against the siding in the cool breeze. There were a dozen broken windows, and the gutters had partially dislodged. The remnants of Hurricane Donna.
Pastor Aken hated the bishop. Despised his entire congregation and Mount Olive Church. Would burn each and every member alive if he didn’t have to follow protocol. He’d spent the entire ride to Chasm County digging his fingernails into the steering wheel and talking himself out of driving back to Crow Creek. He could’ve finished the job in the root cellar under First Baptist. No one ever went down there. The place was dark and musty. Put a lock on the door, and they’d have no idea. He could’ve been fast asleep by now and dreaming of his own family, not satisfying someone else’s needs.
He had his sights on Pattie Lynn Briggs, Jake Riddle’s wife. She was just fine. Flowing red hair. Crystal blue eyes. Skin as fair as fresh snow. His chiseled Native American jawline and her Yorkshire complexion would produce bold, handsome progeny. And if her firefighter husband somehow died in the line of duty, all the better for the pastor and Crow Creek. Folks needed a little prodding now and again.
The languid girl winced. He’d yanked on her blonde hair without realizing, curling the locks into his fist.
“Just a while longer,” he told her.
She sighed but seemed comforted. He was confident she and her boyfriend had consumed enough Old Fitzgerald to put all of Holt County to sleep. Her father managed the flat yard in Queensboro for Southern Railways and probably had no idea she’d been nipping his supply. The freight companies knew how to grease their engineers, especially with Southern bourbon, and the softer taste of Old Fitzgerald had the local teenagers scrounging to imbibe. The pastor understood. Sneak off with a bottle of sour mash from your old man’s liquor cabinet, pocket a pack of Lucky Strikes from the corner store at Ninth and Mill—what juvenile could resist such carnal paradise? Partly why he loved his own church as much as he did. Something about the company of sinners.
He wrenched her up the short set of wooden steps at the rear of the church. The doorway was unlit. Not surprising. Bishop Lundby dwelled in darkness. Pastor Aken preferred the spotlight. The perfect metaphor for their contrast. With any luck, this fourth and final girl would complete the bishop’s cycle, and the pastor would earn the right to sire his own flock and never return to Winter again. He’d serviced the state elders for more than a century, biding his time. His devotion had even included a murder of the Cavalli (an ancient order of knights) during World War II. While presiding over the Baptist church at Fort Bragg, he hunted the high-ranking officers until he’d located the right one. Flat-topped bastard never saw him coming. Drove the penknife squarely into his temple while he slept in his barracks. Didn’t spill a drop of blood.
Pastor Aken knocked. The door rattled on its hinges and squeaked open. A business of flies hovered about the musty sanctuary. The pastor swatted at them with his free hand.
The man slouching in the shadows wasn’t Bishop Lundby.
“McCrory?” the pastor shouted. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
The hunched furniture salesman licked his lips and pushed wire-rimmed glasses up the slope of his greasy nose. The pastor heard the crooked man sucking on candy. The scent of peppermint wafted in the humid air between them.
“Lundby told me you’d be coming.” His eyes widened. “With a girl.”
Pastor Aken stepped in front of the subdued teenager and shoved McCrory inside the church. He released the blonde’s hair and grabbed her wrists as he hurried inside with her and closed the door.
The church was almost too dark. Too quiet. Pastor Aken kept his eyes on McCrory. He knew the runt wouldn’t hesitate to snatch the girl if the pastor dropped his guard even for a moment. Not because he would ever take a meal from the bishop. That was out of the question. He’d do things that were worse. Dirty things.
“She’s special,” McCrory hissed. “I can smell her from here.”
Pastor Aken puffed his chest. “Where’s Lundby?”
“Can I have her for a moment?” McCrory slid into a wooden pew and raised both palms, wheezing softly in the darkness and ignoring the pastor’s question. “I just wanna take off her shoes and sniff her feet. That’s all. I promise. Nothing more.”
The massive oak tree slapped the outside of the church, knocking loose a few window slivers. Pastor Aken jumped and narrowed his eyes.
“I’ll only ask you this one more time, McCrory. Where’s the bishop?”
McCrory dropped his shoulders.
“William Blount Air Force Base.”
The pastor scratched his pointy chin and waved slender fingertips at a fly buzzing his ear. “Near the coast?”
McCrory nodded. His eyes never left the slumping girl.
“Yes, Ethan. Bishop Lundby phoned my father’s shop yesterday and asked if I’d come wait for you. Keep an eye on your delivery till Monday. What was I supposed to say?”
Pastor Aken flickered, his skin melting. Thick black scales flashed. For a moment, he felt his wings pull at his shoulder blades, threatening to erupt.
“He expects me to leave her with you all weekend? After all the work I did collecting her?”
McCrory’s response was more of a grunt than anything else.
Pastor Aken grabbed him by the throat. The hunched man squealed.
“I owe your father, McCrory. He helped me with my first feed. He’s the only reason I don’t kill you right now. But, someday, after your father’s long gone, I’ll run Crow Creek. Then I’ll have you. You’ll slip up, and you’ll be mine. Mark my words.”
The pastor withdrew, tossing McCrory to the hardwood floor in front of the rotting pew. The slimy man scrambled on his knees toward the feeble girl.
“Her toes,” he begged. “Let me kiss them. Just once. Please! You have no idea how much I need—”
Pastor Aken kicked McCrory as hard as he could across the jaw, slicing open his translucent skin with the sharp edge of a polished Italian loafer. The wretched creature bounced off the back of the wooden pew and collapsed to the worn floorboards in a puddle of his own drool.
“As much as I’m sure you’d love that opportunity,” Pastor Aken shouted, twirling on his heels, “I have other plans for her now.”
And with that, he stormed toward the altar, towing the girl by his side. He thought she might’ve giggled but no longer cared. He would be finished with her directly. He was through playing second fiddle to the bishop. And to McCrory’s father. And to anyone else ignorant enough to get in his way. Crow Creek would be his now. And if the bishop wasn’t careful, so would Winter. The people needed him. Loved him. Wanted his leadership and spiritual guidance, especially at the start of a decade that promised to be as turbulent as any in recent memory.
He thought about the black hitchhiker who’d been lynched (misdirecting blame was easier with colored folks) on Route 119 after the last girl he’d collected for the bishop. Out near the new subdivision beside Braxton Lake. Since Martin Luther King’s appearance on the cover of TIME magazine, radical white Southerners jumped at every chance to hunt, innocent or not. A recipe for disaster. The pastor imagined the horrors that would define the nation by the end of the 1960s and smiled.
As he approached the altar, he scooped the girl in his arms and plopped her hard on top of the communion table. She stopped giggling and arched her back, dividing her pouty lips. Before she could speak, Pastor Aken drove his fingernails into her neck and tore open her throat. Blood sprayed the clean satin tablecloth. The girl tried to scream but only gurgled. She kicked her feet and tossed her arms, but the pastor snapped her neck with a quick flip of his wrists. She lay motionless. He ripped the lavender little-nothing dress away from her chest and opened his mouth, gnashing his teeth as he dipped into her ivory flesh.