(Publilshed on The Horror Tree, 3/28/21)

Image Credit – Trembling With Fear

Max Baker tapped his Cuban cigar gently against the lead crystal ashtray on his desk, knocking the ash off the end, but his eyes never left the huge flat screen on the wall displaying his stock activity in real time.

He’d made arrangements to have multiple sales execute simultaneously on this day, a coordinated move to separate the divisions of the company he sat on the board of because those parts were worth significantly more than the whole.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Max Baker preferred to remain behind the scenes, never granting interviews or requests from reporters. He’d built his empire on transactions that met all legal criteria, but left any vestige of ethics far behind.

His critics often said he was the most soulless individual they’d ever met, a viewpoint he didn’t bother to debate.

He smiled then, a predatory grin, as the sale executed and the red lines on the board that represented his holdings spiked upward. This sale would multiply his investments, albeit ultimately resulting in the company’s collapse, causing hundreds, possibly thousands of employees to lose their jobs and health benefits during the height of a global pandemic, but that fallout never crossed his mind.

Those spiking lines were all that mattered. The rest of it, collateral damage, a part of doing business.

He’d invested his time and resources in this project over the past three years, first rising to a majority seat on the board, then imposing Draconian measures to improve the fiscal appearance of the company to investors, raising its market value to the offshore interests looking to step in, all the while planning to sell it off in pieces, funneling massive profits into his own pocket. He’d decided not to wait any longer, choosing to execute before the idiot in office collapsed, triggering an immediate reaction on the Street.

“Strike while the iron is hot, Max,” he murmured before taking another deep drag on his Cuban, “that’s always been the way to win.”

He turned his head slightly to exhale a huge plume of gray smoke, not wanting to obscure his view of the screen, but as the smoke cleared, he saw a small boy standing in front of the long leather sofa on the side of his office.

The boy couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, blonde hair in a bowl cut, a red T shirt over blue jeans and untied black sneakers on his small feet. What struck Max were the boy’s eyes, very light, ice blue, like those of a Husky, fixed on Max without blinking.

“Hey kid, who the hell are you?” he bellowed, “How’d you get in here? Go on, get the hell out, go back where you came from.”

Whoever sired this little bastard is out of a job before lunch, Max thought to himself.

The boy remained silent, his mouth slowly curling upward into a smile that never reached his eyes. They remained locked on Max; the icy stare made eerily sinister by his complete, unblinking silence. Something stirred, moving behind his sofa just then and two large animals of some sort walked out and flanked the boy on either side.

“What the fuck is this now?” Max whispered, gaping at the creatures.

These were nothing like any breed of dog or other kind of animal Max had ever seen before. Ears pressed flat back against broad heads, narrow slits for eyes and enormous jaws filled with large, thick teeth beneath a wide snout. Their short haired, jet-black bodies were very muscular, more so than he’d ever seen on an animal, and their paws all seemed to have only three toes, each sprouting a massive talon at the end. These things had no tails and their wide shoulders stood nearly as high as the boy’s head.

Max turned his chair slowly, very aware that his massive oak desk had no modesty panel on it and the boy would see any motion clearly. He always kept a loaded Beretta in the upper right-hand drawer of his desk, just out of his reach at the moment, and wanted to get to it without drawing undue attention. Whatever the hell these things were, their purpose was clear.

These things were killing machines.

As he moved, the… thing on the boy’s left growled, a deep rumble filled with barely restrained menace as the talons on its front paws dug into the hardwood flooring. Max froze in fear at the sound, not even reacting when he voided his bladder.

The boy opened his mouth then, speaking just one word, very softly.


The beast on the left bolted first, racing under the desk and sinking its massive jaws into Max’s right thigh. It bit down with enough force to shatter the femur as it shredded Max’s femoral artery, the blood fountaining out onto the beast’s head and shoulders. When Max threw his head back to scream out in agony while flailing in vain to reach the drawer, the second beast leaped easily onto his desk, tilted its head and clamped down savagely onto Max’s fully exposed throat. The bite tore through both carotid arteries before increasing in force, crushing his larynx, trachea and jugular into little more than ground meat.

The force of the arterial spurts seemed to drive both creatures berserk, their blood lust driving their frenzied attacks wilder by the moment. Max’s mangled, dead body slipped down off his chair onto the floor, where the two beasts tore into him with renewed vigor, as the little boy quietly watched the carnage unfold before him.

The beasts shook their heads violently, tearing off chunks of flesh and devouring them entirely as they made their way to the entrails within, ravenous in their quest.

The boy smiled again, but this one was clearly genuine, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm as the hellhounds did precisely what they’d been summoned to do.


Renewal Ceremony

Catherine went to the edge of the small patio and waved at the guests milling about and chatting in small groups to head on up and take their places.

The ceremony was about to begin.

As the small group formed a semicircle on the square patio, the warm, humid air settled on them like a shroud. A breeze would have been more than welcome, but the late June air was perfectly still, the large metal wind chime hanging straight down at the edge of the patio.

The officiant smiled at the group and gestured to Catherine and Joseph as she began.

“Family and friends alike, we are all gathered here to join Catherine and Joseph as they renew their vows and reaffirm the bond that they share together. Before we begin, let us observe a moment of silence for those who cannot be here with us today”

As she bowed her head, the clapper in the wind chime struck the side just once, tolling clearly throughout the yard. A number of bowed heads lifted just then, looking at the chime and wondering how it rang with absolutely no breeze to account for any movement.

At that moment, a rush of cold air blew outward from behind them, the refreshing air moving swiftly over the group, off the patio toward the trees beyond the manicured lawn. Heads turned, wondering who’d opened the sliding glass doors, allowing the conditioned air from the house to come out.

The doors were firmly closed, the kitchen behind them completely empty.

Patsy, the family’s Labrador Retriever, whined softly just then, lying on the grass beside the patio, her gaze fixed on the trees beyond the lawn as the officiant continued the renewal ceremony with no further… occurrences.

Those guests using their cell phones to record the ceremony wouldn’t realize until later that all their screens went pure white just before the chime sounded, turning back to normal mere seconds later. The audio was unchanged, that chime perfectly clear during the whiteout period.

At the completion of the readings, Catherine and Joseph kissed as the group burst into cheers and applause, raising their champagne glasses to the couple. Catherine rested her head on Joseph’s chest and gazed out at the trees, her irises now a light amber surrounding deep red pupils.

Her renewal was now complete. She closed her eyes, sighed deeply and turned to her guests, her eyes back to their normal brown color.