“I’m telling you that I haven’t been drinking,” Mr. Zalen insists as he hurries to his car. He searches for his keys while keeping his phone pressed to his ear, the pressure causing a mild amount of pain. “There have to be pictures out there. People were using their phones throughout the entire thing. I swear the ice started to break and the players started falling in. Those who tried to get out were crushed. Yes, I understand that you think it’s impossible, but I know what I saw with my own eyes. I haven’t touched those types of drugs in years, Larry. Well, what about the decapitation? No, I can’t explain it outside of an elaborate prank, but even then it wouldn’t make any sense. Can you just send someone here tonight? I know I’m only a scout, but maybe that newspaper you bought will be interested. Don’t patronize me, Larry, because I know something is going on here. Just send-”
Mr. Zalen’s final words are cut off when his neck is snapped from behind and his phone is kicked into the sewers. Coach Warner grunts as he lifts the corpse onto his shoulders and begins walking toward his car. Spotting a few lingering students, he shifts the body, so that it looks like he is helping a drunk friend home. He wanders about until the people leave and then quickly gets to his vehicle, a sense of being exposed making him twitchy. Once the trunk is open, he drops his victim inside and stares at it while thinking of a plan. Hearing sirens in the distance, he sighs and begrudgingly gets behind the wheel. The last thing he wants is to deal with the police and call in another favor, his list of contacts dwindling fast. He can see the cars in the distance as he pulls out of the parking lot, his lights off to avoid anyone seeing him in the darkness. It is not until he turns onto a road that will lead him to the lake that he relaxes enough to drive with more concern for his own safety.
“When did you get into the backseat?” Coach Warner asks, noticing a shadowy figure in his rearview mirror. Reaching into his glove compartment, he pulls out a candy bar and tosses it to his unexpected passenger. “Figure you’d be hungry after everything that’s happened. You know, I would have liked a warning that things would happen so soon after the break. Not that it matters now since I lost most of the team. Did we have to remove so many bystanders from the game?”
“It was unavoidable,” a female voice says, the words warped by the person having a mouth full of candy. A dainty burp shakes the windows and a foul stench of rotting flesh momentarily fills the car. “The parts keep running into those who want to take them away. Our influence doesn’t go further than the campus. Well, except for you and your contacts within the town, but those won’t help if the parts leave the area. It took so long to get them into position. Forgive me for being so impatient.”
“I can’t really blame you considering your condition,” the man admits as he stops at a red light. The crimson bulb bursts and releases a laser that cuts deep trenches in the cross street, which clears their path. “That was unnecessary and brings attention to us. I know you don’t worry about going to jail, but I’ve hidden enough bodies over the years to get more life sentences than I can count. Imagine if any of the ones I buried were dug up or one washes up on shore for once.”
A cold hand stretches out of the shadows, its wrinkled flesh sticking to the man’s sweat-covered skin. “You need to have more faith like the others. They know that I would never let that happen. My pets and friends will make sure that there is nothing more than . . . Well, absolutely nothing to find. Dead flesh is the best kind since the living stuff tends to kick and bite. Waiters get so offended when you order them and immediately chomp off a finger. Do you happen to have any more candy?”
“Yes, but try not to make a mess back there,” Coach Warner replies, handing three chocolate bars to the grinning shadow. He watches as a smooth-skinned hand snatches the food, the nails perfectly manicured. “I trust you and everyone else, but I feel like I’m the only one putting his neck in a noose. Thank you for assuring me that things are taken care of. Still, I’m going to be nervous as we get closer to the big event. Nobody warned me that it was getting so close, so I feel like I’ve been left out.”
“Oh, you have been because you’re the muscle.”
“That’s all I am to you?”
“I’m only teasing.”
“Sorry, but I didn’t find it funny.”
“Of course not since you forgot to laugh.”
The car swerves as the shadowy figure cackles, a cascading light flowing from its invisible mouth. With a chorus of caws, four ravens land on the moving vehicle and walk around the hood as if they are on stable ground. One wanders close to the windshield and experimentally pecks at the glass, which has a few small bugs stuck to it. The birds leave when the car comes to a stop in an empty parking lot, which is next to the lake. They remain in the trees where more ravens are resting and watching over the campus with glowing eyes. Coach Warner feels a chill run through his spine when all of their heads turn toward him, his paralyzed hand tightly gripping the door handle.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” the shadow promises with a yawn. The instant its mouth snaps shut, the doors fall off their hinges and Mr. Zalen’s body is ejected from the trunk. “See, I’m helping out. You need to be nicer to me since I could always put you back where I found you. Buried and burning and pierced and dying. Not a fun way to live, little pet. If it makes you feel better, I can tell you that I trust you to handle the dirty work. The others are too . . . fluffy for this kind of stuff. They are my sheep and you are my alligator. Everybody loves alligators, so now you’re happy again.”
“I guess I’ll take care of that body,” Coach Warner says, unsure of how to take the comparison. He stops when he is halfway out of the car and stares at where the ravens are devouring the corpse. “Thank you for helping. I’ll wait for them to finish and put the scraps in an incinerator that I have access to. Need to feel useful since I’ll be spending the rest of the semester answering questions. Again, I really wish we didn’t have to lose so many players. I understand the sorority and random people in the library, but this is more important. We had a chance at the championships this year.”
“Please get back in the car,” the passenger whispers in a friendly voice. The nervous teacher gets back inside and jumps when the doors reattach with a serpentine hiss. “None of that concerns me because it isn’t important. When we are done, you will have more than some silly trophy or belt. It might not be as amazing as a pretty banner, but it’s a close second. Still, you are part of something bigger than whatever else you hold dear. I don’t appreciate you complaining and making me feel guilty. It isn’t a fun emotion. Makes my tummy all twisted. Look, you can already see a knot by my bellybutton.”
Coach Warner grabs a water bottle and takes a drink, the liquid tasting bitter in his parched mouth. “I’m sorry for complaining. Again, nobody has told me what will happen after the big event. I was under the impression that my life will continue here. For that to be enjoyable, I would like to be in charge of a championship team and not badgered about the disappearance of my players. All I want is some sign that I’ll be rewarded for my actions, which I do not regret in the slightest. It’s only that this is beginning to wear me down.”
“Then, we are on the same page.”
“Oh, I’m not reading anything at the moment.”
With a roar from the engine, the car lurches forward and barrels toward the lake. It bounces over the curb, which scrapes the undercarriage and knocks the muffler loose. Leaving a deep furrow in the dirt, the careening vehicle weaves around the trees that seem to bend and shift out of the way. As it comes to the edge of the steep drop that leads to the shore, the car hits its breaks and rolls. Lights flicker while the radio runs through stations until stopping on a commercial for a local carwash. Hitting the ground on its passenger side, the vehicle ejects Coach Warner along with his door. He bounces and skids across the pack ice, every landing met with the blast of an off-key tuba. Stopping at the edge of the frozen part of the lake, the terrified man remains curled in the fetal position.
“I believe I’ve made my point,” the shadow whispers as it gently grabs Coach Warner by the ankle. Dragging him back to shore, the figure is followed by a beam of moonlight that dances to an unheard tune. “Maybe later. Right now, we have a lot of work to do. There are still some nosy parts that need to find their way. What? Oh, I guess we can take a break and get something to eat. I promise no mushrooms this time, but only if I get to drive. What does having a license have to do with anything?”