The small Michigan town of Atlas is being plagued by mysterious murders...but the only leads police have to the killer are mysterious tire tracks leading away from the crime scenes. Who...or what...could be the perpetrator?
BAM! Pam and Stan Zamka awoke with a start at the sound. A gun had been fired...right next door! "Good lord, what the heck is happening over there?" Stan exclaimed, looking out the window toward the house next door where the shot had come from. A light was on in the upstairs window. "Phone the police, Pam," he told his wife. "I'm going over there to see what's up."
"Stan, are you crazy?" his wife cried. "There's someone with a gun over there! You'll never come back alive! Just stay here while we wait for the cops."
"George Stone is the best renter I've ever had," Stan retorted. "He keeps the yard clean and doesn't let his blasted dog go to the bathroom on the carpet. If someone's over there threatening him, I'll be the first to stand in the way." With that, he pulled on his overcoat, grabbed his 30.06 from its rack on the wall, and ran down the hallway.
"Be careful Stan!" Pam yelled. "Don't you get any blood on that brand new coat of yours." Stan snorted as he exited through the front door. The rain was falling in torrents, making it difficult to hear or see much. Sloshing through the mud, the brawny landlord approached his duplex from the back. As he reached the back door, a cold sense of foreboding washed over him. "Something's not right," he muttered. "Stone never leaves lights on like that. He's the most energy-efficient person I know!" Stan banged on the door. "Stone? Stone, are you in there?" For five minutes he waited, and then banged again. "Stone! Answer me! It's Stan!" Still no answer. Finally, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the key.
As he entered, he knew that there was definitely something amiss. Not a heavy drinker, George Stone had surprisingly left empty beer bottles all over the floor, and the place reeked of cigarette smoke. "Dang-blast it, he must've lost his mind!" Stan muttered to himself, scratching his bristly beard. Then he saw something else. "Candy wrappers?" He picked up the plastic wrapping from a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. "I don't believe it! How could he do this?"
He turned on the hall light and slowly made his way up the stairs, shaking his head at the porn magazines that were lying on the steps. As he reached the top, the smell of gun smoke reached his nostrils. "George! George, where are you?" He headed toward George's bedroom, where the light was coming from. Entering, he almost fell over from shock: His renter lay on the floor, his right hand holding a pistol to his head. Blood was all over the floor. A small piece of paper in Stone's left hand briefly caught the stricken landlord's attention, and he picked it up. The content was incredibly disturbing:
- To whoever finds this note, I have grown increasingly weary of life over the past several weeks. My girlfriend ruthlessly dumped me for some jerk at Amway, my health has been in decline and it's all because of that miserable company that fired me last month. I have nothing left to live for so I am ending it all right now.
- Sincerely, George Stone
Stan couldn't believe his eyes. George was the best of the best! He was environmentally-conscious, paid his rent regularly, was nice to people, avoided eating fat, always got some walking in and tried to get along with people from all creeds and nations. This was simply unthinkable, for him to just go and snuff himself! Stan was about to turn around and leave, when suddenly something else on the other side of the paper caught his eye. He turned the note over and read:
- BEWARE ZARNUG
The morning autumn sunlight filtered through the brilliantly-colored leaves of the maple trees as the news truck, fire engine and police van finally departed the scene. The ambulance had carried the body away two hours before, leaving the gun and note with the police. Stan and Pam began picking up the trash George had left all over the duplex and placing it in a large plastic garbage bag while trying to figure out how they would ever rent the place out again.
"No one will want to stay in a house where a suicide occured," Stan remarked. "Maybe we should just let it die down and then after a few months advertise the place again."
"I'd like to know what that 'Beware Zarnug' business was on his note," Pam wondered aloud. "George never was one to goof around like that."
"It sounds like some ancient demonic Mesopotamian god," her husband replied. "But he never was interested in that kind of stuff. I just can't believe he'd do this."
"Well, he was drinking," Pam quipped. "I'm really not surprised he wrote that, but why would he be drinking at all is what I'm wondering."
"He lost his girlfriend and his job. I guess he got pretty depressed," Stan suggested. Pam shrugged.
"The police should have it sorted out soon enough."
The garbage bag full, Stan took it outside to the big dumpster where the garbage truck would pick it up later on. As he entered back through the garage, he stopped. George's bicycle stood in the corner, where he'd always kept it when he wasn't out riding. The Trek 7100 was the renter's most prized possession; Stan knew because he had seen George riding it quite frequently. Sometimes he would go out for six or seven hours at a time! Stan walked over and ran his hand across the frame. It was in excellent quality; he wondered how much it would sell for.
He jolted his hand away as he felt something like an electric charge course across the metal framework. "What the hell?" He looked at his hand, and back at the bike. It was too strong to be static; it had to have been rubbing against some wiring. Stan got down on his hands and knees and looked all around for the wires, but found nothing. The wall against which the bicycle rested was blank. Stan was puzzled, but he shrugged it off quickly. "Probably just static," he said to himself. "It gets real strong when its cold and dry out." He left the garage and walked back in the house.
"Say Pam," he remarked to his wife as they finished cleaning up, "I bet George's old bike would sell for a good price. What say, maybe three or four hundred?"
"You can't do that," said Pam. "It goes to his closest living relative. Didn't he leave a will?"
"No, nothing at all," said Stan. "And he said he doesn't have any close relatives."
"Are you sure?" Pam inquired.
"Yeah, he told me himself." Stan looked around the living room. "He doesn't really have anything of value here anyway. He always did like to live simply. That's one of the things I liked about him."
"I guess we could have a yard sale with this stuff," his wife said, picking up a signed copy of Love and Theft. "We could get a few bucks with this crap."
Stan waved it off. "Throw that away," he said. "No one wants the stuff he collected. But the bike will get a good price. I'll stick an ad on Craigslist."
"What about his computer?" Pam asked. "Couldn't we sell that too?"
"He didn't own one," Stan replied. "He never owned any electronics except for the phone and the stereo. He said he couldn't keep up with all the progress."
"He must've been a complete technophobe!" Pam was flabbergasted. "But it sure saved him money."
"Sure did," Stan replied. "He rode that bike everywhere! He never had to pay for a gallon of gas." The two were silent for a moment as they let their thoughts hold sway.
The silence was abruptly broken by a crash from the garage. Stan whirled and faced the door. "What was that??"
"Someone broke into the garage!" Pam exclaimed. "We're being robbed!"
"As if anyone would steal anything from that garage," Stan said. "But there is that bike!" He jerked open the door...and his worst fears were confirmed. "IT'S BEEN STOLEN!" he cried. "The bike's gone!"
Chapter One Edit
Guillimiro Sanchez stared through his windshield with heavy, bloodshot eyes. He and his buddies had just had a typical work night at the Sneaker's Bar, working up to ten liters of beer each. The hangovers were gradually decreasing, however, as his body got used to the alcohol. Now he and his friend, Jeff Walton, were having the time of their lives as they took a drive on one of Atlas' most desolate dirt roads. Sanchez swerved all over the road, barely missing the large tree trunks that grew right along the edge. He and Jeff guffawed loudly as if the trees were some kind of hilarious joke.
"That one jus' made a face at you," Jeff snickered. "Hic—he stuck his tongue out of his mouth!"
"Hahaha—you're drunk," Guillimiro giggled. "Hic—I told you you shouldn't have had that much. You're not used to it!"
"I can handle it just fine!" Jeff retorted, waving his half-empty can in his friend's face. "We did this all the time back on the moon. It was just dandy."
Guillimiro suddenly caught sight of something glimmering in the headlights, far up ahead. It blinked, and then disappeared. "Deer," he said. "There's a deer in the road."
"Ask 'im if he wants a drink," Jeff mumbled drunkily. "Maybe he's got a couple more with him."
Guillimiro skidded to a halt as he saw an object dart across the road in front of him. He thought he could make out two wheels. "Who the hell is biking in the woods at night?" he muttered.
"He must've been drinkin' too much," Jeff drawled. Guillimiro ignored him and got out of the car to see what it was. Jeff watched his friend venture into the darkness. "He's drunk," he mumbled to himself. "Next thing he'll be seeing flying pink elephants. Oh, there's one now!" He pointed out the window at nothing in particular. "Hey there, I'm your friend!" he called giddily, waving his beer can.
Up ahead, Guillimiro stopped to examine a pair of tracks in the road. One travelled steadily while the other was obviously steering. He looked in the direction they had come from, seeing nothing but dense woods illuminated in the headlights of his car. "Moron," he muttered. "Biking the woods at night. What was he thinking?" Following the tracks, he came to the ditch at the edge of the road. "There's no way he could've crossed this," he said to himself. A glint at the far edge of the narrow channel caught his eye, and he saw something metal protruding from the bushes that grew there.
"Hello?" he called. There was no answer. "Your bike's stuck in the bushes!" he shouted. Still, no response. Finally, he gave up and turned around toward the car. I'll put it right in the headlights, he thought to himself. As he walked back, he thought he could hear noises in the foliage on the other side of the ditch, but as he turned to look the noises stopped. "Is someone following me?" he demanded. "Whoever it is, knock it off! This is a stupid trick and I don't think it's funny." He turned away and suddenly perceived that the passenger side of his car was empty.
"Jeff?" he called out. "Jeff, where'd you go, amigo?" He got no response. "Damn it!" he cursed. "Americano estupido had too much to drink. I warned him! He's off chasing little green men I have no doubt."
THUMP! The short Hispanic whirled around at the sound of something landing on the road. A brief flash caught his eye as something crossed in front of the headlights. "Jeff? Is that you?" he demanded. "JEFF!! Get your ass over here right now and stop playing these games!"