“Stay away from the water,” they’d been told. King had taken the frail old woman at her word, gave them strict orders to stay out of the swampy river bend that the wellness retreat sat on. Percy and Gregorio hadn’t looked convinced but were unwilling to argue with King’s superstitions unless they had reason to. Christopher took one look at the dark, clouded water and knew without having to be told that ending up in that water would be a mistake. He told himself it was the possible gator’s hiding in the dark depths. It felt like too obvious a lie.
They’d been called in when the dead body of a petty officer had been found on the sloping grassy hill out behind the two-hundred-year-old building. Even King hadn’t had much information to go on with the resort, just that it had been in business for as long as anyone could remember and catered to a very specific clientele. Interviewing the first witness Christopher had figured out the brand of clientele that the resort brought in.
“It was a waste of time,” he sinks down into the loveseat in the suit they’ve been supplied for the night. It’s some ways out of town, and it’s too dark to navigate through the back roads safely.
“How so?” King settles next to him, hands him a cold beer and clinks the necks together.
“Mrs. Choi thinks petty officer Miles was dragged from the water,” he takes a long swig of beer.
“That would explain the water damage.” King allows, frowning.
“Yeah but she also thinks that our murderer was a seven-foot-tall monster made of seaweed.” His voice carries his disbelief. Despite King’s own superstitions, he’s knows he’ll see it as the waste it was interviewing her. It was early in the morning, maybe she’d seen a man, covered in mud and her mind had created the rest.
King doesn’t look disbelieving though. He gazes across the room at something Christopher cannot see. He wants to reach out, to pull him back to the here and now. Don’t go where I can’t. He finishes his beer and pushes the impulses away.
They get an early night and Christopher is up with the sun in the morning. Doc Wade should be done the autopsy, so they’ll call her at breakfast, finish the interviews they need and start digging further in petty officer Miles’ history to see who would want to hurt him. He crawls out from under the arm at the older man has slung over his waist and as quietly as he can he goes about his morning routine. King grumbles, frowns in his sleep and Christopher leans back in, presses a kiss to his temple, watches as his face smooth back into sleep.
He wanders down stairs in the hopes of grabbing some coffee for the rest of the team when something catches his eye. Mist is clinging to the slopes outside of the dining room as he peers through the large French double doors. The river looks like glass, undisturbed. It looks beautiful now that he can take it in, the foreboding from the day before disappearing rapidly. Where it was dark and clouded, possibly home to gators, now he can see the sky reflected on its surface, the pink tint of the sun as it slowly ascends in the sky.
He’s on the sloping, dewy grass before he realizes it, breathing in the brisk Louisiana air. It’s going to be a cooler day, the sky clear, perfect day to be out on the water. His phone pings in his pocket but he ignores it. His feet lead him across to the muddy, damp bank of the river. It’s utterly silent, not even the birds interrupt the dawn here.
The surface of the river ripples as he slowly wades into it. The chill of the water as it seeps through his boots, his pants, wakes him up the way the coffee wouldn’t have, makes him feel alive. He’s overwhelmed by how peaceful this place is, thinks that maybe he should look into coming back with King someday, see if they can swing a vacation for the two of them, some quality time together.
He can imagine stretching out in that big bed with him, this time without worrying about their two teammates next door overhearing. He’d spend hours sucking King off, bringing him to the edge over and over again, making his toes curl in pleasure until finally letting him tip over when neither of them can wait any longer.
“Christopher?” He thinks he hears his name but can’t quite turn around to look, up to his thighs in the cold water, mud and weeds.
They don’t need to yell, he thinks, its disrupting the peace that has fallen over the river. They can just come join him, experience it themselves, see for themselves.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He glances over his shoulder to see his team hurrying down the sloping hill, still dressed in their sleep clothes.
“Oh my god,” they hesitate, fear dawning across their features. King starts running. “Get the hell out of the water!”
He turns back, looks out over the water as it ripples and a dark figure rises out of it. It’s vaguely humanoid, but there are no physical features, just covered head to toe in mud and plant life as it reaches out for him.
And finally, instead of peace, of calm, all he feels is horror.
A scream lodges itself in his throat as it reaches for him, mud dripping from its arm and he stumbles but his boots have sunk deep into the river bed and he twists, cursing himself for not having his gun. It moves sluggish, slowly, but he’s stuck in place with no where to go. The mud closes over his arm, sticking to him, spreading up and across his chest, and it’s pulling him forwards further into the water.
“Get off of him!” King splashes into the water without hesitation, wrapping his arms around Christopher’s waist in a bid to try and keep him from being pulled any further in. The mud covers his chest and spreads up his neck and he tilts his head back trying to keep it off his face for as long as possible.
“Dwayne.” He gasps as it creeps up his chin. He presses his lips together so it can’t slide into his mouth, choking him.
“I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” King keeps repeating, nails scraping at the mud, trying to break the hold it has on him, to pull him free. “Sonja!”
A thick branch swings and embeds itself in the creatures side, instantly stuck.
“Shit,” she swears, ripping chunks of mud from Christopher’s neck when the stick doesn’t work. It’s spreading as fast as she can clear it, reaching his nose and his eyes go wide as his oxygen is just suddenly gone. Panic spreads like wildfire then and he jerks, the mud catching in his lashes as it keeps going, ready to swallow him whole. He struggles, can’t tell what’s holding him up, versus what’s trying to drag him under. His chest burns, mud seeps into his nostrils, down his throat and is thick in his throat. He gags, his head pounding, heart feeling like it’s going to burst.
Something gives and he falls back, feels the water rush up to meet him. Hands scrub at his face even as he’s dragged from the river, stumbling, feet catching on each other.
“Christopher, come on, breathe.” King pleads. His voice sounds so far away, distorted by the mud in his ears.
He tries to, feels his mouth wiped clear. He opens his mouth and chokes on the mud on his throat, hacking and coughing, spots swimming before his vision as he tries to get it out. Thick fingers force their way into his mouth, crook and scoop the mud out, another set of hands wipe it from his eyes. He lists, feeling heavy, weak in their arms.
“Breathe for me Christopher.” King orders and he sucks in a breath, expecting to choke on more mud. The earthy taste is still there, some of it slips down his throat, makes him cough, but so does the sweetest air he’s ever had.
Someone lets out a heavy exhale as Christopher just focuses on breathing, on sucking air into his starving lungs. He’s manhandled to his feet and further from the river. He lets himself be moved, settled on something soft, a chair in the dining room he realizes. He tries to wipe some of the dirt from his lashes but Percy bats his hands away, uses a napkin to do it instead. She cleans off his face as best as she can, then sits back.
“What,” he coughs, voice wrecked, throat raw.
“Don’t know.” She says, glancing to the side. Gregorio is talking quietly with the old woman from the day before but they look up, meeting his gaze.
“I told you to stay away from the water.” The little old lady tells him. There’s a hint of concern in her expression, and knowing. He has a feeling she’s known all along what happened to their petty officer.
“Whatever you did chased that thing away,” Gregorio says, touching the woman’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
“What made you go to the river?” King crouches down before him, hands him a water bottle, helps him cup his hands around it and encourages him to drink before answering. It goes a long way in soothing his throat, chasing the taste from his tongue. He doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the feeling of the mud forcing its way down his throat.
“I was getting coffee.” He glances out the window but this time doesn’t feel the pull of the river. All he feels is a sense of wrong. “I didn’t mean to.”
“You should close this place down.” Percy addresses the old woman. “It’s not safe with that thing around.”
“It will be.” She looks out the window. “He will be taken care of.”
King shoots Percy a look that tells her not to argue. Christopher has a feeling this is one of those things that is better left alone, and he knows King will be keeping an eye on the resort.
They pack up their bags, as Doc Wade tells them the autopsy results over speaker phone. King refuses to let Christopher help, packing their bags quickly and efficiently while he’s curled up on the bed, freshly showered and changed. He’s downing cups of juice in the hopes that it will help chase the taste and texture from his mouth. He doesn’t think he can handle coffee or beer right now.
Their petty officer is ruled an accident, despite the witness that had seen the creature. Christopher is torn between leaving the place vulnerable to it and the urge to get the hell away. But he also knows how ill-equipped they are to deal with it.
They drove up together, considering the distance, so Christopher crawls into the back seat, lets the girls sit up front. King settles next to him, tugs him close and wraps an arm around his shoulders. He hasn’t been allowed out of the other mans sight since he was pulled from the water and he can’t say he can complain.
He glances back at the river as they pull away. It runs alongside the old road for a stretch before disappearing into the trees. For a moment he swears something is staring back.
“Everything okay?” King asks quietly.
He tears his gaze away and tries to settle his pounding heart.
“Yeah,” he closes his eyes, tucks his face against King’s neck and breathes. “Everything’s fine.”