In college, Thomas Eiden had studied under a professor named Dale Collins. While that name is meaningless to most people, he was a legend in journalism circles. He had worked for the New York Times for decades back when that had really meant something, and he had used his platform to expose everything from killers to corrupt politicians. To his students, that meant that you listened when he imparted his wisdom during class.
He had taught many things that ended up having a major impact on both Thomas’ career and his life in general, but there was one particular piece of advice that he had especially taken to heart.
“You’re the follower,” Collins had said. “The story is the leader. You follow wherever the story leads.”
It was a tremendous piece of advice to any aspiring journalist. On many occasions a journalist would start looking into one thing only to learn that the actual story that needed telling was something else entirely.
Thomas had written for a number of publications since college, mostly magazines and newspapers. Eventually, he decided to expand into writing books, and his first published one had been a biography. The subject of the biography had been a no-brainer; ever since he was a child, he had been fascinated by a particularly notorious former resident of his home town of Lamplight Bay.
Albert Bertelli, a criminal better known as Big Man Bertelli, had lived in the area back in the first half of the 1900s. While most crime bosses chose to live in cities such as New York City or Chicago so that they were close to their businesses, Bertelli instead preferred to pull the strings from a distance and use trusted lieutenants as his mouthpieces. He had his hands in everything imaginable, from brothels to bootlegging to good old-fashioned racketeering.
Big Man Bertelli was known for his brutality when handling anyone that crossed him or his various operations. His tendency to drink mass amounts of alcohol didn’t help his demeanor, but he was just born ugly of soul, as Thomas’ father used to say. There was a story that had long circulated that Bertelli had once decided that the standard cement shoes were too good for a police informant that his men had caught snooping around one of his warehouses. Instead, he had personally gone to Chicago to pour the cement down the man’s throat before pushing the poor guy off a pier.
Then there were the pigs.
The locals told countless stories about Bertelli and his supposed pig farm. Children still sang a song about it while they were jumping rope or trying to scare their friends.
Big Man Bertelli walkin’ down the street
Owns every person that he’ll ever meet
His men never have a grave to dig
‘Cause if you cross him he’ll feed you to his pigs
Bertelli had been infamous for making his enemies disappear. No one really knew for sure how he accomplished the disappearing act, but according to legend he had a pig farm hidden somewhere beyond the outskirts of town. It had never been proven, but that unsubstantiated claims were all many people needed to mentally put two and two together.
As Thomas had written in his book, the truth was that Bertelli had used a number of different methods to get rid of people that crossed him. Tony “Two Guns” Yancy had been gunned down by him personally in the back room of a pool hall, for example. He has also all but admitted that he was the one responsible for bashing in Michael O’Sullivan’s skull with a hammer. Still, the rumors about the secret pig farm he reserved for people that he really wanted to watch suffer lived on.
Recently, Thomas had been commissioned to write a series of articles for the local newspaper about historical figures from the area. At first he was asked to focus on lesser known people that had had a positive influence on the community. He had written about politicians, activists, and artists. The editor never came right out and said it, but Thomas had the feeling from the woman’s demeanor and various remarks about the readers that she wanted to make things more classy.
It didn’t take long for that ill-fated and more than a little condescending idea to fall flat on its face. The fact of the matter was that most readers didn’t care about local heroes. They wanted the blood and guts and that creepy little feeling that comes with reading about the darker side of their town’s history.
Thomas was asked to write five more articles, one of which would run each week on Friday. These articles were to spotlight the more unsavory parts of the town’s history. He had written up a list of who he wanted to feature, and right at the top of the list was Big Man Bertelli.
The articles ran as intended, and he was pleased to see that the editor didn’t touch much of anything that he had written. There were always some changes made after submission, and as a writer he knew that intellectually, but there was always some small part of him that detested when a single word that he’d written was removed. It was simple vanity to believe that there was no way to improve on his work, and he knew that it was ridiculous, but it was a vanity that most writers shared.
In a complete coincidence, his final article ran the week of Halloween. He had saved Bertelli for last so that the short series went out on a strong note, and by all accounts it was a success. He basked in what little glory writing an article for a local paper brought with it for a few days before moving on to other projects.
He received a call from the paper a little over a week later. The caller introduced herself as a member of the paper’s office staff before informing him that they had received a package addressed to him. He wasn’t sure what to make of that. No one had ever sent him anything via an employer before, and when he said as much the women assured him that it wasn’t unheard of for them to get mail for writers. It wasn’t commonplace, but it did happen. They made arrangements for the package to be sent to him via courier later that day.
The term ‘package’ had been a bit misleading. What was delivered to Thomas was a thin manila envelope. After thanking and tipping the courier, he closed the front door of his apartment and walked into the kitchen as he carefully tore the envelope open.
Inside was an old black and white photograph. He held it up to the light to get a better look. It took him a few moments to figure out exactly what it was that he was looking at. The picture showed Big Man Bertelli, dressed in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat, standing in front of a wooden fence. There was a disturbingly wide grin on his face, one filled with dark humor and something that he could best describe as satisfaction. He felt a wave of revulsion wash over him. It was clear that whatever had brought about that particular smile was something truly horrible.
Tearing his eyes away from Bertelli’s face, he closely examined the rest of the picture. It had been taken at night, and even with the light of the flash and another source of illumination coming from just outside the viewable area it was difficult to make out details of the area around the man. His eyes fell on something between the slats of the fence. He took off his glasses and held the picture up close to his face. Staring out from between the wooden planks was a large pig.
Thomas blinked. Assuming the picture was real, he was holding proof that Bertelli’s pig farm was real and not just an urban legend. He felt a surge of excitement. Flipping over the picture, he found that a phone number had been written on the blank side in blue pen. Without hesitating he retrieved his phone and dialed the number.
A man’s voice answered on the third ring. It was deep and raspy, the kind of voice that came from years of hard drinking and heavy smoking.
“What?” the man demanded.
“Yes, hello, my name is Thomas Eiden,” Thomas replied, a bit flustered. “I received a picture with this phone number on the back of it.”
The man’s tone instantly became more friendly. “Oh, yeah, the guy from the newspaper. Good to hear you got it. You never know with the mail being the way it is these days.”
“No, I suppose that you don’t. Listen, this picture…”
“I thought you might like it. I remember the day it was taken like it was yesterday.”
Thomas frowned. “I’m sorry, are you trying to tell me that you are-”
“Big Man Bertelli?” the man finished for him before letting out a hoarse laugh. “Of course I’m not saying that. I’m not a nutjob. My father worked for him back in the thirties and forties. Tended the farm in the background of that picture I sent you, in fact. He used to take me to work with him when I was just a pup. That was, oh, three quarters of a century ago.”
“You were actually at Bertelli’s pig farm?” Thomas asked, more forcefully than he had intended.
“Damn right I was. That’s why I sent you that picture and my number. I read that article of yours in the paper, and there was all that nonsense that’s been floating around since forever about him and the pigs and all that. I thought you might get a kick out of seeing the real thing.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You mean the farm itself? How? It still exists?”
Another laugh. “Sure does. Right where Bertelli left it. Be happy to show you around the place if you’re interested.”
They made arrangements to meet at an address that Thomas didn’t recognize the next day. His hand was shaking as he wrote it down on a small notepad. There was always a chance that this was some sort of elaborate prank or, despite the man’s assertion to the contrary, the guy was crazy, but he didn’t think so. Between the picture and the matter-of-fact way the man had spoken, he found himself believing him. Still, he had to accept the possibility that he felt that way because he wanted the man to be telling the truth.
The drive to the address he had been given was uneventful. About halfway there it began to rain, not a steady downpour but that spurting kind of rain that somehow manages to be even more miserable. The clouds overhead cast everything in an unpleasant gray tone, and not even the colorful array of fall leaves clinging to the trees managed to lighten it. He refused to let the weather bring down his spirits. He was on his way to see a place that he had been thinking about since he was a child.
He almost missed his turn when he arrived. He felt the tires slide for a brief but stomach-wrenching moment, but they found their grip on the wet road and he was able to maneuver the car onto the dirt driveway. It led into a thick patch of trees that blocked out everything beyond the road.
It was at that point that he began to get nervous. If this was some sort of setup or sick game, it would be taking place at a very isolated location.
He was put at ease when the car emerged from the trees and into the clearing beyond. The run-down building and decaying fences of the farm certainly gave off an unsettling vibe, but the old man standing next to the rusting pickup truck was hardly intimidating. He looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. Thomas pulled up next to him and got out of the car.
“Ah, there you are,” the man said with a grin missing more than a few teeth. “I thought you might have gotten cold feet. Name’s Peter Snyder.”
“Thomas Eiden,” Thomas replied, shaking the offered hand. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”
“Not a problem. Well, what do you think? Is this place everything that you hoped it would be?”
“Honestly? It’s a bit of a shithole.”
Snyder laughed. “That’s right to the point, and I can’t say that you’re wrong. There hasn’t been anyone around to take care of the place in decades. It used to be quite the looker in its day, though. Big Man made sure of that.”
That seemed like as good a time as any to start the interview. Thomas took his phone out of his pocket to start the voice recording app. Before he could even turn on the screen, however, Snyder began to speak again.
“I gotta confess, Mr. Eiden, I’ve got a bit of an ulterior motive in bringing you out here,” he said. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, this is Big Man’s farm, all right. He did indeed bring people here to make sure they stayed gone. So you’re going to get your money’s worth visiting here. More than your money’s worth, I’d bet.”
Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but Snyder turned on his heel and headed towards the fenced-in yard. He was surprisingly quick for a man his age, and Thomas didn’t catch up to him until he was nearly at his destination. Turning around, he leaned up against the rotting wood of the barely standing fence and nodded once to himself.
“Most people think they know how much of a monster Big Man Bertelli was,” Snyder said slowly, an unreadable expression on his face. “I don’t think anyone really knows how bad he was, though. Well, anyone but me, and that’s because I witnessed the monster in action more than once.”
He pointed over his shoulder at the muddy turf behind him. The fence wrapped around a large portion of the yard, with one side attaching to the back of a barn that seemed on the verge of collapsing. There were only a few ragged tufts of grass that managed to grow inside of the perimeter.
“He’d keep them cooped up inside that barn most of the time,” Snyder continued in a quiet voice. “They’d grunt and squeal and scream. I thought it was just about the saddest sound I’d ever heard. I told my Pa that once, and he said that Big Man loved hearing it.”
“He liked hearing the pigs cry out?” Thomas asked as he finally got the recorder running.
“Hogs,” Snyder corrected him firmly. “Not pigs. Hogs. These weren’t cute little pink animals with curly tails and a friendly disposition. These were massive animals. Even the smallest were north of two hundred pounds. Thing is, even though they were huge, they could move fast. They could chase down a man running as hard as he could within the blink of an eye.”
Thomas shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the cold rain. “And he trained them to kill people?”
“Not at first. In the beginning he left the training to my Pa. Gave him a real detailed list of what he wanted, and Pa delivered for him.” The old man stared off into the distance. “It’s surprisingly easy for hogs to get a taste for people. It doesn’t take much at all. Pa started with mixing blood in with the water they drank. Pretty soon they would barely drink if the red stuff wasn’t there. From there… Well, from there the feedings got worse, let’s just leave it at that.”
They were silent for a long moment. Snyder didn’t seem to be in a rush to continue his story, and for Thomas’ part he was at a loss as to what to even say after a statement like that.
“You, um, you said that Bertelli left the training to your father at first,” he said eventually. “That makes it sound like things changed later.”
“It did,” Snyder confirmed with a nod, bringing his attention back to the journalist. “For a long time Bertelli was satisfied with my Pa’s work. He’d have his thugs snatch up people and bring them here. It was mostly people that had managed to get on his bad side. Cops, prosecutors, snitches. He’d have them brought out here and tossed into the hog pen.”
He scratched his chin for a moment before continuing. “Guys like Big Man are never satisfied for long. They want more. Bigger. Better. Big Man took over the hog training, and his methods were a lot less kind than my Pa’s.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Thomas said, “but how were they different?”
“He beat them to make them meaner. You could hear the howls from a mile away. He said that it toughened them up. He wouldn’t feed them for days. They’d be starving by the time someone got thrown into the pen. Those hogs would make a beeline straight for the poor bastard and tear him apart in a frenzy.”
“Yep. He took it one step further, though. He was sure to only breed the biggest and nastiest ones together while he let the weaker ones die off. Every generation was a better killing machine than the last.”
Thomas took a moment to let what he was being told sink in. Bertelli had basically been conducting crude experiments in eugenics. It was simultaneously fascinating and revolting.
“It was around the third or fourth brood that things started getting strange. There started to be some… I guess you’d call them abnormalities. Some of the babies were born with tusks. Wild hogs have them, but the first of these particular hogs had started out as farm animals and none of them had tusks. Some of the babies had these weird deformities on their hooves where the tips were pointed and curved. And then along came Stella.”
“She was massive. Had to have weighed at least four hundred pounds when she finished growing. Long tusks that could punch right through flesh and blood, and these sharp teeth that she used to bite and tear. Her hooves were hooked like claws. Her hide was thick and tough, and it stretched real tight against her muscles. I had never seen anything like her, and I’ve never seen anything like her since. When she looked at you it made your blood run cold. You knew she was sizing you up, figuring out how she wanted to end you.”
Thomas had a number of questions to ask, but Snyder continued before he could ask any of them.
“I watched Stella kill quite a few full grown men on her own without any trouble. Now, I get this next part is going to sound a little wild, maybe even crazy, but I’m telling you, she enjoyed the killing. She would toy with them sometimes. She’d let them get back up after she knocked them down, and the second they were on their feet she’d shove them down again. Big Man loved that. He loved her from the moment he laid eyes on her. He decided she was going to be the blueprint going forward. He made sure that she had her pick of the boars. She probably would have had that anyway, as she tended to kill any sows that got near her. Soon all of the hogs he kept were these unnatural-looking monsters. I don’t use that term lightly, Mr. Eiden, but that’s what they were. Monsters.”
Snyder abruptly stood upright and started walking around the fenceline. Not sure what was going on, Thomas followed him as he practically waded through the thick mud that pulled at his shoes with every step. The old man led the way past the yard and towards the woods beyond. He stopped next to a rotten stump and pointed at the ground.
“Right here is where Big Man died,” he said.
“What, no, that’s not right,” Thomas disagreed with a shake of his head. “Bertelli was killed in a car bombing outside of the Douglas Theater during a trip to New York.”
“I hate to correct you, young man, but you’re the one that’s wrong. That bastard, may he rot in hell, was killed and eaten by his own hogs right on this very spot.”
Snyder spit on the mud in what was either disgust or hatred, most likely both. “Bertelli got the results he wanted, and he got a whole lot more along with them. The hogs started getting too strong, too fast, too smart. They weren’t satisfied with the scraps that were being offered to them anymore. They wanted out.”
He nodded towards the fence. “My Pa and I were over on the other side of the barn when it happened. It was late, and believe me, this place gets dark at night. Can’t hardly see the nose on the front of your face when the stars aren’t out. There was just this single light at the top of the barn that shined down into the pen. Bertelli had brought up another guy from the city for his hogs to meet. Pa didn’t like me seeing that sort of thing, for good reason mind you, so he took me around the building.
“Not seeing didn’t mean I couldn’t hear it. The same kind of screams that I had heard a dozen times before echoed all over the place. It’s not the screams that were the worst part. It was the sounds that came after the screams stopped. These wet sucking sounds, like meat being pulled off the bone by a butcher. It was… Well, you can imagine what those noises were.”
Thomas could indeed, but he didn’t want to.
“This time was different, though. Normally you’d know that everything was over when you heard the hogs grunting and shuffling back into the barn. That didn’t happen on this particular night. Instead of things quieting down, they got louder. The hogs started squealing and crying out. I swear that I could actually feel the rage coming off of them even from the other side of the barn. It was like heat coming off of a road on a hot day. Bertelli was yelling at them, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“Suddenly there was this sharp crack. It made my blood run cold. My Pa told me to stay right where I was and walked back around the side of the barn. Well, I was scared, but I was still a kid. He was only gone a few seconds before I started to follow him to see what was going on.
“I got to the other side of the barn just in time to see the last of those monster hogs forcing its way through the hole they had made in the fence. The light shining down on the pen was bright, but it didn’t reach past the pen itself. I could just barely make out Bertelli running just as fast as he could away from the animals. He couldn’t outrun them, and I suspect he knew that, but he tried anyway.”
“And here’s where they caught up to him,” Thomas said slowly, looking down at the spot that Snyder had indicated a few minutes earlier. “He didn’t get far.”
“Not far at all,” Snyder agreed. “Like I said, he didn’t have a chance. No one would have. They did just what they had been bred and trained to do. When they were done, there was nothing left of the great Big Man Bertelli.”
They were silent for a long moment. It was a lot to think through, and Thomas mulled over what he had been told as best as he could. He blinked as a thought struck him.
“The car bomb was attributed to the O’Connor family,” he said. “Danny Ricci, Bertelli’s second in command, had a major grudge against them. When he found out what happened to Bertelli, he must have staged the bombing so that the family would have no choice but to go to war with the O’Connors.”
“Could be,” Snyder replied with a shrug. “I don’t know anything about any of that. I don’t think that you’re quite appreciating what I’m telling you here, Mr. Eiden. Bertelli’s hogs, the ones that could tear a man limb from limb and had the disposition to do just that, got free that night. Think about that for a second.”
Thomas’ eyes went wide. “Jesus. What happened to them?”
“They went off into the woods.” He motioned towards the trees. “That particular forest goes on for miles. Sometimes hunters come out of it with strange stories. Black bear carcasses completely stripped of flesh. Odd tracks in the dirt that they can’t identify. Sometimes they say that they’ve seen unnatural animals in the shadows of the trees. Most people write them off as eyes playing tricks and the product of one too many bears. I know better, Mr. Eiden. I know it’s Stella’s offspring. Hell, maybe that sow is still out there somewhere. I can’t imagine that’s the case after all these years, but if any hog was stubborn enough not to die, it was that one.”
Thomas took off his glasses and looked up at the overcast sky, ignoring the rain that pelted his face. “This is a hell of a story, Mr. Snyder. It’s a lot to unpack.”
The man bristled. “I hope you’re not implying that I’m shoveling you a load of shit.”
“No, not at all. I’ve interviewed a lot of liars over the years, and you don’t strike me as one. I guess what I’m wondering is, why me? Why now? You’ve sat on this for so many decades, but you reached out to me. I’m hardly the first person to write about Bertelli.”
Snyder didn’t answer. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. He held it out to Thomas, and he took it curiously. He put his glasses back on and used one hand to unfold the paper while using the other to protect it from the rain.
It was a newspaper article. It had been carefully clipped out, and the title ‘Boy Killed in Animal Attack’ was circled with a thick black marker. He quickly read through it.
“That’s from four days ago,” Snyder informed him. “The police think that it was a dog, but no dog did that. There was almost nothing left of the poor kid. They were only able to identify him because they found a few hairs on a ripped off piece of shirt. They matched them to those of a boy that went missing a week earlier.”
“You think it was the hogs,” Thomas surmised.
“I know it was. There’s no question in my mind. At my age a lot of things in my body are failing me, but this brain of mine is still sharp enough to put two and two together. And let me tell you, Mr. Eiden, this is only the beginning.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Like I said, these woods go on for miles. On the other side, though, they’ve built a big housing development. Backed some of those properties right up to the treeline. Dozens and dozens of three bedroom, two bathroom houses filled with men, women, and children making a whole lot of noise and drawing a whole lot of attention to themselves. Having barbeques out in their backyards, with all those delicious smells wafting through the air. It’s a nice safe neighborhood, too. The kind where you let your kids run around in the yard while you take care of some things inside the house.”
Thomas stared at Snyder through the falling rain. The old man looked right back at him with a serious expression devoid of any humor. It was clear that he had thought this through, and that his thoughts had led him to some very dark conclusions.
“We have to tell someone,” Thomas said finally. “We have to warn someone about the danger those people are in.”
“Tell who, exactly?” Snyder asked with a shake of his head. “The police? Do you really think they’ll believe it? Besides, they already searched the woods and came up empty when they were looking for that kid. The hogs are smart, Mr. Eiden. They know when it’s time to hide.”
“You’re telling me that there’s nothing that can be done? I don’t believe that. I can’t believe that.”
“I didn’t say that. Come with me.”
Snyder led the way to the ancient barn. It appeared to have once been painted red, but the paint had faded into a dark gray. The roof was warped, and it took a moment for the elderly man to force the right door open. He went inside without looking back. Thomas hurried after him. As he went through the door and into the structure, he was momentarily confused as he realized that Snyder had disappeared from view.
Thomas heard the sound of metal colliding with his head before he felt the pain. He lost all control over his muscles, and he collapsed onto the dust and grime-covered barn floor so hard that it rattled his teeth. He opened his mouth to cry out. What came out instead was a low moan that was barely recognizable as human.
“I’m sorry this is how it has to be,” Snyder said as he stepped out from behind the barn door. “I truly am, Mr. Eiden. Maybe if I had another choice… Well, no sense in dwelling on what we don’t have, is there?”
Thomas felt his body being dragged further into the barn. The old man was strong for his age, and he was in no condition to fight him. The world was swimming before his eyes, blurred and swirling around in all directions. His stomach churned. Somehow he remained conscious.
The dragging stopped. Something cold and hard pinched into the skin of his left wrist, then into his right. His head was raised off the ground and his chin was placed onto something he recognized but couldn’t identify in his current state.
“Head wounds bleed the most,” Snyder told him from somewhere above. “I’m going to let as much blood drain into the bucket as your forehead is willing to give before I move onto other parts. No sense in wasting any. Just going to have to work around this big ol’ dent your skull put in it when I hit you with it. Should be fine. These old ones are a lot more durable than the plastic pieces of shit most places sell these days. They cost more, but it’s worth every penny.”
Thomas blinked in a fruitless attempt to clear his vision.
“You probably won’t believe this, but I’m doing what’s necessary. The only way that I’m going to keep those hogs around here and away from those houses is if I give them a reason to. They want human blood and meat, and, well, I’m sorry to say that’s where you come in.”
He tried to bring his hand up to wipe at his face, but something was stopping him from doing so. It took a long moment for him to realize that the pinches he had felt were from him being chained down.
“You asked me why I decided to tell you about Bertelli and these monster hogs of his,” Snyder was saying. “Truth of the matter is that I looked into you before I sent that picture. No wife, no kids, no real ties to anyone. You’re pretty much alone in the world, Mr. Eiden. You’re not even a real employee of that newspaper you write for, just a freelancer. I guess you could say that I brought you here because no one would miss you. That’s the trick to disappearing someone. Make sure that there won’t be many people asking questions when the deed is done.”
Thomas felt a tear stream down his cheek.
“I’m going to get as much blood out of you as I can without killin’ you. That way I can spread it around the treeline on this side of the woods and keep them drawn over this way. That alone isn’t enough for them. I suspect they have to have the thrill of the kill as well. There needs to be some life left in you. Well now, it looks like this particular well has run dry. Time to drill a new one, if you catch my meaning.”
Thomas wasn’t sure how long the bleeding process lasted. Each cut made him feel weaker, and he wasn’t able to fully regain his senses. The small part of him that was still thinking rationally wondered if the blow to the head had caused permanent damage. His limbs began to grow cold, and his body started to shake.
“Looks like we’re out of time,” Snyder said slowly. “It’s been good talking with you, Mr. Eiden. For your sake I hope they make it quick.”
With the last of his strength, Thomas forced himself up onto his elbows. He squinted in a final attempt to be able to see straight. It worked enough that he could just make out the barn door less than half a dozen yards in front of him. Something was standing just inside of it, something huge. The creature exhaled, and he felt hot air wash over him even from that distance.
For just a brief moment, his vision cleared. It happened too quickly for him to get a good look at the animal, but what he was able to see made his heart skip a beat. Long broken tusks. Sharp bones protruding from the body. A mouth filled with razor-like teeth, the canines so extended that they hung out over the jaw.
The hog snarled as it charged towards him. Thomas screamed.