Dead of Winter, by Brian Moreland
Available at Amazon
A predator stalks the frozen woods.
At a fort deep in the Ontario wilderness in 1870, a ghastly predator is attacking colonists and spreading a gruesome plague—his victims turn into ravenous cannibals with an unending hunger for human flesh. Inspector Tom Hatcher has faced a madman before, when he tracked down Montreal’s infamous Cannery Cannibal. But can even he stop the slaughter this time?
In Montreal exorcist Father Xavier visits an asylum where the Cannery Cannibal is imprisoned. But the killer who murdered thirteen women is more than just a madman who craves human meat. He is possessed by a shape-shifting demon. Inspector Hatcher and Father Xavier must unravel a mystery that has spanned centuries and confront a predator that has turned the frozen woods into a killing ground where evil has come to feed.
Predators and Prey
December 15, 1870
It was the endless snowstorms that ushered in their doom. Each day and night the white tempests whirled around the fort, harrowing the log houses with winter lashings. At the center of the compound, the three-story lodge house creaked and moaned. Father Jacques Baptiste chanted in Latin and threw holy water on the barricaded front door. Above the threshold, a crucifix hung upside down. No matter how much the Jesuit priest prayed, the Devil would not release its grip on this godforsaken fort.
Something scraped against the wood outside. Father Jacques peered through the slats of a boarded window. Tree branches clawed violently at the stockade walls. The front gate stood open, exposing them to the savage wilderness. It also provided the only path of escape. If by chance they made it out the gate, which way would they go?
The priest considered their options. Beyond the fort’s perimeter, the dark waters of Makade Lake knocked plates of ice against the shore. Crossing the frozen lake would be a dead man’s walk. Last week, two of the trappers fell through the ice. The only way out was through the woods.
Father Jacques shuddered at the thought of leaving the fort. The trappers had fortified the outpost to keep the evil out. They hadn’t counted on the savagery attacking them from within. He prayed for the souls of the men, women, and children lost in the past few weeks. Last autumn, the French-speaking colony had been twenty strong. Now, in midwinter, they were down to four survivors and not a crumb of food to split among them. How much longer before the beasts within completely took them over?
“Forgive us, oh Lord, for our fall from grace.” Father Jacques sipped the holy water. It burned his throat and stomach like whiskey. “Cast out these evils that prey upon us.”
Behind him, the sound of boots approached from the darkness. The priest spun with his lantern, lighting up the gaunt face of a bearded man. Master Pierre Lamothe, the fort’s chief factor, wore a deerskin parka with a bushy fur hood. His eyes were bloodshot. He wheezed.
The priest took a step back. “Are you still with us, Pierre?”
The sick man nodded. “Just dizzy, Father. I’m so damned hungry.”
Father Jacques knew the pains of hunger. Each passing day it pulled his flesh tighter against his ribcage. “We’ll find something to eat soon, I promise. Here, take another sip.” He offered the bottle of holy water.
Pierre took a swig and winced. Seconds later he stumbled back, rubbing his eyes.
“The burning will pass.” Father Jacques grabbed his wrist. “Remember our plan?”
“Yes… check on the horses.”
“We must hurry. Now may be our only chance.” They removed the barricade from the door. A long staircase led down from the second floor to the snow-covered ground. “Bless me, Father.” Pierre raised his shotgun and stepped out into the blizzard. He all but disappeared in the white squall. The only parts visible were his hood and the outline of his shoulders. Father Jacques nervously watched the fort grounds. At the surrounding cabins, wind howled through shattered windows and broken doors. When Pierre reappeared at the stables, the priest released his breath.
Please let the horses still be alive.
The chief factor pulled a horse out. The poor animal was so thin its hide sunk into its ribs. As Pierre threw a saddle on its back, he raised two fingers, signaling that a second horse was still inside the stable.
Father Jacques closed the door and clasped his hands. “Thank you, oh Lord.”
Someone tugged at his cassock. He looked down to see a small, French-Indian girl. Pierre’s daughter Zoé had tousled black hair and large brown eyes that had kept their innocence despite the horrors they’d witnessed these past few weeks. The girl held a tattered Indian doll to her chest. “I’m afraid, Père.”
Father Jacques touched her head and gave the most comforting smile he could conjure. “Don’t worry, Zoé, the angels will protect us. Here, you need to bundle up.” He fastened her fur parka, pulled the hood over her head.
“I want Mama to go with us.”
“I’m sorry, Zoé, but she’s too sick. She would die out there. You, your papa, and I are going to ride out to the nearest fort. Then we’ll send help back for your mother.”
The girl frowned. “Noël says you’re lying!”
Father Jacques glanced down at the Indian doll. One green eye stared back. The other eye was a ragged hole. Since Zoé had stopped eating two weeks ago, she suffered from dementia. She spent most of her days whispering to her doll. Father Jacques wanted to rip its head off. He squeezed his fist. “Noël is just afraid like the rest of us. Now, pray for forgiveness for speaking to me in that manner.”
“Sorry, Père.” Zoé crossed herself and bowed.
“Now, drink.” He gave the girl the last of the holy water. She drank it and winced as if it were castor oil.
Outside, the horses whinnied. A shotgun fired.
Father Jacques dashed to the window. He searched the fort grounds. A saddled horse ran in circles. Where was Pierre?
Behind the wall of whirling snow, more shots were fired. Then came a scream. Pierre stumbled out of the mist. Blood spouted from the stump of his shoulder. He was missing an arm.
Peering out the boarded window, Father Jacques screamed at the sight of blood gushing from Pierre’s shoulder. As the wounded man stumbled up the front steps to the lodge house, the white mist rolled in from behind and swallowed Pierre. His scream was cut short.
“Papa!” Zoé ran toward the barricaded door. “Let Papa in!”
“No, move away from the door.” Father Jacques grabbed her hand and backed away.
Outside, the storm wailed. Snow blew in through the cracks of the boarded windows. Footfalls charged up the staircase like thundering hooves. Something rammed against the front door. The hinges buckled.
“Back to the cellar!” The priest pulled the girl through the dark corridors of the lodge house. Behind them, the front door crashed open. Terror stabbed Father Jacques’ chest with icy pinpricks at the shattering of windows and splintering of wood. Growls echoed throughout the lodge.
Zoé released a high-pitched shriek.
“Stay quiet, girl.” The priest led her down the cellar stairs. The swinging lantern slashed the darkness with a pendulum blade of light. Scratches and streaks of crystallized blood glistened on the steps and walls like a gallery of agonies marking the descent to hell.
They ran into the dark cellar. Father Jacques brought down an iron bar across the door and shoved crates against it. He took the child’s face in his hands. “Hide, quick.”
The girl crawled inside a nook stuffed with fur pelts. She hugged her doll to her chest. Father Jacques pulled a deerskin blanket down over the nook so Zoé was fully hidden. “Don’t come out no matter what you hear.”
A raspy voice whispered, “Father…”
The priest aimed his lantern at a row of beds. The storage cellar had been converted into a makeshift hospital. In three beds lay twisted corpses. In the closest bed, an Ojibwa woman was lying beneath the quilts. Wenonah Lamothe, Pierre’s native wife. She was too delirious to know that her husband was dead. Her skeletal head rolled back and forth on the pillow. Teeth chattering, she coughed clouds of frosty air. Her long, black hair now had streaks of white. Her skin, normally reddish brown, had turned fish-belly pale, with white scabs and ghastly blue veins. She looked to the priest, her bloodshot eyes pleading him. “Help me, Father.”
“I’m sorry, Wenonah.” God had failed her. Failed them all.
The Jesuit picked up a silver cross with a daggered tip. “I cast out all spirits of Satan.”
The woman tied to the bedposts growled like a wolfhound.
Father Jacques stood at the foot of Wenonah’s bed. Her thrashing body smacked the headboard against the wall. She laughed and moaned, blue tongue licking her lips. She kicked off her quilts, thrusting her hips upward, spreading her bony legs for him. Remaining steadfast in his prayers, the priest raised the holy dagger over the Ojibwa woman’s chest.
Wenonah glared with fiery eyes.
Zoé yelled, “Mama!”
“Stay hidden, child.” Father Jacques stumbled back as a wave of emotions coursed through him. Anger. Fury. Rage.
His stomach ached for something meaty. Raw and bloody. He sniffed the air, his keen sense homing in on the nook where the girl was hidden. Beyond the scent of animal furs, Father Jacques inhaled the salty aroma of blood pumping through a heart.
Eat the girl! growled a voice inside the Jesuit’s head. Eat the lamb’s sweet meat.
“No. No. No.” He slammed the cross-dagger into a post. “I am a disciple of God. He gives me strength! Lead me not into temptation, oh Lord.” The wave of hunger passed. He chanted faster.
Shrieks echoed from beyond the cellar door. Feet stomped down the stairs. The doorknob rattled. Nails scraped the door, clawing to get in.
Father Jacques backed away, praying the barricade would hold. Even if it did, without food and water they couldn’t last another day in the cellar. We have to escape.
He went to the back wall, climbed up a stack of crates. With a crowbar, he tore planks off a tiny window. Snow blew inward, stinging his face. The mist had cleared. He could see the stables and the open front gate. The square portal was too small for Father Jacques, but not the girl. Tears welled in the priest’s eyes as he realized his last hope had come down to the fate of a nine-year-old girl. “Come, child, now!”
She climbed out from her hiding place, hugging the doll to her chest.
The priest kneeled, taking Zoé’s hands. “There’s still a horse in the stables. I need you to ride out to Fort Pendleton.” He pulled a small diary from his coat pocket. “Give this to Brother Andre.” He stuffed the journal into a trapper’s fur-skinned pack along with her doll.
“No, I’m not leaving…” She started to cry.
“You must, Zoé! We won’t survive down here another day.” He pulled the pack onto her back, fastening the straps around her waist.
“But what about you, Père?”
“You’ll have to go on your own.”
From the bed Wenonah rasped, “Zoé, wait…” Her wrist stretched one of the ropes. “Come here, my child.”
“No, Zoé!” Father Jacques grabbed the girl just short of her mother’s gnarled fingernails. “Don’t touch her.” He carried Zoé to the back wall. She sobbed and jerked in his arms, reaching for her mother.
He stood her on a crate and shook her. “Listen, child! We need you to be strong. Go now, or you’ll never see your mother again.”
“But I’m afraid to go out there.”
“Remember the story about the lost children who came upon an angel?”
She nodded, sniffling.
“There are angels in the woods, and they will protect you, but they are leaving now, so you must hurry.”
The beasts wailed inside the cellar’s stairwell. An axe blade chopped through the door, cracking it.
The girl screamed and ran up the crates.
Father Jacques helped her out the window. She dropped down to the snowy ground.
“Hurry, Zoé!” He watched her run across the snowfield.
The axe blade smashed through the door. Dozens of white fingers tore at the hole. The priest held up a cross. “God is my savior!”
Another growl issued, this one from inside the cellar. He circled, searching the shadows until he spotted broken ropes at Wenonah’s bed. She now moved in the darkness just beyond the lantern glow. Her bones made popping sounds. The last stage of the change.
The priest stepped toward the row of beds. He barely made out the woman’s spindly shape hunched over, feeding off the flesh of a dead man. The crunching and tearing sickened Father Jacques and at the same time beckoned him to join Wenonah in the feast.
No, stay righteous! The Jesuit coughed. He stumbled to his altar and opened his holy book. The words blurred. His vision spiraled. Inside his stomach, the hunger grew, cold and burning, clinging his flesh to bone, filling him with a hollow emptiness, then turning—Yes!—spreading through him with a sweet rapture known only to saints and angels. “I am a shepherd of death…”
The cellar door crashed open.
Father Jacques raised his arms and smiled as he turned to face the ravenous horde.
Dead of Winter, by Brian Moreland
Available at Amazon