Here is the first chapter to my psychological thriller In the Dark.
The man didn’t recognize the face peering back at him from the mirror. Which shouldn’t have surprised him, considering he didn’t remember his name either. Or how that face he didn’t recognize came to be covered in blood. Or why there was a shooting pain arching down the left side of his body.
He had just staggered to his feet after suddenly coming-to to find himself slumped at an uncomfortable angle in which he was half-propped against a wall in a narrow space. He stood up, and as his eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, he saw that he was in a darkened room that was lit throughout by a few beams of powerful light. He looked into a mirror that was in front of him, and realized that he was behind a bar.
As he gazed at his face in the mirror for any hint of recognition, he realized that his head was pounding. Not pounding like a headache, but pounding like a heart. Pulsating. The motion sickened him, and left him with the overwhelming feeling that something was very wrong. He tried to suppress the impending sense of dread looming up at the prospect that he didn’t know who he was or how he had gotten there.
Once the pain subsided somewhat and his eyes adjusted to the gloom, the man proceeded to examine his face in the mirror. It appeared to him to be an ordinary face. Wide-eye and with a look of shocked disbelief, but otherwise ordinary. He examined the closely-shaved, black stubble on his head, down to the thick eyebrows atop severe, gray eyes sunk into his face. He brushed a hand against his cheek, and wiped a fleck of blood off his chin. The only thing that seemed out of place was the thick gash over a raised bump on the right side of his forehead.
But as he examined this wound he became aware again of the pulsating feeling rippling through his head. His vision blurred, and nausea washed over him followed closely by faintness. He stumbled and nearly fell over before he clutched onto the bar to steady himself. As he did his right foot stepped in a slick of liquid and nearly sent him sprawling as it shot out from under him. It was only stopped by coming into contact with something soft and solid in the darkness beneath the bar. Something like a body.
Unable to see due to the lack of light behind the bar, the man ducked down for a closer look and realized with horror that a body was exactly what had stopped his foot from sliding out. At the sight of the dead man and the pool of blood seeping from him, his nausea got the better of him and he threw up the contents of his stomach, which came out in thick chunks of partially-digested food coated in caustic stomach acid. This splattered to the floor in the puddle of blood, making the man wretch even harder.
Wiping his mouth with the back of the sleeve of his jacket once he had finished, the man examined the body before him. It was the remains of a heavy-set man, maybe late 50s, who seemed to be Hispanic judging from his skin tone, hair, and what little of his face the man could see.
When he was done, he stood up again and, still holding onto the wooden counter, eased himself around the body at his feet and out from behind the bar. He was still slightly disoriented from whatever it was that had knocked him out, and moved slowly to avoid toppling over.
The bar itself seemed like every other shit-kicker, roadside dive he could half-picture from some half-remembered former life. Cheap, flimsy tables and chairs were scattered over a scarred wooden floor permanently infused with the musty-sweet smell of years of spilled beer.
As he stumbled out into the main bar area he was treated to another nasty shock, as he noticed that there was another body oozing blood over by a side doorway several feet away from the bar.
But this paled in comparison to what he found in the middle of the room. There he saw another body lying face up on the ground in amongst several tables and overturned chairs. This one looked like it belonged to a Caucasian male, but it was hard to tell for sure because the face was gone.
The man felt like he was going to be sick again, closing his eyes to ward off the image. He stayed there in place, swaying back and forth until the nausea passed, hoping that the vision would be gone when he opened his eyes.
When he looked again, he was confronted with the same grisly image. Steeling himself, he crept closer to the body in the middle of the poorly-lit room and peered down over top of him. From up close he saw that the face wasn’t exactly gone, as he had thought, but more like caved-in. As if the poor bastard had been pummeled to death. But even beyond that, something seemed strange about the victim’s face. It was only when the man, fighting his instincts to flee, bent down for a closer look did he realize what it was. The victim’s eyes had been gouged out of his head.
The man didn’t want to look, didn’t want to know, but a part of him needed to know if he had done this. So he slowly, reluctantly held up his hands to one of the shafts of light from the spotlights that cut through the room. His left hand seemed alright, but the skin over his right knuckle was cut up and coated with a thin layer of gore and viscera. He didn’t know what to make of this, as his hand wasn’t wounded as badly as if he had just used it to cave someone’s face in, but it did bear some of the tell-tale signs of a fistfight. He glanced back towards the body on the floor, and noticed that a heavy fire extinguisher was lying near the head. The thick metal canister was dented towards the bottom and covered in blood and flecks of bone. The man fell to his knees and began dry heaving, then forced himself away from the body when he realized how close he was to it.
When the feeling passed, the man staggered back to his feet and realized, almost as an afterthought, that he needed to get out of there. His mind racing, he ran back to where he had first woken up to look for clues, then decided halfway there to look outside to see if anyone else was around, then as he was moving through the bar towards the front he decided to…
Calm down, the man told himself. One thing at a time.
Taking a deep breath, he walked to the front of the bar to look to see if anyone else was there. Slowly, he opened the front door and peered outside. To his relief he saw that nobody was there, with only a single car in the dirt parking lot to the side of the building. Directly in front of the bar was a two-lane road. The area around the bar was mostly dark, save for a few small spotlights here and there around the sign and front entrance. The only other light was from a nearly-full moon that hung heavy in the black night. The night sky was so clear and full of stars that it reminded him of another sky he remembered seeing from somewhere far away, but when he tried to place the memory it dissolved around him back into darkness.
Stepping back inside, he headed through the bar to the bathroom and turned on the light. A naked bulb flickered on over the sink, leaving the other half of the room with the single toilet in it mostly dark. Under the pale, yellow light of the bulb he washed his hands thoroughly, staining the cracked, dirty porcelain of the sink pink with the blood and viscera that came off his hands. There was some on his black jacket, but it wasn’t too noticeable because of the dark color. He splashed water on his face, washing away the blood caked over the cut on his forehead.
He dried himself off on the cheap paper towels stacked behind the sink, then wiped off the handle of the sink and the light switch with them before flushing them down the toilet. Of course, it occurred to him after this bit of caution that he had no idea how much DNA, fingerprints, or other evidence he was leaving behind here, but there was nothing he could do about that now.
Next he checked his pockets, where he found a single silver key attached to a plastic holder that had “Dusk Motel, Rm. 312” printed on it in his right front pocket. His left pocket had a bill fold with about $100 in assorted bills, as well as a small phone. No driver’s license, credit cards, medical cards, or anything else he could use to identify himself. The phone was a cheap smartphone, the kind that worked off of prepaid phone cards. It told him that the time was now 2:39 AM. A quick scan showed him a few numbers that hadn’t been registered with names, but a more thorough examination would have to wait until later.
The lack of information was enormously frustrating. How the hell did someone wind up without any kind of identifying information in this day and age? Was he some kind of spy or some bullshit like that? Maybe someone had intended to leave him for dead and took all his information to make him harder to identify. Maybe he had gotten the drop on them before that. Could that be why he had killed those men? If he had killed those men? He shook his head as if to clear it. These questions would have to wait. He needed to get out of here.
And now, standing in the light of the naked bulb in the restroom, he steeled himself for what he knew had to come next. Because he hadn’t found a pair of car keys in his pockets, so he knew that someone else had the keys to the black car outside. He put his hand on the door handle and left it there for a moment in hesitation. He didn’t want to do this. Whether the body was his handiwork or someone else’s didn’t matter, he didn’t want to face it either way.
While he was standing there he became aware of motion on the other side of the small restroom, behind the toilet. Something was back there, slithering around in the dark recesses of the corner just out of sight. Feeling his heart pounding louder in his ears, the man closed his eyes and pushed the door open. He desperately hoped whatever was back there was just in his head.
He walked towards the main area, back to where he had woken up behind the bar. He vaulted over the still-spreading pool of blood seeping out of the man to get back to where he awoke. There he found the gun that had been used to shoot the two men, which he picked up, safetied, then slid into his pocket. He paused for a moment and wondered how he knew to put the safety on, but then put the thought out of his mind.
He hated to do it, but the man in the middle of the room seemed like the most likely candidate to be the owner of the car. He walked back over to his inert body in the center of the room, swallowed hard, and crouched down over him to begin looking through his pockets. There was nothing in the right-hand side pockets of his jeans or jacket, but the man was relieved when his hands closed over a car key in the victim’s left jacket pocket, as well as a small manila envelope that looked like it contained cash.
As he examined the key it occurred to him that he ought to take the man’s wallet to see if he could glean any information from it. But as he looked back towards the victim he became aware of a gasping, sucking sound coming from his caved-in face. Jerking back more out of instinct than anything else, the man shot back into a nearby chair, which he sent clattering to the floor as he frantically scrambled backwards. With his heart pounding in his chest and his vision going in and out of focus, the man pulled himself up and slowly, hesitantly gazed back at the seemingly dead body on the floor.
The dead man appeared to be gasping for air, which he sucked in through his destroyed face with a wet, gurgling sound. In mute horror, the man stared at the grotesque scene, wondering if he should try to help the victim, or put him out of his misery. It was in that state of indecision that his vision blurred and then came back clearer, and he realized that the dead man’s chest wasn’t moving. He shut his eyes tight, trying to push the vision out of his mind. When he looked again, he saw that the body was still. No gasping. No wheezing. Just a still corpse. In his state of shock and confusion, the man forgot about the wallet, and instead decided to just get out of there.
As he headed for the exit, he didn’t exactly relish the idea of getting behind the wheel of a car and heading for a destination unknown while these nightmarish apparitions periodically blew through his field of vision. But then it’s not like he had much of a choice. Someone could show up at any minute.
He walked through the empty dust parking lot to the car. It was parked at an angle with its interior lights still on due to the ajar doors, and there were skid marks behind it. Whoever had pulled in had been in a hurry, he thought, as he closed the passenger door before sliding in behind the wheel.
He pulled out onto the two-lane road in front of the bar and began heading right, on a whim. The road was straight and flat, traveling past arid desert on either side. Thankfully, it was deserted. He drove on, chasing the light of his headlamps as they led him through the inky blackness. Before long he realized he was climbing, as the road ascended a long, gradual climb, his tires tracking the yellow and white road markings the entire time.
It was as he was driving that the full impact of what he had just seen hit him full in the chest, leaving him gasping and struggling to breath. He realized he was making a noise of some sort, which resolved itself into a series of jagged sobs as his mind replayed the aftermath of the slaughter from the bar.
He had killed those men, he was almost certain of it. He killed them, and he didn’t even know why. He didn’t know who they were or why they needed to die. The guilt crushed in on him from all around, making it hard to breath. He needed to know who they were, and what had happened. It was the only possibility he had of assuaging the horrible self-reproach assailing him, of ridding himself of the cloying suspicion that he was a murderer.
When the car crested the top of the rise he found himself at a crossroads, with two empty, deserted roads converging before heading off in different directions. He drifted the car off to the berm on the side of the road, and got out to have a look around. A chill wind hit him as he stepped out into the night air, lashing him from behind as he pocketed the car key and slammed the door.
He saw an expanse of moonlit desert stretch out before him in every direction. He saw off in the distance a highway that he could reach by traveling down this intersecting road. Beyond that he saw the lights of a city, glittering against the velvet darkness all around him.
He turned around and looked the other way, where all was dark. He couldn’t see very far in that direction, but he could feel something. Like a presence, lurking just out of sight, just out of reach. The wind whipped him again, sending a cold shiver crawling across his exposed skin that burrowed all the way to the bone.
He got in the car and slammed the door. When the interior lights went out he happened to glance in the rear-view mirror and see a body leaned up against one of the back seats. The vision flashed before him so fast he barely had time to register it, only catching quick impressions off of it (small, bloody, gasping) before his body reacted by flinging himself against his door and out into the cool night again. He backed away from the vehicle, fumbling for the heavy revolver still in his pocket. But when he looked again into the backseat, now illuminated by the interior lights, there was nobody there. Just another illusion.
His heart still pounding from the fright, he slowly got back into the car, keeping an eye on the backseat as he did so. Nothing. He faced forward again and started the car, then he began to drive. Towards the light of whatever city had been foolish enough to embed itself in this gaping maw of yawning nothing he sensed all around him.
He turned on the radio to distract himself. As soon as he did, he heard Johnny Cash intoning the chorus to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” over a harsh back-beat of claps and stomps. He turned the radio off.
He gunned the engine down the deserted road towards the highway, then eased up on the accelerator as he pulled on from an approaching on-ramp. With no driver’s license, ID, or idea of who he was or where he had come from, he couldn’t afford to be pulled over.
As he drove through the periodic rings of light thrown down by the overhanging street lamps spaced far apart, he realized that he didn’t have a destination in mind. As he was pondering this he could feel his phone vibrating against his leg as it began to ring, startling him to the point of nearly swerving off the road before he caught himself and corrected his course.
He pulled the small, black phone out of his pocket and stared at the smooth, glassy screen. He didn’t recognize the number, but that didn’t exactly surprise him at this point. He answered the call more out of habit than any thought of whether it was a good idea or not, and held the phone up to his ear with one hand while he drove with the other.
“Hello there, Number Nine!” said a woman’s voice, with an audible smile. “How did it go tonight?”
Want to read more? In the Dark is available for purchase from Amazon