Night Chill by Jeff Gunhus
Jack Tremont moves his family to the quiet mountains of Western Maryland hoping to leave behind a troubled past and restart his life. Instead, he finds himself caught up in a nightmare when his daughter Sarah is targeted by Nate Huckley, a mysterious and horrifying stranger driven by a dark power that will stop at nothing to possess Sarah. When Sarah goes missing, suspicion falls on Jack and he must uncover the secrets of the small mountain town of Prescott City and face the evil secret hidden there. As he digs further, he learns the conspiracy reaches more deeply than he could have imagined. Finally, he will have to face the question, What is a father willing to do to save his child? The answer? Anything. Anything at all.
The pay phones were under a short overhang but the wind was so strong that it provided little protection. Jack fished around in his pocket for change but came up with only pennies. He dialed ‘0’ for the operator and waited as the phone went through a series of clicks. A computerized voice said, “A,T and T,” and then a tone and more silence.
“Jesus Christ. Come on!” Jack started to glance over his shoulder at the Jeep, but the operator finally came on and Jack turned back toward the phone. He was halfway through giving his credit card number when he heard the blast of car horn behind him. It was followed by the same sound again. And again. Even in the rain it was loud and urgent.
The Jeep’s panic alarm.
Jack was always hitting the panic button on the remote by accident. He dug for the keys in his pocket. God, the girls were probably scared to death. He found the keys and pressed the button as he turned around to point the device at the car. There was a man. Standing next to his car. The driver’s door was open. Jack dropped the phone and ran back to the car. “HEY! HEY YOU!” The man didn’t acknowledge Jack but just stood and kept staring into the open door.
Even over the noise of the rain Jack could hear the girls screaming as he got closer to the car.
How long was I turned away from the car? One minute? Two? He couldn’t have hurt them in that time. Could he? “Get back from the car. RIGHT NOW!” "The man finally turned. He raised his hands in the air and stepped back. Jack slowed down a few paces from him. He wanted to check on the girls but he wasn’t about to turn his back on this stranger. Jack sized the man up. Late thirties, decent build, average sized frame, nothing too intimidating. Then again, the man could have a gun in his pocket and then none of his physical characteristics would make a difference. “What are you doing?” The adrenaline tearing through Jack’s system made it come out more a threat than a question.
“Hi. Sorry about that. I was just making sure everyone was O.K. Bad weather and all.”
Jack moved to the open car door, putting his body between the man and the open door. Standing closer, he could make out the details of the stranger. Even in the poor light the man’s pale face stood out from the night, like a glowing mask. He might have been an albino except for the black pits for eyes. Jack didn’t like the look of the man’s thin, colorless lips that twisted into a forced smile as they stared each other down.
Something about the man didn’t seem right. Maybe it was the storm. Or the scare he got from turning and seeing the man unexpectedly appear at the car. Maybe it was that an hour earlier a man had died in his arms talking about the devil. Whatever it was, Jack’s instinct warned him of danger.
He was reluctant to let the stranger out of his sight but the girls screams were too much to bear. Quickly, he turned his head to make sure they were just scared and not hurt somehow. “You girls all right?” he called out. Becky and Sarah looked terrified, but unharmed. Jack relaxed a little. Maybe he was over-reacting. Chances are the stranger was just trying to help. This wasn’t California. It wasn’t so odd that someone would go out of their way to help out on a stormy night. And he knew Albert James had put him in a weird place emotionally. Satisfied the girls were fine, he turned back to face the man, ready to apologize. “Listen, thanks but--” The man was gone.
Jack spun around. He didn’t see him anywhere. Then a voice came from the other side of the car, across the hood on the passenger’s side. “Pretty girls you have there. Very pretty.” Soaking wet, Jack still felt the hair rise up on the back of his neck. All the tension returned. “Listen buddy. I think it’s best if you get out of here. Maybe you’re trying to help out, but you’re scaring my kids.”
The stranger leaned back to look through the Jeep’s rear window, then back at Jack. “Scaring them? Or scaring you?” “Look, just get out of here. All right?”
“These girls don’t have anything to worry about from me.” The man rubbed the hood of the car with the palms of his hands. “I want to be their friend. Especially the little one. She’s very special. Sarah. That’s it, isn’t it? Little sweet Sarah?”
“Get the hell out of here right now,” Jack yelled over a thunder clap. Jack had only been in one fight as an adult but if the car hadn’t separated them he would have taken a swing at the bastard in front of him.
The man slapped the hood of the car in a slow beat. “Bam, bam, badda, bam, bam,” he murmured as he thumped out a rhythm, his eyes locked with Jack’s, a grin spread across his lips. “Feel helpless Jack? You don’t mind if I call you Jack, do you?”
“How the hell do you know our names? Who are you?”
“Oh, I know more than that about you. I know what you dream about at night. I know the secret you keep from California. That dark detail about yourself you don’t want anyone else to know.”
“I don’t know what--”
“Jack, you don’t really think you can stop the devil, do you?” Jack froze. “What did you say?” But the man wasn’t listening. He continued to beat out a rhythm on the hood, striking the car harder with each beat. Badda, bam, bam. He paused and held both fists out toward Jack. “Let’s find out, shall we?” His fists crashed into the hood. BADDA, BAM, BAM. On the last beat, he ducked down behind the car and was gone.
“Shit.” Jack scrambled into the car and shut the door. He dug at the controls on the armrest to make sure the doors were locked. They were. He looked across to the passenger side. The door shook from the man tugging on it. The girls screamed. Jack dug his hand into his pocket, desperate for his keys. Nothing. He looked on the floor, on the seat. He pressed his face against the window and looked on the ground outside. They weren’t there. When did he have them last?
Dreading what he would see, he raised his head to look through the windshield at the building in front of him. There, on the ground next to the payphone, were the keys to the car.