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The autumn moon was beginning to rise in the east. Hues of orange and purple dusted the Sierra mountains. Dusk was approaching. U.S. Route 395 resembled a dark snake running through Central California until it became sparsely lit by dull, yellowed headlight beams. Ron was heading north, no destination, just driving until he was over it. He was over many things. He was over getting laid off. He was over losing his girlfriend of four years. He was over his parents disowning him for the things he’d done in years past.

With the clutch depressed, he shifted into neutral, slowed to a stop, pulled the parking brake, and flashed on his emergencies. Gusts of wind pushed Ron to the roadside quicker than a jog for which he was thankful. He couldn’t get his zipper open fast enough. As he coated the shrub with what had been Dr. Pepper the last few hours, his eyes drifted upward toward the horizon. The field before him was populated by Joshua trees. A vague whisper of his childhood friend, Josh, floated into his mind. They had been best buds until his mother was convicted of multiple murders in their county. Murder, drugs, and he thought there were other grim details but his memory couldn’t muster them. He wondered whatever happened to Josh after he disappeared.

Back on the highway, Ron’s stomach began to flip and fold itself as if a snake was in his belly tossing about. Despite the Big Gulp of dark liquid sludge he sipped, he had forgotten to eat anything for even longer. His lower abdomen started dancing furiously as he started imagining a hot meal. That hot meal wouldn’t come to fruition as he didn’t have a lot of money and these were mountain towns—most restaurants close around sundown.

His headlights lit up a billboard long enough for him to see a beef jerky store was ahead. The letters were large and red, couldn’t miss it. He did miss his father, though. A brief flash of a memory, jerky tasting in the desert at some work trip on which his father brought him. Ron got to try all sorts of odd meat choices, alligator and rattlesnake came first to mind. He remembered his dad saying, “Tastes like chicken, Ronaldo. Go on, give it a go.” The rattlesnake really did taste like chicken, weird.

He entered the town limits of Olancha, California. Huh, not much of a place, he wondered. After a few minutes he spotted a bright, blue neon sign in the window of a white cinderblock building. It had an overhang as if it was previously a gas station. Ron downshifted and parked, but after it was too late, he realized he parked in an adjacent parking lot, not the correct one for the beef jerky store. Walking toward the store, he noticed the neon sign said: JERKY. He liked that odd detail. There must have been a customer inside because he walked past a begrimed Toyota Tercel. Or maybe it was the employee’s car working the current shift.

The doorway chimed as if he was entering a 7-11. The store was very cozy, probably 20×20 with little walking room due to the overzealous displays of jerky in the mini aisles. The inventory seemed low. The walls were sparingly lined with vacuum-sealed packages of labeled jerky. He saw beef, turkey, venison, cowboy, and others. With a smirk, he thought whether the cowboy jerky was made for cowboys or made of cowboys.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, sir!” a man exclaimed after coming from a back door. Ron was visibly startled and thought this place looked too small to have a back-office area. The man’s breathing was labored and he looked a bit frantic. What was he doing back there? I hope he wasn’t—Ron stopped himself from picturing some grotesqueries. The man squeezed out some Purell onto his hands.

“Have you been here before? Would you like to try some samples?” The man picked up a small, orange tray from beneath the counter. An assortment of jerky-filled paper souffle cups laid before Ron’s eyes, the kind he squirted ketchup into at McDonald’s. He picked one that looked well-seasoned.

“Hot damn. That is beyond delicious,” Ron said after a brief, savory bite and chew. “Which jerky was that?”

“Why thank you, sir. Mighty kind. That was the original. Been at this line of work for generations.” The man gestured toward a line of portraits behind the register. Four generations of beef jerky masters. “I am the fourth Gus to run this here jerky store. When my great-great grandfather didn’t make it in the movie business he fell back on his second love, jerky. It used to be a rinky-dink stand in the middle of this Californian desert, but look at it now. We even have a website, online ordering, and have been visited by many Hollywood celebrities.” Gus handed Ron a small photo album and he began to thumb through it. The Polaroids included Quentin Tarantino, Colin Farrell, Bill Gates, and others.

“That’s pretty sick. I’m a big Pulp Fiction fan,” Ron shared as he passed back the album. As Gus extended his arm to take it back, Ron noticed a small spritz of what looked like blood on his sleeve. With a strained smile, Ron asked, “Is that your Tercel out front?”

After a silence approaching an awkward length, Gus replied, “Yeah, yes. That’s mine. You’d think I’d drive a much nicer car with the loads of money I make from selling this here jerky!” His eyes never blinked while he straightened his collar for maybe the eighth time that night.

“How exactly does it work? Do you have a workshop somewhere that processes all the jerky and you ship it here?” Ron asked, his gaze at Gus focused and severe. Gus’s pocket beeped, flip phone notification. He looked out of the window to the south, then north; yanked down the stainless-steel pull chain to turn off the JERKY neon sign.

“You seem like a nice guy. I normally don’t get customers once the stars first show. Want to see how we process all the jerky beneath us?”

Beneath us? There’s a basement?”

Gus directed Ron’s attention toward the door he sprung out of about five minutes prior. Gus walked past Ron leading the way. He flicked on the light switch and opened the door which revealed a small stairway. Chewing the inside of his cheek, Ron checked his wristwatch. Well, I’ve got nowhere to be right now. To hell with it. With shoulders lowered and loose, Ron followed Gus down into the basement.

It wasn’t exactly a well-lit, clean workstation. Right away, Ron questioned the cleanliness of Gus’s operation. There was a line of ruby-red liquid coating the floor near what appeared to be a large freezer. There was a workbench with labeled, opaque plastic tubs and a conventional oven to his right. To his left, a rack of spices and herbs. The entire basement was lit by a measly lamp overhead in the center. Ron looked closer at the rack of small, bottled spices and noticed they were labeled: beef, chicken, turkey, etc.

As Ron observed the room, Gus decided to explain his process of making jerky. The source meat comes to him, he first flash freezes it and then slices it with the sharpest knives he owns. After that, he marinates the meat using his proprietary spices and stock before baking it on low heat for three to four hours. Gus’s cell phone audibly notified him once more.

Thud. It was a low, muffled noise from within the freezer. It sounded like a bag of flour dropped. Ron looked toward the freezer with increasingly furrowed brows. There was another sound, something resembling the scuffle of feet. Gus attempted to divert his attention by saying they should go back upstairs. It was too late. Ron’s hand was already on the freezer’s door latch, pulling it to release the air-tight lock when it slammed open and hit him.

A young man, roughly 16, stammered out of the walk-in freezer. He was breathing heavily, drooling, and struggling to stay upright. Both of his hands were cut off and dripping. The only sounds emanating from his throat were groans. His tongue was missing. The teen fell over and began to army crawl toward Ron and reached out. Ron stumbled backward, his back against the oven as his legs went stiff. His eyes white saucers.

Ron turned toward Gus who was blocking the stairway and intently watching them both. He saw a dirty, wet rag in one of Gus’s hands, a crazy look in his eyes. Gus easily had 50 pounds on Ron, and he charged him. Ron ducked down and over, sidestepping Gus. The teen’s wrist bones crunched under Ron’s boot, blood and pus shot out where his hand had been—he croaked in agony. Ron’s eyebrows reached the ceiling, his mouth agape. He crashed down and rolled over the handless teen.

Gus caught himself before crashing into the far wall and ran back toward Ron as he approached the stairs. Ron’s foot was yanked back, his chin met the bottom step. Blood spurted out of his mouth as two of his teeth cracked and left their place. Ron felt as if his heart was going to burst out of his chest, his pulse raced. Gus flipped Ron onto his back and tried with all his might to smother the rag in Ron’s face. The vein in Gus’s forehead was bulging, his nostrils flared. Inch by inch, Gus was gaining on Ron with the rag. Ron could smell the sweet chemical with which the rag was soaked.

Thwack. The teen kicked Gus’s feet out from under him causing his aging spine and skull to collide with the dusty, concrete floor. Ron’s eyes darted at the teen, meeting the teen’s yellowed and bloodshot eyes with his. The teen motioned his head toward Gus with mumbled instruction.

Ron grabbed the rag which he assumed was soaked in chloroform and held it against Gus’s yawn-wide mouth long enough for Gus’s phone to chime again. After making sure he was knocked out stiff, Ron reached into Gus’s pocket for the phone. The notification was a new text message from “JD.”

JD: R u rdy or not?? Bttr have the adren. Be there in 2.

“Adren? What the hell is adren?” Ron whisper-shouted. He helped the teen up and onto the workbench’s stool, then reached for his own phone. It was missing from his jean pocket. Confused, he dialed 911 with Gus’s flip phone and put it on speakerphone. Hoping to reach an operator, Ron began to hyperventilate and blurt out everything he just experienced once he heard the line connect. After his last exasperated breath, the 911 operator replied, “Where are you?”

“We are in Olancha! At this beef jerky stand run by a guy named Gus.”

“Oh,” the operator said. “We don’t go there.” Click.

“Don’t…go there?” Ron repeated slowly to the just-as-confused teen. His mouth experienced a dull, vibrating pain from his missing teeth. “I’m going to get you out of here. We gotta get upstairs and to my car before this ‘JD’ person arrives.”

A car door slams. Footsteps approach the jerky store and the two in the basement panic as there is nowhere to hide in the store above. They hide beneath the stairwell as the basement door creaks open. “G? G4? You down there, buddy?” The familiar footsteps continue down the stairs, but stop abruptly as a gasp is released from JD’s mouth. He sees Gus unconscious on the floor and the walk-in freezer door wide open with cold air billowing out.

JD is wearing an all-white suit with gold trim and a flat-brimmed hat. Ron and the teen can only see him from the backside. JD kneels down and lightly slaps Gus as he repeats his name, trying to wake him up. He tries a harsh slap followed by a punch to his lower abdomen. Nothing. JD notices the rag on the floor, sniffs it quickly and tosses it just as fast. His head swivels about the room and lands on the freezer door. He creeps toward the door; afraid someone will pop out. Nothing. As he looked back in Gus’s direction his face was revealed by the faint, dust-filled light beam of the overhead lamp.

Ron and the teen shared an unnerved look. Without a word, they both thought JD somewhat resembled Johnny Depp. Ron nudged the teen and gave him the stay silent gesture with his forefinger to his closed lips. Out of desperation and afraid he possibly had a concealed weapon, Ron decided to take down JD, with a tackle. They crashed into the freezer door. JD’s back suffered a serious blow and the wind got knocked out of him, he gasped for air.

“Why are you here?! What is this jerky place? How do you know Gus and what the hell is ‘adren?’” JD struggled to get out from under the strong grip of Ron’s hands on his shoulders but remained pinned. His back hurt far too much to try again. He could be out for months with this injury. “Talk!” shouted Ron, saliva spurting out of his mouth. He smacked JD in the temple with the back of his fist. JD winced, no one touches his temples.

“Alright, alright. I’m here for blood. Usually a young person’s blood, male or female, doesn’t matter. I need it to look good in the spotlight. It gives me vigor, youth. ‘Adren’ is short for adrenochrome. It’s a chemical produced from adrenaline in the blood. Have you seen the film, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?”

“Nope, never.”

Peeved, he continued: “Well, in that movie a character takes adrenochrome to trip balls. He had a liquid dropper and put it on his tongue. In real life, I get it injected into my bloodstream. But to really get a good batch of it, you have to cause a lot of excitement and stress to the person you take the blood from to get their adrenaline pumping. Now, I’ve never questioned Gus’s methods, I just know his stuff works. My current acting role is very taxing. Should be done filming soon.”

Wait, was this actually Johnny Depp?

The young teen ran from beneath the stairwell yelling incoherently at JD and attempted to choke him before remembering he had no hands. After the realization, he proceeded to beat JD with his bloody stumps in a blind rage. You could almost hear him screaming, “NOT MY BLOOD!” but it was garbled by spit and his lack of tongue. JD covered his face and let out a primal scream, one that was sure to reverberate through the car windows of passersby on Route 395.

Ron’s grip on JD loosened during the lashing which allowed him enough room to kick the teen in the chest. He tumbled to the floor near Gus.

“What in the hell does any of that adrenochrome blood stuff have to do with beef jerky? This makes no sense.”

Ron stood up, gestured to the teen that he was taking care of everything, and walked over to the labeled tubs. Each had a sticker with a date and two-lettered initials on them. He opened one with a label dated from two weeks ago alongside the initials SB. He saw an eyeball, bicep, and foot. Horrified, Ron pushed the tub as far away from him as possible. It clashed against the wall adjacent to the workbench. The content of the tub spilled out onto the floor and the metallic odor filled the room. The eyeball rolled to JD’s foot. He screamed. “What the fuc—!” Startled, he got up and looked at Gus, still unconscious on the floor. Ron opened the other four tubs on the workbench revealing a similar combo of hacked up body parts. All three men shielded their nose and squinted their eyes in disgust.

“This is way too much for me. I thought I was just getting donated blood by volunteers who liked getting a little scared. Gus is actually murdering people?!” JD stepped over to Gus’s body and gave him a sharp kick to the ribs. This woke him up from the chloroform nap.

“Explain these tubs! I’m about to leave and tell the authorities about you and this place. They’ll never believe a murdering sonuvabitch about the adrenochrome thing. What the hell are these body parts, G4! Was your father, G3, doing this stuff too?!”

Slightly dazed and confused, Gus replied with a mawkish smile, “What do you think my really good fresh jerky is made from?”

This just in, an anonymous report came into our newsroom late last night concerning Gus’s Really Good Fresh Jerky out in Olancha, California. If you have small children watching in your room, please allow them to leave now. It is a grotesque crime scene and a story filled with murder. Apparently, for generations, this little jerky stand has been abducting visitors at random, killing them in the basement, and using their human flesh as their jerky. Gus, the owner, would season the jerkies differently and label them as different meats, but they were all human meat. The local forensics team has confiscated all of the jerky and tested it in their laboratory. DNA from 19 unique individuals has been found in packages labeled as beef, turkey, venison, and chicken. Ironically, the packages labeled Cowboy Jerky are genuine beef jerky with black pepper, sea salt, and brown sugar. Gus is now in federal custody as the investigation continues. Too soon to definitively say, but there is already enough tangible evidence to lock him up for life in prison. Police said there was a 1993 Toyota Tercel parked outside of the jerky stand but it lacked plates and wasn’t equipped with LoJack. The owner of the car is not known. We will bring you updates as they come in from authorities. Thank you for watching. This report was sponsored by Walt Disney Pictures. Be sure to catch their upcoming maritime swashbuckler movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl starring Johnny Depp. It’ll be in theaters this coming July. Goodnight!

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