Monday, August 31, 2009

"Ace in the Hole" story by Mike Chinn

I froze as another trickle of dirt rattled somewhere near in the darkness. I strained my eyes, waiting for that first flicker that would tell me it had started.

There maybe?

No. Just another trick played by over-imaginative nerves and eyes that had already been seeing things for two hours. I slumped back into the corner of my cramped hiding place, pulling the stiff collar of my flying coat up around my ears, trying to sink deeper into the thick leather. God, but it was cold! Old gags aside, I’d never have believed it was going to be as bitter as this; past experiences notwithstanding.

I found my mind drifting back to The Palace, two thousand five hundred miles away in New York: to Leigh in her newest sequins, choreographing the waiters and customers with equal ease; to Franco, hashing up something special in the kitchens. The cosy, warm kitchens.

And here I was: Damian Paladin, restaurateur to the Manhattan rich on my good days, investigator of all the things that have no place in the heady world of High Society America, 1935. Crammed into a lightless, airless place in Seattle’s suburbs, on a cold and damp November night—this wasn’t a good day. I tried to shift my weight, to ease some of the creeping numbness growing happily in my butt, but only succeeded in hitting my head off the low roof.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” I muttered sourly, once I’d used up all the colourful invective I knew. It was a pip, all right.

More dirt fell nearby; but this time I was sure I felt some movement. Another handful of clods shifted grittily—and I knew something was moving out in the thick darkness. I heard a heavy dragging—as though all the worms this side the Atlantic had chosen to take their vacation here—a hollow knock, a thud followed by more dragging; and then a pallid, cold glow began to sift through the total blackness—almost blinding eyes grown accustomed to the complete lack of light, despite its thin, phosphorescent quality.

Then I was no longer alone. Something the colour of dead maggots, oozing with corpse-light, dragged itself to within three feet of where I crouched—and halted, rearing up as much as it could in the confined space.

It had a strangely conical head, totally devoid of features, spreading out from thin shoulders like a dope-addict’s dream of a tulip, and a scrawny torso that tapered off into the shadows. Arms that looked boneless ending in huge, spade-shaped hands which scraped nervously on the plain, wooden floor. The smooth planes of the cone twitched this way and that, finally orientating themselves in my direction; and I didn’t need the crawling in my gut to know that somehow it was watching me.

What? came a bubbling voice—a voice filled with mouldy clay, the seepings of stagnant ponds lost far underground. I couldn’t tell if the sound actually issued from the pallid shape quivering in front of me, or just sounded in my head—but the source was all too obvious.

What are you?

I snapped open one of the holsters hung from my belt, and felt the comforting weight of my Mauser as I pulled the automatic free. It was one of the Schnellfeurer models, able to loose off all 20 rounds in little more than a second. Totally inaccurate, and no use at all against the thing before me—but I’ve always been a traditionalist.

“Exactly what you see,” I replied, doubting the thing could see at all. The fleshy cone bobbed in a peculiar, somehow disturbing motion.

No, came the disgusting voice. There is something more...

“And what about you,” I butted in, keen to get the thing off the subject of yours truly. “What are you?”

Exactly what you see, echoed the glowing thing, shifting its position, digging trenches with its spatulate hands. Now it was my turn to shake my head.

“Uh-huh.” I waved the Mauser at the thin torso and pointed head. “My guess is there’s a damned sight more to you than meets the eye, scrawny.”

The thing reared up suddenly, and I tensed, sure it was about to rush me, and a lipless, black gap suddenly split the cone almost from base to peak. A stench I defy anyone to describe belched out of that obscene blossom, followed by a wailing hiss that left my eardrums whistling in protest. With a flailing of the boneless arms the glowing shape began to slip back into the darkness, alternately retching stench and howls at me as it fled. But I’d been ready for that particular move since sundown. I launched myself across the cramped space and clung onto the retreating flesh as though it was my childhood love returned after a lifetime of celibacy.

Somehow I managed to keep hold of both automatic and the disgusting skin, which squirmed and puckered against me. I felt myself dragged down an endless tunnel, filled with vengeful stones that I must have done some hurt in their previous lives. In moments I was encased in a dense layer of mud and slime, that smelled even worse than my unwilling guide; and I figured it too held a grudge—the way it continued to probe my battered nose.

I seemed to fall for an eternity, shaken like a doll that’s been found by a bored terrier. Eventually the endless tunnel gave out, and I was snapped loose of my disgusting hold by a none too gentle swat across the shoulders from one of the creature’s shovel-like hands. I tumbled briefly, before fetching up hard against a loose aggregation of gravel and earth strewn with little aesthetic regard across stale-smelling ground. Grateful that most of my limbs seemed to still be in place, and facing the right way, I got painfully to my feet, brushing vainly at the smelly coating that had turned me into a two-legged mudslide.

I was in a dimly-lit cavern, dotted here and there by the crumbling remnants of buildings that looked as though they’d been in storage since the Chicago fire: storefronts and grit-covered sidewalks, hotels and offices. Some of them even managed to make it to the roof of the cave—though it was a struggle that had left them weak and tottering.

And everywhere I looked, the walls and ceiling of the cavern were punctured with black holes—like a negative sky at night.

“Old Seattle,” I murmured, realising they were remnants of a great fire: the one of 1889 that had swept the town. Fires had been quite the fashion during the last decades of the 19th century. Only I couldn’t figure where the light was coming from.

But it didn’t take long for me to find out. Rounding one of the decaying corners, I came face to face with my monster’s granddaddy; or to be exact: the rest of it. It was like some huge white slug, curled smugly in the centre of of a burned-out square, emitting the corpse-light that was giving the cavern its thin illumination. A frill of tendrils blossomed grotesquely from one of its ends, each of the limbs ending in the tulip head and spatulate hands of the thing I had so rudely interrupted nearer ground level. Most of the tendrils were curled close to the body—like kittens snoozing close to mama—but the one I’d hitched a lift with and a new friend were swaying like disturbed cobras above the main bulk, conical heads swivelling insanely.

Who? came that gurgling voice again. Who? Who?

“You got owls down here, cuddles?” I said, returning my slime-covered Mauser to its holster. “Better take care, I hear they’re partial to nice juicy worms.”

A couple more of the squirming arms came to life and raised themselves into the airless gloom. What are you?

It was an odd sensation, hearing that one throatless voice seeming to come from four bobbing heads, but with no cavern-echo.

“Doesn’t matter at this late stage,” I replied, starting to walk towards the pale bulk, and slipping my hands into the pockets of my flying coat. “But I know what you are.”

Half of the remaining tendrils awoke and waved mesmerically in the air before me. I paused, knowing that one of those limbs alone could finish this interview prematurely—but now I could count eleven, and they were starting to ooze up and down on their fantastically extensible arms, beginning a hypnotic dance. I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

What am I?

“The Mayor of Seattle thinks you’re a ghoul—or rather a whole pack of them—since you began raiding fresh graves four months ago.” Now the thing was talking again, I resumed edging forward—but I continued to watch the weaving limbs. “He’s nervous: he couldn’t find a pat answer as to how the corpses got snatched from underneath for the newspapers—and he’s up for re-election next year. It doesn’t do to make a politician nervous. Or don’t they have them where you come from?”

I have slept long. I must feed.

“Sure, I understand that. Why, we’re both men of the world.” I stopped, judging I was close enough. I noticed that all the heads were up now—eighteen spade-armed tentacles that could move like—I didn’t know how fast they could move: hence the caution.

“But you see, a nervous politician is a desperate man; and desperate men will believe anything. Well, almost anything. Which is why he called me in: I deal with those anythings sane people never think about.”

I do not care. I must feed.

“So you said, brother; so you said.” I dug my hands deeper in my pockets, making sure I had a good hold on what I’d been hiding in there. “But you’ve had your day, chum. You’re washed up. I can’t guess how long you’ve been asleep under the earth, and I don’t care. This isn’t your world anymore—if it ever was. You’re finished!”

I tensed, sensing the moment was almost at hand. All eighteen limbs had stopped their weaving, and I could see they were poised to strike; and being trapped in this museum exhibit hacked half to pieces was not how I’d planned to take my hard-earned rest.

At the very instant I keyed myself up, something black and gellid opened where the tendrils met, and stared at me. It wasn’t good: an eye that ancient looking at me that hard—I felt it could see too much. So I acted.

“So long, turkey,” I muttered, pulling the two parcels from my pockets.

I leapt back as far and as fast as I could the moment I’d pitched the two hessian bags at the eye nestled in that glistening white mass. The heads began to strike—but as suddenly started to writhe chaotically. They flopped open and closed, foetid air whistling out, smashing themselves against the ground, stretching at the vaulted ceiling, and crashing through already crumbling brickwork as the contents of the bags began to do its work. A deafening howl that reverberated inside my skull tore bloody furrows in my poor grey matter. I ran for the tunnel through which I’d been dragged, suddenly eager to be out of this place. If they ever wanted to take people on tours of underground Seattle, this cavern would have to be taken off the guide-map.

In its agonies, the squirming bulk thrashed its limbs against building and rock alike. Chunks of the ceiling were already breaking loose, and I saw one smash into the oozing flesh and half-sink into the stuff that was already beginning to turn semi-liquid. It’s amazing the effect several pounds of salt can have on a body.

Crude? Maybe—but like I said: I’m a traditionalist.

It took more hours than I like to think to crawl back up that slimy tunnel; and all the time I could hear the crashing destruction of the cavern, and the scream of the dying thing writhing in the centre of it. When I was about half way up, a sudden gust of stale air rushed up the tunnel from behind me, carrying a load of dust and a familiar stench. At the same time, the screams that had been ripping apart my skull abruptly stopped. The rest of the climb was done in blessed silence.

Once back in my cramped hidey-hole, I emptied the whole clip from my Mauser into the lid, shattering the cheap wood into toothpicks. Pushing myself out and digging up through the loose soil was the easiest part of the evening—but I still didn’t want to spend any more time than I had to in that cemetery.

It was too much like old times.

(c) Mike Chinn. Originally published in THE PALADIN MANDATES, 1998

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