When Reggie King stepped inside the rental house on that rainy Saturday evening, the first thing he did was draw his Glock nine millimeter and begin searching from one room to the next, opening doors and flipping on lights as he moved.
He had to make sure the place was empty.
It was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch in East Atlanta. A few pieces of no-frills furniture occupied the rooms, only the essentials needed for simple living. His real estate company advertised the place as “fully furnished, utilities included,” which helped to maintain a steady stream of new tenants, mostly transient types who needed a pad for a few months.
As he searched each room, he kept one hand clasped around the gold crucifix that dangled from his necklace. His other hand was steady with the gun, a good sign. He’d been so terrified the past three days that his sure grip gave him confidence that he was taking back control of his life.
The only sounds in the house were the rain drizzling on the roof, and his labored breathing. He didn’t hear the noises he feared: the whispers and the soft laughter that had been following him like his own shadow.
He scratched the back of his neck. A monster mosquito—he’d assumed it was a mosquito but hadn’t really seen it—had bitten him a couple days ago, and the swollen sore itched like a mother. He’d dab some hydrogen peroxide on it whenever he got a chance.
The house was clear. Every room, closet, and corner was as vacant as he’d expected. It was a safe place for him to spend the night, and, he hoped, at least the next few days. Until he could figure out what the hell was going on.
He returned to the front room. He’d dropped his suitcase in the entry hall and left his bag of Chick-fil-A sitting on an end table. He grabbed the bag of food and headed into the kitchen.
He’d bought five chicken sandwiches and four large orders of waffle fries. After twenty-four hours without eating, he was ravenous.
He had a big appetite under normal circumstances. He was six-three and two-fifty, heavily muscled, his physique almost as solid as it had been twelve years ago, during his days as a starting defensive linebacker at Morehouse. He still hit the weights and the track six days a week, determined to stay fit as he crept through his mid-thirties; his grueling workout routine demanded he consume a high amount of calories.
In spite of his obsession with physical fitness, he’d been unprepared to handle the terror that had begun three days ago. He would have been better prepared, in fact, to deal with the zombie apocalypse.
He sat at the table, gun at his side, and devoured three of the sandwiches and two of the sleeves of fries, before he even bothered to check his new cell phone. It was a prepaid he’d picked up and activated earlier that day. He’d discarded his Blackberry yesterday—had taken a hammer to it and smashed it until the electronic guts leaked out.
No one had his new cell number. That was critical. It was safe from tampering. He needed to call a few folks in his inner circle and let them know how to reach him.
He wiped his greasy fingers on a napkin, and slipped the cell out of the inside pocket of his windbreaker jacket. He thumbed on the power button.
Two text messages were waiting for him.
The first one was a welcome message from the wireless provider, explaining the rates for sending and receiving texts.
The second text came from a familiar source: the number of his own Blackberry that he’d smashed to bits yesterday.
The text read: Vengeance is mine i will repay.
Reggie dropped the phone onto the table as if it had given him an electric shock. Rising out of the chair, he picked up the Glock and swung it around the kitchen, his heart thudding.
He was alone.
How the hell had the guy used his Blackberry? How had he gotten this new number? Reggie didn’t even know the number yet for his new phone.
His stalker seemed all-knowing, godlike. Did he know where Reggie was hiding, too?
Delicious aromas drifted from the opened bag, but Reggie had lost all semblance of his appetite. He needed to search the house again.
Gun held in front of him, he crept from the kitchen, into the brightly-lit hallway.
The lights flickered, and went out.
“Shit,” Reggie said, under his breath. He bumped against the wall, and stopped. He wasn’t familiar enough with the property to navigate in the dark, needed to wait a few seconds for his vision to adjust.
A second later, a noise came from the area of the house where the bedrooms were located. Someone speaking in a low but intense tone.
A chill slipped down Reggie’s spine.
No, Reggie thought. He can’t be here.
He turned around, to face what he thought should be the front door, the way out, but he had become disoriented. The house was nearly pitch-black. It didn’t seem possible for a home located on a well-lit residential street to be so dark.
Heavy footsteps dragged across the tile floor.
“Brought you into this world, little man,” a raspy voice said, in what was close to a whisper. It was the voice of a man ravaged by lung cancer, the result of forty years of smoking two packs of Newports a day. “Brought you into this bitch . . . I will take you out.”
Cold sweat saturated Reggie’s face. It was the voice of his father, Ronnie King.
But his father had been dead for six years.
It was still too dark for Reggie to see him clearly. He saw only a hulking, shadowy figure, larger than him. Ronnie, or Ruthless Ron as he was known on the gridiron, had three inches and fifty pounds on his son, and a fearsome reputation on the college field. He’d specialized in hitting the opposing team’s quarterback so hard that the poor saps often left the game on a stretcher.
Reggie remembered, too, how it had felt for his father to hit him. Growing up, he’d been on the receiving end of those brutal fists many times.
Knees quaking, Reggie backpedaled in the direction that he believed the front door lay. The back of his leg knocked against a table, and he stumbled.
His father chuckled.
“Told you to train up on that footwork, little man.”
Reggie regained his balance and hustled to the doorway. He snatched open the door. Thin light sifted inside from a streetlamp, and cold raindrops hit his face.
He remembered his luggage. He had valuables in there that he couldn’t easily replace—and he didn’t know how much longer he would be on the run.
He turned, searching for the bag, and saw it only a few feet away, beside the sofa. As he stepped toward it, the thing that was his father shuffled into a shaft of watery light.
Reggie looked away, but not fast enough.
This was not the first time he’d seen the nightmarish thing from the grave. It had been haunting him since this madness has begun three days ago. But each time he caught another glimpse, he edged closer to plunging into total, irrevocable insanity.
That fleshless skull full of wriggling maggots might be forever imprinted on his memory.
Reggie tucked the suitcase under his arm as if carrying a football. He bolted out of the house.
He’d parked his black Mercedes sedan in the driveway in front of the attached garage. He tossed the suitcase onto the passenger seat and scrambled behind the wheel.
He was shivering so badly that it took him four fumbling attempts to fit the key into the ignition.
His dead father didn’t appear in the house’s doorway. He wouldn’t. He never chased him. He was always waiting for Reggie, wherever he happened to go.
Reggie knew what would happen if he dared to stay behind and confront his father. His father would kill him. After all, he’d wanted to kill Reggie before death had taken him. The last time Reggie had seen his father alive, they’d come to blows about how to best handle a hundred acres of family property in Alabama that had fallen into their hands with the death of an older relative. His dad had wanted to sell the land on the cheap and pocket the money. Reggie had seen opportunity and wanted to build a subdivision. Dad didn’t like his son implying that he was a fool, and the fight was on.
Reggie had landed one punch, purely in self-defense, and then fled the house, but not before his father had promised him: If I ever see you again, I’m gonna kill you.
By some devilish turn of fate, his father had been given another chance to accomplish his final wish.
He mashed the accelerator. The tires screeched on the wet pavement briefly, and then found purchase. He peeled out of the driveway.
The stereo was on, blaring music. He’d switched it on while driving earlier, attempting to calm his nerves. Stevie Wonder was singing his classic, “Superstition.”
Steering the car onto the road, Reggie punched the button to switch off the radio. He needed to figure out his next move.
Hiding out in one of his vacant rental properties had been his best idea thus far. But that had worked for barely fifteen minutes.
He considered leaving Atlanta. He had family in Alabama, California, and Texas.
Even better, what if he left the country for a while? He could go somewhere he loved, like Brazil. Surely, on another continent, he would be safe from this nightmare.
He had his passport in his suitcase. He could book a flight into Rio tonight. He had the funds. Owning a real estate management company for the past ten years had been a highly lucrative endeavor for him. He’d managed to turn a hefty profit regardless of market shifts, because he hadn’t been afraid to bend—or break—the rules as needed. Survival of the fittest. That was a lesson his dad had taught him that he’d mastered.
He had decided that he was going to drive to the airport, and was about to turn in another direction, when he saw the tall, slender figure about a hundred yards ahead. The man stood under the boughs of an elm tree, as if waiting for a taxi.
It was Reggie’s torturer. The one who had launched this living nightmare in the first place.
Reggie’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. He gritted his teeth.
Vengeance is mine, asshole, he thought. I’m ending this.
And then he floored the gas pedal . . .