After an epic losing streak, Jeff Strand won the Bram Stoker Award in 2022 for his novella TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY SCREENING. He’s the author of more than 50 books, including CLOWNS VS. SPIDERS, AUTUMN BLEEDS INTO WINTER, and the novelizaton of ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES. (Yes, a 2023 novelization of the 1978 movie!)

His website is www.jeffstrand.com


 by Jeff Strand

"All you get to do is kill him."

Mr. Simon nodded. "I understand."

"I'm very serious about this. This is not going to turn into some sadistic torture session. You will press this gun against his forehead," Neal said, sliding the pistol across the desk, "and you will pull the trigger. If you want to make a speech before you do it, be my guest, but keep it brief."

Mr. Simon picked up the gun. "I'm ready."

"If you back out, I will not finish the job for you. So if you think you might not be able to go through with it, I'd advise you not to walk into that room. We can still turn him over to the police, no problem."

"And no refund."

Neal smiled. "Correct."

Mr. Simon pushed back his chair and stood up. "I won't be backing out. I'm going to enjoy every minute of this."

"Okay, now, see, I'm getting a torture vibe from that. I don't care what he did to your daughter. This is a quick, painless kill. There's only one bullet in that gun, and if it goes anywhere but his brain, you and I are going to have a problem. Are we clear?"

"One hundred percent."

"All right, then. Avenge away."

Mr. Simon walked out through the open door of Neal's office. Neal took a sip of his coffee, leaned back in his chair, and sighed.

He knew exactly how this was going to play out. Mr. Simon would walk into the room, shut the door, lock it, and shoot nineteen-year-old Derrick Naylor in the gut. Screw the consequences. When Neal got in there and broke his nose, well, Mr. Simon would decide that it had been worth it for Derrick's extra couple minutes of agony.

Mr. Simon's daughter, Vivian, had been beaten, raped, and left for dead. She had yet to emerge from her coma. Odds were, she never would. So Neal could understand why her dad might want the guy who'd done this to his sweet, beautiful, thirteen-year-old daughter to suffer.

He deserved much worse than a quick gunshot to the head.

He deserved to die slowly, screaming for hours. 

Whoever he was.

It sure as hell wasn't Derrick. Poor kid just happened to match the age, build, and hair color of somebody a witness claimed to have seen walking past the park where Vivian was abducted. The case against Derrick wouldn't hold up for thirty seconds with actual law enforcement, but the burden of proof was significantly less when dealing with a devastated father whose mind was poisoned with thoughts of revenge.

Neal had no criminal-tracking skills whatsoever, but he was pretty good at kidnapping, and excellent at using Photoshop to provide some damning evidence.

Eventually the real rapist might be brought to justice, but Neal would be long gone, and it wasn't as if Mr. Simon would rush to the cops to confess that he'd murdered an innocent kid.

The gun fired.

Neal stood up and walked out of his temporary office (they were all temporary) just as Mr. Simon emerged from the other room. He was in a daze and tears streamed down his face. He handed the gun back to Neal.

Neal glanced into the room. Derrick lay on his back on the plastic, still tied up, blood pooling under his skull, a nice little hole in the center of his forehead.

Okay, so he'd misjudged Mr. Simon. Good.

"You gonna be all right?" Neal asked.

Mr. Simon nodded. He was wearing an old gray T-shirt that he could throw away without his wife noticing that it was gone, though it didn't look like he'd gotten any blood on it.

"You go home, and you give your wife a great big hug, and you keep your mouth shut about what happened here. No tearful confessions, got it?"

"Got it."

"What you did was honorable. You made things right. That piece of human filth got exactly what he deserved."

Mr. Simon wiped his eyes on his shirtsleeve. "I'm not feeling guilty about it."

"Perfect. Get out of here. I'll make him go away."

Mr. Simon just stood there for a moment, as if he wanted to talk some more, and then he walked down the short hallway, opened the door, and left the building. The door swung closed behind him, locking automatically.

Now Neal had to get moving. You never knew what kind of emotional state people were going to be in afterward. He'd once had a client call the police to confess during the drive home. Then the client had either lost control of his car or made an inept attempt to kill himself by crashing into a tree, followed by a successful suicide via dragging his wrists across the broken window glass. That had been a close one.

He didn't think Mr. Simon was a suicide risk, but when you had a corpse to dispose of, it was never a good idea to procrastinate.

Too bad he couldn't hire somebody to help with this part of the process. Dragging a body deep into the forest and burying it was a pain in the neck. Maybe I should get an intern, he thought with a smile. After all, this is educational stuff.

Somebody began pounding on the door. Mr. Simon?

"Let me in! Let me in!" Yeah, it was Mr. Simon. Neal had a sudden horrible vision of this building completely surrounded by the police. If that were the case, though, he'd like to believe that Mr. Simon wasn't so astoundingly stupid as to pound on the door to come back in.

He'd probably just been struck by the realization that he'd taken a human life and freaked out. That happened the last time, too. Neal was going to start adding a surcharge for psychological counseling.

The doorknob twisted a few times, and then Mr. Simon started kicking the door. "Please let me in, oh please God hurry please let me—!"

He stopped shouting and kicking.

Neal hurried over to the door and looked through the peephole. Mr. Simon wasn't there. Nor was there a blood-spattered serial killer holding an axe and Mr. Simon's severed head. There was nobody.

"You need to just calm down," said Neal, trying to speak in a soothing tone of voice while still being heard through the door.

No response.

"You still there?"


Neal didn't have much choice except to open the door and find out what had happened. He couldn't just leave a dead body there if Mr. Simon had died of a heart attack or something.

He opened the door, smacking into Mr. Simon's unmoving body. The man lay on his back, eyes closed, mouth slightly open, arms splayed out. His right arm was covered with...

What were those things?

Neal grabbed Mr. Simon by the ankles and dragged him back into the building. He closed the door and then crouched down beside him.

There were two dozen—maybe three?—bugs attached to his skin. Ticks? Each one of them was a six-legged monster about the size of his thumbnail. How had they all gotten on the guy so quickly? There weren't even any bushes around for him to have walked through; it was a regular paved parking lot.

Neal tried to flick one away. It twitched but didn't come off Mr. Simon's arm.

Mr. Simon was still breathing. Neal gently slapped his face a few times. "Hey, wake up! Wake up!"

No, wait. That was a mistake. Better to leave Mr. Simon unconscious and keep the noise level down.

Neal pinched one of the bugs between his thumb and index finger and pulled. There was some resistance as it tugged on Mr. Simon's flesh, and then it popped off his arm, leaving a small bloody hole behind. Neal squeezed his fingers together until the bug burst.

If he yanked each one of these off, there might be so much bleeding that he'd have to take Mr. Simon to the hospital. He could just dump him off in front of the emergency room, but that was still too risky. There'd be cameras. They were supposed to part ways immediately after the execution and never see each other again.

Neal needed to burn them off. He wished he hadn't quit smoking two hundred and sixteen days ago.

No, wait. He had a lighter in the trunk of his car. Not for cigarettes; it was part of his bug-out bag in case he needed to flee without notice. Bug-out bag. Heh.

He stood up and reached for the doorknob. Hesitated.

Don't be ridiculous. They aren't going to jump out at you.

Yet something had happened to Mr. Simon. He hadn't just reached into a big box of bugs.

Neal lowered his hand. Until he knew for sure what was going on, he'd stay inside.

He kneeled back down and examined Mr. Simon's arm. Were the bugs getting larger, engorged with blood? He couldn't quite tell, but they seemed to be pulsating a bit. Though Neal was far from squeamish—he'd watched people die some pretty horrific deaths—this was really creeping him out.

He plucked off and crushed another one of the bugs. Wiped the gook on Mr. Simon's jeans. Crushed a third. The wounds didn't seem to be very deep, so maybe there would be no need to actually stop the bleeding.

Mr. Simon opened his eyes.

Looked at his arm.

His silence ended.

"Quiet!" said Neal, even though he'd probably be reacting the same way if his arms were covered with blood-sucking bugs.

Mr. Simon began to frantically bat at his chest.

Neal pulled up his shirt. He'd assumed that the bugs were only on his exposed flesh, but no, there were more of them on his chest than his arms.

There were also some bloody holes.

Had the bugs come off, or...?

No. He watched one of them quickly disappear. They were burrowing.

Burning them off was no longer an option unless he went out and got a goddamned flamethrower. What the hell was he supposed to do? Pick hundreds of them off, one by one, and risk getting them on his own flesh?

Neal certainly wasn't calling 911. Not that an ambulance would arrive in time anyway.

The only plan that made any sense was to keep Mr. Simon as quiet as possible while he died. And if that meant bashing his head against the floor a few times until he lost consciousness, so be it. It would probably be an act of mercy.

As if realizing what he had in mind, Mr. Simon stopped screaming. Then his eyes widened as he looked at something behind Neal.

Neal quickly glanced over his shoulder. Nothing there.

Should he offer some meaningless reassurance?

"You're going to be fine," Neal said, as a trickle of blood ran from the corner of Mr. Simon's mouth.

"What are you?" Mr. Simon asked.


"Please don't."

Neal realized that Mr. Simon wasn't talking to him. He was hallucinating. Maybe seeing God, or the other fellow.

"I had to!" said Mr. Simon.

His arms and chest were completely red now, and few of the bugs were visible anymore. Splotches of red began to appear on his pants.

"I...had to," he repeated, barely audible now.

Then he died.

Neal moved away from him. What the hell had just happened? Had he gone outside and rolled around in bug-filled dirt? Neal had never seen anything like this, and he'd seen some seriously deranged shit.

Now he had to dispose of two bodies, and be really freaking careful about—


The voice, low and reverberating, came from behind him. Neal spun around. This time there was something there.

For several moments, Neal couldn't quite process what he was seeing. It was the shape and size of a human, sort of, but a human made out of blood, like a clear glass blood-filled figurine without the actual glass.

Hundreds of bugs swirled around in the blood.

It didn't have a mouth, but Neal felt like it was smiling at him.

"Hello," it repeated. Still no mouth.


"Be polite."


"That's better."

"What the hell are you?" asked Neal, even though he knew the answer was "some sort of fucked-up hallucination."


Neal gaped at the blood-bug-thing for a moment. "What?"

"Guilt. Benjamin Simon was consumed by guilt for the terrible thing he did. Eaten alive. But he didn't suffer long. His agony was over in minutes, not days. And they didn't crawl on his face. Didn't devour his eyeballs. Didn't burrow into his tongue while he screamed. It would have been so much more awful for him if he'd committed more atrocities. Worse ones. If anger and anguish weren't an excuse."

Bugs began to fall out of the blood. Dozens. Then hundreds. Then thousands.

They didn't even crawl across the floor. They were just suddenly upon him.

"I hope your conscience is clear."

demonic freaky deathless


Freaky deathless