On a dark night the fog rolled over the landscape like a living thing. Unlike normal fog, this was a thick, clammy mist that seemed to move of its own accord. No wind blew it along, yet it moved, clinging to the rounded slopes of the hills and sweeping through the draws with an almost purposeful air. It passed over the outlying hills, and moved inexorably through the town, providing those few who were still out and about a small thrill of unease as it slipped silently along.
The next day few people in Wilson spoke of the fog. It was an oddity that had come and gone in the depths of the night, and when day came there were more pressing, if more mundane, matters to discuss.
In the feed store, on the courthouse square, on street corners, men discussed the weather, the prospects for the crops that year, the price of beef and wool. As always, some muttered darkly about the goings on in the state capital, just 20 miles away, though hidden by the gently green and rolling hills, and about the policies sent forth from Washington, where no matter which party and which administration was in power, agriculture seemed to be a total mystery.
In the Agnes Cafe a scattering of men sat at the counter nursing coffee, while two or three others sat at the Formica tables finishing their donuts or scrambled eggs. Agnes was long gone - she'd died in the 50s, and by now the cafe had passed into entirely unrelated hands. But the name painted on the window remained the same, and the customers did likewise, the older farmers and ranchers giving way slowly and reluctantly to their young successors. Overalls still dominated the place, though Levis were beginning to sprinkle themselves through the regular clientele as they were through the farming population.
The door opened with a crash - something that never happened, for the hydraulic door closer was old and stiff and everyone had learned over the years of its decaying smoothness to lean heavily on the door to open it. Eyes turned to see what could possibly have created the impossibly swift and hard opening of the stubborn door. A stranger stood in the doorway, reaching to retrieve the door, and swing it shut again, which he did with an ease that belied the stiffness of the door closer. As he turned from closing the door, he said in a soft, cold voice, "I apologize for the racket. I was distracted, and paid no attention to what I was doing as I entered."
Amid looks between customers, the stranger walked to the counter. He was tall, broad-shouldered, thin. His skin was pale, not with the whiteness of one who receives no sun, but the pallor of the dead. His nose was high and arrogant, bisecting a face of such marble coldness it might have been the carved representation of divine hauteur. His hair was a black that was almost blue, combed straight back from his high smooth forehead. The hands were long, the fingers thin and supple, and a scattering of hairs grew from the palms. He was dressed in a black suit, with a single red carnation in the button hole. The stranger walked across the floor noiselessly, though the linoleum tiles were cracked in many places and even without boots it was impossible to be absolutely silent. The customers who had already been in the café looked at each other curiously as the stranger seated himself at the counter, between two older farmers with the thickness of years of work and the stains of earth and nicotine on their fingers. As he lowered himself onto the stool, a simultaneous look of revulsion passed over the faces of the two men, who as if by common pre-agreement swiftly drained the remainder of their coffee, threw a bill or two on the counter, and hurriedly went out.
The new customer appeared not to notice the reaction of the two men who had gone out, examining the tattered menu with apparent interest. The waitress stepped over with a glass of water in one hand and a coffee pot in the other. "You ready to order?" she asked.
"Yes." The stranger's voice was so low that the waitress had to lean forward slightly to be sure of hearing it. "I'll have a ham and cheese omelet, hash browns, and hot tea."
"All right." The waitress, whose name tag identified her as Sherry, scribbled the order on her pad, tore off the sheet, and slapped it down on the sill of the window that communicated with the kitchen. Turning back to the stranger, who had slipped the menu back into its rack, she asked, "New in town, aren't you?"
"Yes." The stranger's lips moved in a slight smile - a bare gesture.
"I don't know. It depends on my tastes."
"You don't look like a farmer or a rancher," Sherry observed, leaning back against the ice cream machine. "Nor yet anything else I can think of to move into a small town."
The stranger smiled his meager smile again. "I was informed that citizens of small towns were inquisitive." He made a show of inspecting his nails, which were impeccably clean. "I am a self-contained man. I do that which pleases me, and I live where it pleases me to live. What does not please me is to be required to give a full biography to all and sundry." The slight smile had disappeared, and Sherry took the hint.
"Well, I guess I know how to mind my own business too. But what do you want us to call you, if you do stay in town?"
"You may call me Mr. Carver. Jared Carver."
The cook slid the plate of omelet and potatoes across the stainless steel sill of his window, smacking the chrome bell that seems to be a required furnishing in all small town restaurants. Sherry grabbed the plate and clacked it down in front of Carver. Without a word she turned away, finding something to occupy her behind the counter.
Carver ate silently, voraciously. He seemed to enjoy his food, but at the same time his teeth, exposed briefly each time he took a bite, seemed to champ down on the eggs and hash browns with a touch too much force, as if he would have preferred to be eating live meat.
When he finished, Carver shoved his plate back with a finger, and took up the check. Glancing at the total, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit coat and withdrew a long, thin wallet. From within it he extracted a couple of bills. Sliding them and the check across the counter, he waited while the waitress rang up his meal and counted out the change. Pocketing some change and a bill, he stacked the rest on the counter and slid it toward Sherry. Without a word, he then rose and left, this time without overpowering the door.
Through the day, the dark, tall form of Jared Carver appeared at various places in the town of Wilson. He opened two accounts at the bank - one checking and one savings - before moving on to the realtor, where he made arrangements to see a large house for sale in town. He appeared in the city offices, inquiring about utilities; in the grocery store, where he made small purchases such as a man staying in a motel might make - although Maxine at the desk said no Jared Carver was registered and no one matching his description had a room there; and the hardware store, where he investigated, but did not buy, a selection of strong door locks. In each place where he appeared he had the unmistakable effect of dampening the usual small town friendliness; no one greeted him with "Howdy" more than once, and while he was never impolite, he most emphatically did not invite casual conversation.
As the day wore on Carver became the town mystery. He was not staying at the motel, and no one ever saw him enter or leave a vehicle. His clothing was of the highest quality and could not have been available anywhere short of the state capital or some other large city, yet it never seemed to suffer the dusty effects of walking in a town that was liberally spattered with the side effects of trailers loaded with cattle, hogs, horses, or grain. Where he was staying or how he intended to get there was completely unknown, as was why he was in town or why he seemed intent on moving in. The townspeople were completely baffled by his cold rebuffs of their friendliness; he was not rude, as they expected city dwellers to be, but the very precision of his politeness was a barrier. He was frigid in responding to inquiries, and few pursued matters further than the first calm repulsion.
That night outbursts of barking broke out through the night. The dogs in a particular section of town would erupt, without warning, into simultaneous fury, and the patch of barking would travel slowly along until, with equal suddenness, it would cease as if cut off with an ax. For a time all would be quiet, then the same strange phenomenon would spring up in another neighborhood. By daylight the dogs of Wilson were exhausted, and many of the human citizens were fed up with the "dang mutts."
In the morning, the news went around town that Harvey Clapp, east of town, had discovered one of his Angus steers down in the pasture, with a small, precise gash in its neck. The veterinarian diagnosed a massive loss of blood, and quickly loaded the animal up to recuperate at his clinic, but could come up with no reason why the blood could be gone, or how it could have been lost through the small wound on the neck, or where it could have gone, since the ground in the pasture was free of the large splotch of blood that the magnitude of the loss suggested.
Jared Carver did not appear in town for a couple of days. When he did, it was at the realtor's office, where he seemingly materialized out of a cold thin drizzle. Draped over his shoulders, protecting his suit and its inevitable carnation, white this time, from the rain, was a rain cloak that must have cost much more than the usual plasticized poncho. Dark in color, it complemented his suit without matching it exactly.
The realtor, having been previously warned that Carver would not make an appointment, but would merely present himself in the office when he was ready to see the house, was prepared. For any other client she would have refused such a peremptory and unusual request, but with Carver it was not a request but an inexorable fact. She had not found it possible to object.
The house was on a hill in an older part of Wilson, with other houses around but separated from them by its own ten-acre plot of ground. The house had once been magnificent, an example of money and taste, but over the years weather and neglect had worn the paint mostly off and turned the boards a dingy gray. The wood shone dimly in the light, thin trickles of water running down.
The doors were strongly hung, and the locks turned easily enough. The house had apparently been inhabited, though not with much money, until fairly recently, for while the marks of poverty and neglect were apparent there was none of the random destruction wrought by decay and teenagers in an empty building.
The realtor led Carver through the rooms - a large kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, and what the realtor called a den on the first floor, and upstairs two more bedrooms, a study, and what at one time had obviously been a library. Now the shelves were in disrepair, but they had once been strongly built and could have held thousands of volumes. Each floor had a bathroom, carved out of the existing space some time after the house was built. Electricity and gas were installed, as was telephone wiring. Most incongruous was a cable television outlet in the living room, its shiny black skin and gleaming plug a strange contrast to the evident age of the walls and floor.
Back in the realtor's office, Carver declared that he wanted the house. The woman began to discuss terms.
"No." Carver's one word startled the realtor into silence, and he continued. "I do not wish to clutter this transaction with mortgages, interest rates, payments, and other impediments. I will pay for the house outright. I have in my pocket a check, which merely needs to be made out for the full amount. It is on an account in a bank in New York," here he withdrew the check and laid it on the desk, "which as you will recognize is highly reputable. If you wish you may verify that sufficient funds are on deposit to cover the check."
The realtor was stunned. Not even the wealthy ranchers in the area - some of whom were worth a million dollars or perhaps even more - paid for houses in one fell swoop. She stuttered. "Mr. C-carver, I'll t-t-trust you to c-cover the ch-ch-check." Stopping for a deep breath, she got her voice under control. "I am not accustomed to working in this fashion, but I am sure we can arrange the deal to do it this time."
Carver laid his long, white, cruel fingers on the check. "You will take the check, after I have made it out, or I will buy another house from someone else. There is nothing to arrange. There is nothing to discuss. There is nothing to work out. The check is here, and you will either accept it for the full amount of the purchase price, or you will not. I would prefer the former, but in case of the latter I am fully prepared to take my business elsewhere."
She took the check. It was not possible to protest further in the presence of those eyes, with their tinge of red lurking in the black depths.
Jared Carver had been in Wilson for two months. The night was clear and chill, with the stars, once one got away from the lights of the town, standing out sharp and bright. A farm house two miles outside of town rested on a low hill, fields and barns surrounding it in a ring of familiarity. A patch of fog crept over the landscape, moving directly toward the house, although no wind blew. It settled over the little hill, blanking out the house and its few shining lights. After a moment of resting on the hill, the fog began to draw together, concentrating in the area directly in front of the door. In this yard, the fog compacted down until, with a last whirling, soundless rush, it disappeared.
In the yard stood a creature resembling a large dog. But no dog ever stood this rangy and menacing, with red eyes and lolling tongue and white fangs dripping saliva. Padding silently across the yard, the creature lowered its head and squeezed through the dog door fixed in the front door of the farm house. Within, there was a scream, following by the sounds of a struggle. Low growls mixed with the crashing and thumping. The struggle ceased, and was replaced by the unmistakable noise of a lapping tongue.
The next morning the city police and the county sheriff were called to the Johnson place. It seemed that some great beast had entered the house, by means as yet unknown although the dog door was suspected, and ripped out the throats of the elderly farming couple. While blood was splashed about somewhat from the obvious struggle, there was none in the bodies, and surprisingly little in the living room where the deaths had occurred.
By noon the news was being spoken of wherever people gathered in Wilson. The Agnes Cafe at lunchtime was abuzz with speculation and rumor. One fact was known - the prints of an enormous dog-like creature had been found in the yard, leading toward the house. These tracks had just appeared, as if the beast had been dropped out of thin air, and none led away from the house.
In the Agnes Cafe Sherry was talking steadily as she passed from table to table, handing out opinions and taking orders with the same facility. She was stopped in her tracks by the opening of the door. Eyes turned, and saw Jared Carver enter. Handling the balky door with exquisite care, he closed it and took a seat at the end of the counter. The man to his left put down his fork, paid his bill, and left hurriedly.
Sherry, swinging back into action with obvious reluctance, crossed to the counter and asked, "What'll ya have, Mr. Carver?"
"A bacon cheeseburger, rare, with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard. No ketchup or mayonnaise. An order of tater tots on the side. Hot tea."
Sherry wrote, slapped the order on the window sill for the cook, and scanned the room. While Carver was ordering several people had left, and now no one required her services. She was, perforce, stuck with the pale stranger in his funereal suit. Attempting to make conversation, she asked, "Have you heard what happened last night?"
"I have. An interesting crime, is it not?"
"Interestin' is one word for it. What could have done it?"
"I would suggest a wolf."
"A wolf?" Sherry asked with a near-laugh. "They ain't no wolves around here. Haven't been for nearly 100 years."
"Perhaps one has entered the country. The animal's prints, as described to me, are those of a wolf. The ripping out of the throats could have been done only by some large beast such as a wolf."
A customer seated behind Carver spoke up. "Hey mister, didn't I read the other day that wolves don't attack people?"
"That has been said," replied Carver without turning. "Perhaps in most cases it is true. In this case, a wolf appears to be the most likely suspect."
The bell rang, and Sherry took the plate from the window and clacked it down in front of Carver. "Eat up, Mr. Carver. I got work to do." Moving off, she began wiping already clean tables with a rag.
Carver lifted his burger and took a bite. The elongated teeth gleamed briefly, and then sliced into the bun and meat. When the bite was sheared off, there were two marks in the edge, where the canines had bitten in.
A man entered the Agnes Cafe. He wore a dark suit and sunglasses, and was careful to take a seat where his back was to a wall and he could see out over most of the street in front of the building. He did not remove the sunglasses, keeping them on as he surveyed the customers and the street outside. Sherry, walking over to take his order, was disconcerted by the blank scrutiny the stranger turned upon her.
"What can I get you, mister?"
"Just coffee. And then I'd like to talk with you for a few minutes."
"Yeah, sure." It was a slow time of day, and so when the coffee arrived in Sherry's hand she sat down across the table from the man in the sunglasses.
He reached into his coat and produced a well-worn wallet. Flipping it open, he displayed a badge and an identification card. "Agent Corrigan, FBI. You may inspect the credentials if you like."
Sherry did so. "Gee, I've never met an FBI agent before. What do you want?"
"Just information, at this point. You're aware of the killings in the Wilson area?"
"Sure I am." Sherry shuddered. "First the cow, then the Johnsons, then two more families and about 20 head of stock. It's weird, is what it is."
"It's more than that." The agent replaced his credentials, and glanced through his sunglasses at the street. "I'm sure you understand the FBI doesn't investigate local matters unless we think there's just cause. We have an entire team in the area now, working with the local law enforcement people. We think there is more to these killings than just random violence or cultic activity. There is some sort of pattern, we believe, if we can just find it."
"And?" prompted the waitress, leaning on her elbows.
"We're talking with people in town who have occasion to notice what's going on. Waitresses, gas station attendants, employees of the feed store, the real estate agent, and others who notice goings and comings. Are there any suspicious people you've noticed either coming to Wilson or hanging around the area in the past six months?"
"No," replied Sherry, frowning under her frizzy blond curls. "There's one guy who's real weird, a total cold fish, but he ain't suspicious or anything."
"Who is this man?"
"His name's Jared Carver. He always wears this mortician's suit, y'know, and he looks like death warmed over, only his eyes are real alive. He's as strong as an ox, and he just gives me the creeps. And everybody else just can't stand him, y'know. It's like he just ain't quite normal. Not that he's a nut or anything - he just ain't friendly, a cold fish, y'know."
Corrigan was taking notes, apparently in shorthand, for he set down very few strokes for all that Sherry said. He looked up as she finished, and asked, "And where can I find Mr. Carver?"
"Well, he sometimes comes in here - maybe once or twice a week. I never know what time of day. One time it'll be breakfast, and the next supper, and the next halfway between lunch and supper, and then breakfast or lunch. Let's see, he hangs around the bank some - he's got some kind of eastern financial connections or something. Maggie at the real estate office said he bought his house with a single $175,000 check on this big New York bank - I don't remember which one. He lives up on the hill on Snob Hill, up where all the rich folks built back when the oil was going. It's off back of the east side of town, I don't know the address."
"I'm sure I can find it. How would you describe Mr. Carver?"
"Well, like I said, he always dresses like an undertaker. Always got this black suit on - no pinstripes - and a flower in his button hole. Sometimes the flower's red, sometimes it's white - always real fresh. He's got this big long nose, like the aristocracy have, I guess, and he's pale. Looks he just crawled out of a coffin, if you've ever seen someone who's been laid out for burying. He's got this black hair, slicked back real smooth. It just slightly brushes his ears, y'know, and they're sort of pointed on top."