Gravel crunched under the tires of John’s rust-scarred Dodge pickup as he sped down the dirt driveway and skidded to a stop in front of Matt’s trailer home. The early morning air was already hissing with humidity. It was thunderstorm weather—they’d be lucky if they made it to lunchtime without getting doused.
John pinched the front of his dark blue coverall and flapped it against his chest, creating a breeze to cool his sweat-slicked skin. “Come on …” He looked at his watch, then balled up a fist and thumped it against the center of the steering wheel. The truck’s horn gave a sharp bleat. He called out the open window. “Yo, Matt! Let’s go!”
The trailer home’s flimsy screen door flew open, its torn screen flapping in its frame. Matt’s wife, Vanessa, stormed out onto the porch. Her hair was a tousled rat’s nest. The belt of her terrycloth bathrobe was knotted too loosely, offering a glimpse of the underside of one sagging breast. Dark purple rings encircled her eyes.
“The fuck, John?” she hissed. “You’re gonna wake the baby!” As if on cue, the distinctive wail of a hungry newborn rose within the trailer. Vanessa sagged against the railing, defeated. “Shit. I just got her to sleep.”
“Sorry, Ness. Gotta hurry if we’re gonna beat the storm. He almost ready?”
“I’m here, I’m here.” Matt slipped past Vanessa and ducked out of the trailer, zipping his coverall with one hand while lugging a large toolbox with the other. At six-foot-four, he towered over his diminutive wife. She looked up at him with a pained expression.
“Please don’t be gone too long.”
Matt leaned down and planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek. “I won’t.” He bounded down the steps, slung his toolbox into the back of the pickup, then climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door. Vanessa motioned for him to lower the window, ducking to see him in the truck as the glass slid down.
“Text me before you go up?”
“And when you get down?”
Matt gave her a tight smile. “Sure.”
“Okay.” Vanessa shifted her gaze to John. “Take good care of him.”
“So, where are we headed?” Matt asked as John steered the truck down the two-lane highway. Dense forest lined both sides of the road. They passed a blue information sign: NEXT GAS 23 mi.
“Guess.” John pulled a work tablet from the truck’s center console and handed it to Matt.
“No!” Matt said in disbelief as he took the tablet and turned it on. “Again?” A map view filled the screen. It showed all the cell towers in the area, along with the signal radius of each. At the center of the map was a single tower icon with no radius around it, indicating a signal-free dead zone in the middle of the forest. “What the hell is wrong with that thing?”
“I wish I knew.”
“Someone’s gotta be fucking with it.”
“Or it’s cursed.”
“Or that,” Matt agreed. He tucked the tablet back into the console. “You check the news?”
John shook his head. “I don’t want to know.”
Matt picked up his phone and began scrolling. After a moment, he stopped, his eyes scanning as he read. He cursed under his breath. “Damn it.”
John’s heart sank. The words confirmed what he already suspected. “How many?”
“Girl and a guy. Hikers.”
“And the phones …?”
“Same thing.” He began reading from the article. “As with the previous victims, multiple attempts to call for help failed to go through due to lack of cellular service in the area.” He stopped reading. “This is so fucked.”
He made a disgusted noise, then rolled down the window and spat into the wind. They drove in silence for a few minutes before he spoke again. His tone was unusually subdued.
“It’s not our fault, right?”
John furrowed his brow. “What’s not?”
“You know.” He held up his phone, displaying the news article about the murders.
“Of course not.”
“’Cause maybe they’d still be alive—”
“Bro, it’s not our fault. That’s crazy.”
“If they could’ve gotten a signal, if they could’ve called for help …”
“And the ax-wielding maniac chasing them through the woods? Is that our fault too?”
John glanced at his friend. Matt looked like he was on the verge of tears. In almost ten years, John had never seen the guy get so emotional. Even when he broke his ankle during lacrosse playoffs senior year, he had remained stoic.
“You okay?” John asked.
“Yeah.” Matt took a ragged breath. “I guess this whole thing just hits different now that we have Bella. I can’t imagine losing a kid like that. It’s just …” He coughed, then wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “Fuck. Sorry.”
“Hey, no need to apologize. I get it.”
Matt peered through the windshield at the tall, needle-thin cell tower protruding high above the treeline in the distance. “Let’s fix the thing for good this time, okay?”
John put on his blinker and pulled off the main highway onto a dirt service road. A sign warned that they were entering a RESTRICTED AREA, property of American Cellular Corp. The truck’s worn suspension bounced and creaked over the uneven surface as it drove deeper into the woods.
Ten minutes later, they arrived at the base of a 500-foot-tall cell tower.
“All right,” John said as he put the truck in park. “Let’s do this.”
The two men jumped out of the truck and began strapping on their climbing gear. Repairing cell towers was a dangerous job—The Most Dangerous Job in America, according to Buzzfeed. The amount of climbing the job required depended on the type of tower. Some had to be scaled right from the ground level. Others had elevators that ran most of the way up, only requiring a climb of 40 or 50 feet to reach the top. The tower they were repairing today was one of the latter.
Unfortunately, the tower was also the epicenter of an enormous active crime scene that spanned several square miles of the surrounding forest. Over the last few months, a series of brutal murders had taken place in an area roughly analogous to the cell phone dead zone on John’s job map. Every time the cell signal went down, there was another murder. Or maybe it was the other way around. Nobody really knew. But since the tower was in John’s assigned region, he and Matt were the ones on the hook to fix it whenever it went down.
John tightened the chest strap on his climbing harness, then clipped the safety lines onto the harness’ metal rings. Nearby, Matt loaded a selection of tools from his toolbox into a large canvas tool bag hanging from his belt. He held up a roll of black electrical tape. “Extra tape?”
John lifted his hand as Matt tossed him the roll. “Thanks.” He caught the roll, then dropped it into his own tool bag. “Did you text Vanessa?”
“Oh, shit. Almost forgot.” He dug his phone out and began typing, then stopped and gave an ironic chuckle. “Ha. No service.” He tossed his useless phone onto the tailgate. “She’s gonna be pissed.”
“Then let’s make it quick.”
John unlocked the tower’s elevator door. The folding grate clanked and squealed in protest as John slid it open and stepped inside. The elevator itself was nothing but a metal cage about the size of a small bathroom stall, with an unadorned electrical box containing two large red buttons: one for up, one for down.
Matt stepped into the elevator after him, closed the gate, then turned to face John. It was a tight fit—their bodies were mere inches apart.
Matt drew back his lips. “Anything in my teeth?”
“You’ve got a pube, right here.” John pointed between his own front teeth.
“Oh, right. That’s from your mom.” Matt ran his tongue across his teeth, then showed them again. “How about now?”
“Better.” John punched the up button. The elevator rattled and groaned as it slowly lifted off the ground. “And away we go.”
The ride to the top of the tower was quiet except for the rhythmic clank and whir of the elevator as it ascended. Little by little, the world below shrunk to miniature size. Given the remote location of the tower, the landscape was mostly treetops and rock formations. Its most noticeable feature was a sapphire blue lake not too far from where John had parked his truck.
After ninety seconds or so, the elevator arrived at its apex about two-thirds of the way from the top of the tower. Matt opened the gate and stepped onto a small metal platform, then moved aside to allow John to exit past him. They had agreed that John would climb point, since he had the most experience with the model of cellular antenna used by this particular tower. Matt would climb behind him, passing him tools and providing an extra pair of hands as needed.
Once out of the elevator, John began the tedious hand-over-hand climb up the ladder to the top of the tower. Every few rungs, he had to connect one of his safety lines to the tower’s frame, then reach down and disconnect the one he had previously connected. Doing it that way ensured that he always had a safety line attached in case he fell. About fifteen feet below, Matt repeated the same process with his own safety lines.
As John climbed, an unusual splash of color down by the lake—bright yellow and gold—caught his eye. He squinted into the wind, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. The color was in the shape of a rectangle. On top of it was an amorphous, multi-limbed pile of human flesh and hair. And the pile was moving.
John chuckled as he realized what he was seeing. The pile of flesh was people. Two of them. It was a couple, having sex next to the lake on what looked like a Los Angeles Lakers beach towel. The girl was on top, cowgirl-style, which explained the confusing jumble of limbs.
John whistled down at Matt. “Hey!”
“Check it out!” John pointed down at the figures by the lake. It took a few seconds before Matt saw what John was pointing at. He started laughing. John began laughing too. “Good times, right?”
“Man, I wish I was them right now. I’d—”
Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream echoed through the valley. John’s heart leaped into his throat. “The hell—” He looked back down at the splash of color by the lake. The towel was still there … but the couple was gone.
“You hear that?” Matt asked.
“Yeah.” John’s eyes scanned the landscape, trying to pinpoint where the people had gone. After a moment, he spotted the girl sprinting barefoot along the lake’s edge. He traced his gaze along the lake until he spotted her boyfriend running a few yards behind her. Immediately following him was a man in full camouflage hunting gear and a floppy boonie hat. The man had a long, wooden object clutched in his hands. Light-colored wood, a few feet long. A baseball bat? No.
John watched in mute horror as the man swung the ax and brought it down squarely between the boyfriend’s shoulder blades. The boyfriend stumbled and fell, his head striking the rocky ground and knocking him unconscious. The man with the ax straddled the guy’s motionless body, yanked the weapon from his back, then raised it high in the air and brought it down again. And again. And again. The blood spilling from the boyfriend’s body looked like a puddle of crude oil against the dark gray rock.
“Jesus Christ,” Matt exclaimed. “Are you seeing this?”
A surge of bile raced up the back of John’s throat, muting his reply. “Yeah,” he choked.
After a minute or so, the killer finished hacking at the boyfriend. The guy’s head and upper body had been pulverized into a bloody pulp. One of his arms was detached from his body—it looked like a piece of crooked white driftwood that had washed up nearby.
The killer balanced the handle of the ax against his shoulder and gazed down at his kill for a moment. Then he strode off into the trees at a calculated pace.
John swallowed again, trying to regain his voice. “Where’s the girl?”
“I don’t know,” Matt replied. “I lost track of her.”
“We’ve gotta help her.” Matt detached his safety line.
“Wait—” John started. But Matt was already rapidly descending the ladder back toward the elevator. John’s stomach knotted as he watched Matt speed down the rungs, his untethered safety lines swinging in the wind. One slip, one missed step, and he would plummet to his death. “Slow down!” John called.
As Matt made it to the platform, a desperate cry echoed through the forest directly below them.
“Help!” the girl called. “Please! Someone! Help us!” A flock of small birds exploded from the trees at the base of the tower. The girl stumbled from the woods and into the clearing where John’s truck was parked.
“She’s down there!” John called to Matt. “Hey!” he shouted to the girl. He waved, trying to draw her attention up the tower. “Hey!”
Matt joined in the chorus. “Hey! Up here! Hey!”
“Hello?” The girl looked around frantically, trying to pinpoint where the voices were coming from. She didn’t look up. Instead, she ran to John’s truck and tried to open the passenger side door. It was locked. She sprinted around to the driver’s side and tried that door. Locked. She pounded on the window in frustration, then stood on her tiptoes and looked into the bed of the pickup. She spotted the toolbox. And Matt’s phone. It was still on the tailgate, where he had left it after trying to text Vanessa.
With a squeal of hope, the girl ran around to the back of the pickup, grabbed the phone, and tapped in three numbers: 9-1-1.
John’s heart sank as he realized what was about to happen.
The girl wailed with frustration. “Come on, come on …” she whimpered as she tried dialing again. Again, the call failed. “Come on!” she screamed. “Connect, god damn it!” She tried a third time. Failed again.
“—your key!” Matt shouted to John.
“Throw me your key!”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“I’m going down.” He indicated the elevator. “I’ll take her to get help.”
“I’ll come with you.” John began to detach his own safety lines.
“There’s no time! If I don’t go now, this girl is gonna die. And I’m not gonna let that happen. Now, throw me the key!”
John knew Matt was right: the killer could be mere seconds away. Time was of the essence. With one hand still clinging to the tower, he dug his fingers into his chest pocket and pulled out the truck’s key fob. He hung as low as he could from the rung where he was tied and dropped the key to Matt.
Matt looked up at John with the key gripped in his fist. “I’ll be back.” Then he swung into the elevator, closed the cage, and began the grinding, clanking descent to the ground.
As the elevator disappeared down the tower, John considered what to do in the meantime. It was hard to fathom continuing the job after just seeing a guy get ax murdered, but the antenna would have to be repaired at some point. The sooner he fixed it, the sooner they could call for help.
He was about to start climbing again when a scream of terror drew his attention back to the ground. The girl was standing in the bed of the pickup truck, a hammer from the toolbox held out defensively in front of her. John followed her gaze to see the killer emerging from the woods at the edge of the clearing, the bloody ax weighing heavily in his hands.
“Get away from me!” the girl shrieked. The killer rested the ax handle on his shoulder and calmly approached the truck. The girl swung the hammer feebly in his direction. “Leave me alone!”
The killer lunged at the girl. She screamed, then hurdled over the side of the truck bed and onto the ground. The killer began circling the vehicle toward her. The girl scrambled to her feet and fled along the side of the pickup, in the opposite direction. The killer changed directions. The girl did too, keeping the body of the truck between herself and the killer.
From his bird’s eye view, John watched the killer feint toward the front of the truck. As the girl took the bait and moved toward the back, the killer dropped to his belly and slid underneath the vehicle. The girl froze, confused, unsure of which direction the killer had gone.
John yelled as loud as he could. “Hey!” This time, the girl seemed to hear him. She looked up at the tower. John pointed frantically at the ground. “He’s under the truck!”
“What?” the girl screamed.
“He’s under … the truck!”
The girl’s eyes went wide as she realized what John was saying. But it was too late.
The killer’s ax swung out from under the truck and sliced through the girl’s Achilles tendon, severing her foot at the ankle. The girl wailed in agony and fell to the ground, blood spurting from her injured leg. As the girl writhed in pain, the killer slid out from under the truck, dusted the dirt from his pants, then bent down and picked up his ax.
Regaining her faculties for a moment, the girl managed to roll onto her backside, propelling herself away from the killer with her one good foot. A thick trail of bright red blood stained the pale dirt as it poured from her wound, filling the rut left by her dragging stump.
“Hey! Cocksucker!” Matt’s voice rang out from below, followed by the clattering of the elevator gate slamming open. “Leave her alone!”
The killer spun the ax in a full circle like a batter loosening his wrist before an at-bat, then pivoted toward the tower. He cocked his head curiously. “Yeah, that’s right,” Matt growled. “Bring it on, motherfucker.”
The killer headed for Matt’s position, disappearing from John’s view as he passed under the tower. John leaned away from the ladder as far as his reach would allow, but he was unable to see what was happening on the ground directly below. He listened helplessly to the metallic bangs and crashes echoing up the tower, clearly the sounds of a brutal struggle between Matt and the killer. Hoping for some hint at what was happening, he shifted his gaze to the girl to see how she was reacting. Unfortunately, she wasn’t—she was slumped on the ground, unconscious.
Suddenly, the racket stopped. Everything fell eerily silent. The only sound John could hear was the wail of the wind and the rise and fall of his breathing.
“Matt?” he shouted. “Matt, you okay?” There was no answer. “Matt!” he yelled again.
After a few seconds of excruciating silence, a metallic rattle echoed up from the ground, followed by the whine of an electric motor starting to turn. John’s breath caught in his throat.
The elevator was coming back up.
John looked down at the platform thirty feet below him, then up at the top of the tower, about twenty feet above. It didn’t matter which way he climbed. Either direction he went, he was trapped.
With one shaking hand, he reached into the tool bag attached to his belt to assess what he might use to defend himself. He had some screwdrivers, an adjustable wrench, a ratchet kit, a few specialized electronics for testing the antenna … and the spare roll of tape that Matt had tossed him when they were suiting up. John drew out the roll of tape and turned it over in his hand. An idea formed in his mind.
The elevator continued its ascent as John prepared to make his last stand. The tower might be a trap, but it could also be an advantage. The killer couldn’t hold an ax and climb the ladder at the same time—he would need his hands free to grip the rungs. That leveled the playing field a little bit and gave John a fighting chance. If he could draw the killer up the tower, he could jump off the ladder, using his falling momentum to grab the killer and yank him off the rungs. The safety lines would halt John’s descent, while the killer plummeted to his death.
And if that didn’t work, there was always Plan B: brutal hand-to-hand combat.
Just as John finished winding the last of the spare roll of tape around his hand, the elevator slowed to a halt. It had arrived.
John double-checked his safety lines one last time. He tightened his grip on the ladder, took a deep breath, and prepared to meet his fate.
The elevator gate rattled open. John could see the outline of the killer’s boonie hat through the slotted roof of the elevator, along with a glimpse of the ax’s wooden handle. He tensed as a camouflage-clad figure emerged into the light …
… and fell backward, crashing flat onto the metal platform outside the elevator. It was the killer, dead: his eyes wide open, his face slicked with blood, his ax buried in the middle of his forehead.
Matt stepped out of the elevator and onto the platform next to the killer’s body. He looked up at John. “Dude. What the fuck are you doing?”
John gazed down at Matt, his mouth agape. His friend’s face was battered and beaten, with a torrent of blood streaming down his cheek from a gash over his eyebrow. His nose was squashed sideways. His lip was split. His eye was swollen shut. He looked like hell. But he was alive.
And he was laughing.
“What …?” John said, unsure of what his friend found so funny about the situation.
“What are you, fuckin’ Wolverine now?”
John looked at his hand. In his shock at seeing his friend return alive, he had completely forgotten what he had done to prepare for his encounter with the killer: weaponizing his fist by using Matt’s extra tape to attach screwdrivers to the back of his hand, one behind each finger. He had intended to fashion a weapon he could use while still having his fingers free to grip the ladder, but it ended up looking like a discount hardware store version of Wolverine’s famous Adamantium claws.
“It was Plan B,” John said.
That made Matt laugh even harder. After a few seconds, John joined in. They laughed until tears streamed down their faces. Then John climbed down the ladder and embraced his friend. After a quiet moment, they separated. John looked down at the killer’s body.
“What do we do with him?”
“Fuck him. Leave him up here for the vultures.”
John stepped into the elevator. Matt followed, then closed the gate. As they began their descent, Matt spoke again. “Anything in my teeth?” He drew back his busted lip. One of his front teeth was missing.
“You’ve got a little something, right here.” John pointed at his own front tooth using one of the screwdrivers taped to his hand.
Matt ran his tongue across his teeth, then showed them again. The tooth was still missing. “How about now?”
“Better. Much better.”
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