Cordigan flicked his cigarette into the water. The river that bisected the city was dark and sluggish, its banks flecked with yellow foam. The cigarette burned on the surface a moment before the water sucked it under. Something lumpy and misshapen floated past and caught in a tangle of weeds near the dock’s moss-shrouded supports. Suddenly it twisted and vanished under the water, dragged down by something larger. Cordigan glimpsed a stretch of oily black skin before the creature sank again.
Saturday night. He would have been walking the beat, if he was still a cop. The Chief’s piggy eyes had glittered as Cordigan handed over his badge and gun. Cordigan kicked viciously at the warped boards of the dock. Suspended indefinitely pending investigation into the disappearances of his last two partners. He knew what had happened to them. He’d had to put Garrett in the river. Snot-nosed kid thought he was above earning a little money by looking the other way sometimes. But MacLeod wasn’t his fault. MacLeod had been something very different.
Cordigan turned and walked back to his car. The docks were infested with strange people, probably Slavs from some Eastern European hellhole, though he couldn’t imagine anyplace worse than this city. He’d parked under the block’s only working streetlight, across from the old Masonic Hall. A sign in some foreign language was tacked over the door; maybe it was a church. A group of locals squatted on the front steps, looking like pale fleshy frogs with wide mouths. They stared unblinking at Cordigan as he stalked to his car. He was glad to leave them behind. Above the decrepit roofs of the Slav buildings rose the taller ones, rounded at the edges by time and wear. They reached into the darkening sky like the broken teeth of some predator.
MacLeod had been a bootlegging bust. Illegal still in the cellar of a rickety tenement. At least, that was what the neighbors told the police. Cordigan suspected they were just terrified of the noises they heard through the walls at night, and made up the still so the police would come. He and MacLeod should have waited for backup, but Cordigan was eager; surely two armed cops could take down a few bootleggers.
But it hadn’t been bootleggers. The cellar was crammed with people in black, dozens of half-melted candles, an altar covered in something that dripped and stank. Cordigan couldn’t make it out through the smoke, and he was grateful for that. And the thing. He hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but sometimes a corner of his brain recalled far too many flat eyes; tentacles like a squid…Cordigan ran for the staircase, but MacLeod was too slow, clumsy with terror. One of the tentacles whipped out and wrapped around his leg.
Cordigan didn’t glance back. He’d burned that putrid place to the ground. But sometimes he heard MacLeod’s howls, in the place between sleep and waking. It wasn’t MacLeod that drove him to ask questions; he hadn’t even liked the man. It was the thing, the fractured pieces of an image that hovered like a carrion fly, insistent and ugly, in the back of his mind. The answers he got were rumors, but they were enough to lead him to the people who knew, the broken men who sat in the corners of bars and whispered whiskey-tinged fragments of stories into Cordigan’s ear.
The stories had taken him from the bars to the gates of August Howard’s mansion, palatial on the hill in the center of the city, above the cracked streets. The ever-present smell of decay that blanketed the city was diffused up there. Howard was the de facto ruler of the city, richest guy around, a withered vulture of a man who owned blocks and blocks of slums and decrepit factories. A few carefully chosen words into the speaker by the gate had granted Cordigan admittance. A few hours of conversation with Howard had gotten him a job. And that job concerned Mellie.
Melanie leaned on the bar, bent double at the waist so her cleavage was on display. Her dress shimmered blood red, despite the dim lights and the smoke that crowded every inch of the place. Her black hair was pinned into a neat chignon at the back of her neck. Her red heels pressed pain into her toes. The ruffles on her shoulder straps wilted in the heat. In the corner one of the regulars slumped over in his chair; dead-drunk or just dead, she didn’t know and couldn’t bring herself to care. But it was better than being outside. The city was surrounded- restrained- by a forty-foot wall. Within the barrier it breathed and writhed, whispering tales of abomination through the alleyways. At least in the bar she couldn’t hear the whispers.
Cordigan walked in. Something fluttered in Melanie’s stomach at the familiar sight of him.
Doug was a nice enough guy; he’d given her a chance two years back when she couldn’t tell beer from whiskey and had never worked a day in her life. But he didn’t pay much, so Melanie did other things for money; which was how she’d met Cordigan.
Melanie straightened up. She glanced in the mirror behind the bar. She bit her lips to bring out the color. As she stepped from behind the bar, Seth, the other bartender, glanced up. He saw Cordigan, and his eyes narrowed. Seth kept an eye on the guys she took home. Melanie knew he wanted her and was just too chicken to do anything about it. But she didn’t mind.
Seth definitely didn’t like Cordigan.
He went to his regular table and lit a cigarette. He wasn’t handsome, but his deep-set dark eyes were intent, and his body was covered in scars she had never dared ask about. He was dangerous, she thought; he radiated strength like a big cat. And he was taller than her, even when she wore heels. What was he thinking about? She knew better than to ask. The only time he’d ever hit her was once, when she asked.
When she got near, she made out his expression. Absent, lost. His mouth turned down, the skin around his eyes crinkled. Sad? No, not Cordigan. Melanie sank into the chair opposite him. His gaze moved to her, as if something was snapping into place. “Mellie.”
“Cordigan.” She smiled. A loose curl of hair drooped over her ear, and she tucked it back, tilting her head. “Aren’t you working tonight?”
“No. Something came up.”
She reached over and plucked the cigarette from his lips. The smoke tasted bitter. She grimaced and gave it back. “What are you drinking?”
“No.” He fixed her with an unblinking gaze. She suppressed a shiver.
“I’ll get it.” Melanie rose. “It’s dead tonight. Doug will probably send me home early. You could give me a ride home, if you don’t have any other plans…”
“Sure.” He was staring into the distance again. Melanie held in her smile until she turned away. Seth glowered from behind the bar.
Cordigan sat at the table for two hours, smoking cigarette after cigarette until the air around him was a haze of white. Several times Melanie caught him looking at her with that same strange, almost-sad expression. She quickly glanced away, but when she looked back it was gone; he was lost in himself again.
The first time she’d seen him, more than a year ago, she’d known right away she would take him home. He was as rough as she’d expected. But out of all the men she’d had, he was the only one who called her Mellie, the only one who cared if she had a good time, and the only one who stayed. He slept fitfully, his muscles twitching as he dreamed- what? They couldn’t be as bad as her dreams. He wasn’t a good man, she knew that. But when she woke in the dark, whimpering at half-remembered horrors, he wrapped his arms around her and stroked her hair with hands that had almost certainly killed.
Doug let her go at eleven. Melanie got her coat. Cordigan was waiting by the door when she came out of the backroom. They walked outside in silence, she limping a little in her ridiculous shoes. The street was deserted but for a small gaggle of bums up the block, warming their hands over a flickering trash barrel fire. Fog had rolled in off the river, covering the street in gray mist that swirled and fled from their feet. A rat dashed squealing down the gutter, followed by something that might have been a cat, if it didn’t scuttle so strangely; both creatures vanished into a storm drain. Melanie shuddered and looked away.
“Mellie,” Cordigan said suddenly. “If you could leave this city, where would you go?”
She laughed bitterly. “No one leaves this city, Cordigan.”
“But if you could.”
There was a wistfulness in his tone that she had never heard before. Melanie frowned, considering. Sunlight, little cafes, gutters that didn’t run with filthy water and other, worse things. “France.” She said finally. “I would go to France. Where would you go?”
Australia was a wild place, the cities few and scattered. Much of it was still empty desert or forest. A man could do anything he liked there. Yes, it was the perfect place for Cordigan, she thought. But it didn’t matter. No one escaped the city.
Cordigan opened the door to the backseat. Melanie paused, frowning. “Cordigan?”
When he didn’t answer, she took a step nearer. Quick as a striking snake, his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, his fingers pressing painfully into her bones. She gasped. Before she could pull away, he forced her into the backseat, climbed in after her, and slammed the door.
Melanie tried to say his name, but his mouth was on hers before she could form the syllables. He pushed her lips apart with his tongue, crushed her body to his. Melanie closed her eyes and arched her back. His hands roved over her body, pressing bruises into her ribs, her thighs. He yanked at the front of her dress, and she heard the ruffles on one shoulder tear as the strap gave way. His mouth abandoned hers and found her exposed nipple. Melanie buried her fingers in his hair.
“Cordigan,” She moaned.
In answer he pulled up her skirt, trailing his fingers across her stomach before jerking her panties down. He fumbled at the buttons on his pants until Melanie sat up and helped. He had to half-stand to take them off in the cramped backseat. Melanie bent to take him in her mouth, but he grasped her arm and pulled her into his lap, impatient. She lifted her skirt and settled onto him.
Cordigan kissed her again, fierce and hungry, his hands kneading her flesh. She rocked forward and back, and a small point of pleasure took shape in her belly. As she moved it expanded until her entire body felt warm and light. Then Cordigan nipped her neck with his teeth and the point exploded, releasing a sheet of white light behind her eyes. Melanie sobbed his name. She rested her head against his neck, breathing in the smell of cigarettes and alcohol and the metallic tang she had long ago identified as gunpowder.
For a moment he let her lean on him, panting. Then his fingers closed around her arms, raising her off him. Melanie whimpered a protest, but he pushed her onto her back, her knees lifted. Cordigan braced himself with one hand on the backseat, the other against the back of the passenger seat, and drove into her. Melanie locked her legs around his hips urging him deeper with every thrust, until his body spasmed and he came. When he stopped quivering, she put her arms around his neck, His tense shoulders relaxed. She hoped he would return the embrace, hold her close. But abruptly he withdrew. The old feeling of emptiness flooded her as he buttoned his pants and tucked in his shirt. Melanie pulled up her torn dress as best she could and picked up her panties from the floor of the car.
The faint light of the dying streetlamp cast his profile into blackness. “I’ll pay you next time. I spent all my cash at Doug’s.”
She cringed at his brisk tone. “I told you, you don’t have to pay.”
He turned to her. “Mellie.”
She looked up, surprised by the gentleness in his voice Cordigan raised his hand. His fingertips touched her temple, trailed down her cheek to her jaw. Melanie held her breath. There was no sound but Cordigan’s even breathing and the slowing beat of her own heart.
And then he pulled away and got out. He slid into the driver’s seat, and started it up. Melanie leaned back, still dazed at his unexpected tenderness. Absently she tied together her shoulder strap. For a moment she considered calling him by the name she’d seen on his driver’s license once, when he was asleep. But she kept silent.
Fewer than half of the city’s street lamps worked, so Melanie couldn’t see much from the window. She’d dreamed once of having a driver to take her places, when she was a famous movie star; now Cordigan was taking her home to a ratty two-room apartment, in a ripped dress, with his semen drying on her thighs. Melanie leaned her forehead against the cool window. A flash of neon caught her attention- a half-burnt sign for a diner in Maradona, the opposite side of town from her apartment. “Cordigan, where are we going? This isn’t the way to my place.”
No reply. He stared straight ahead. Melanie leaned forward. “Did you hear me? Where are we going?”
He turned slightly. His lips curled into a smirk. “It’s a surprise.”
The way he’d said her name, the nickname only he used…she sat back, chewing her lower lip nervously. Cold dread woke in her stomach, but she tamped it down. It was only habit. Why shouldn’t she go with him? What other choice did she have?
The streets were nearly deserted, the ever-present fog hiding most of what happened in the alleys and doorways. The few people Melanie saw were hunched over, scurrying along the stained sidewalk with all the haste they could muster. Beneath an overpass she saw what might have been a human body, sprawled in the gutter; something crouched on it and raised its head to stare at the passing car. The headlights turned its eyes red for an instant before it disappeared into the darkness behind them.
The buildings grew more and more decayed as they drove; they were heading toward the river. She hated the river, the thick, black water and the fishy stench of it. But she said nothing. He had never been angry at her, not really. She didn’t want to see what would happen if he was.
They stopped in front of a long, decrepit building; the sign above the door claimed it had once been a school. Cordigan killed the lights and walked around to her side of the car. Melanie blinked up at him, but his expression was lost to the shadows. He reached for her. She flinched, but he gently took her arm and guided her to her feet. Melanie allowed herself a tiny, hopeful smile. “I lost one of my shoes when you pushed me into the car. I’ll just go barefoot, I guess.”
The cracked concrete was sticky and cold on her skin. Cordigan held her hand as if they were lovers. A blush crept over her face, and she was glad of the darkness. But the dread in her heart spread tendrils into her chest, coiling around her ribs. Around them, the city had suddenly gone still, waiting. The whispering was silenced. This is where I should be, a voice in Melanie’s mind hissed. She shook the thought out of her head. Ridiculous.
He led her up the crumbling steps and into the front corridor. Empty doorways yawned on either side, and the floor was strewn with rubble and pieces of broken desks. She stepped carefully. Chunks of gravel bit into her feet, but Cordigan kept going, pulling her with him, so Melanie bit her tongue and bore it. They went to a door that opened onto blackness; Cordigan entered it without hesitation. “Watch your step.”
She grabbed his hand with both of hers and followed, trusting him because there was nothing else to do.
At first all she saw was darkness. But then the staircase turned to the side, and there was the glow of a lamp at the bottom. The basement was L-shaped. The lamplight crept around the corner. Cordigan and Melanie moved toward it.
The light illuminated a long, narrow room, empty but for a desk and the lamp. On the desk lay the remains of what might have been a cat, a broad-bladed dagger pinning it firmly to the wood. A gaping hole in the corner- an old well? -had once been fenced off with boards and wire, but the boards lay splintered on the floor and the wire was torn like old lace. A dozen people were arranged around the well, in a pattern too studied to be random. The way they stood sparked an ancient memory in Melanie’s brain: people standing just like this in her father’s library, and she was a child, frightened by the strange, ugly chanting…
She shuddered, her uneasiness blossoming into fear. She knew why she was here, and who wanted her. She knew what the encounter in the car meant. Cordigan had been weighing her worth against whatever he offered. She wrenched her hand out of Cordigan’s and backed away.
He grabbed her arm before she could go more than three steps. In the pale light, her face was white, her eyes huge with fear. “Where are you going, Mellie?”
“Bastard.” She hissed.
One of the figures by the well turned to look at them. It was a tall man, sunken and predatory. He wore a suit and had an imposing mane of steel-gray hair. Something red was smeared in finger-wide lines over his forehead and cheeks; as he approached the smell told Cordigan it was the cat’s blood. A smile twisted his thick lips. “Hello, Melanie.”
Her arm went limp in Cordigan’s grasp. Her lips trembled. “Daddy.”
August Howard gave Cordigan a cursory glance. “Thank you for bringing my wayward heir home, Mr. Cordigan.”
“I said I would, Howard. Do you have my payment?”
“You’re barely in time.” Howard bared his uneven teeth in the grotesque parody of a smile. “And yes, I’ve had the suitcase placed in your car. Don’t worry.”
Melanie tried to jerk her arm away, but Cordigan’s grip tightened. “How did he get to you, Cordigan? Money? “
“That’s unfair, Melanie. Mr. Cordigan came to me about an unrelated matter. In our conversation I learned he knew you, and where you were. I was surprised.” Howard’s eyes narrowed. “But maybe I shouldn’t have been. He says half the men in this city know you.”
She didn’t look at him. Instead she tried to catch Cordigan’s gaze. He refused to meet her eyes, keeping his expression impassive. “Cordigan! Did he tell you why I ran away two years ago? Why I changed my name? Why my mother killed herself? Did he tell you what he wants to do to me?”
“He’s your father.” Cordigan’s expression was blank.
Mellie shook her head. The last pins fells out of her hair, and it spilled over her shoulders. She shoved it out of her eyes, trying to make him look at her. Cordigan resolutely stared at the assembled cultists, recognizing some of them even though their backs were turned: the mayor, a councilwoman. One broad back belonged to the piggy-eyed chief of police. It didn’t matter. He’d be far away from this place by morning.
“But I’m not his daughter! He wants to kill me, Cordigan!” Her tone was thin with desperation. “I’m only an heir to him, a replacement…he wants to take away me, he wants to feed me to -“
Howard’s gaunt frame moved faster than Cordigan would have thought possible. His crabbed hand rose and fell, and Mellie’s voice was cut off. She stared at her father in shock. A red handprint bloomed on her cheek.
“You ungrateful little bitch.” Howard snarled. Cordigan leaned back as far as he could without letting go of Mellie; Howard’s breath smelled sweetish-sick, like decaying pork; it was layered over the musty, wet stench that rose from his clothes. “You run away when I tell you of your heritage. I have to pay a man to drag you back to me, and you come here stinking of your rutting with him. You never understood, you’re not worthy of Klth’ryl’s gift! I wasted all those years raising you…but you’re all I have. You’ll have to do, may the Thousand-Eyed Dragon of the Dark forgive me.”
Mellie was crying now, her mascara running into raccoon circles around her eyes.
“You’re crazy, Daddy.” She whispered.
“I’ve no more time for you. The ritual has begun.” Abruptly Howard turned and strode toward the well. The cultists were humming, something low and monotonous. No, Cordigan realized, they were chanting, low at first but growing gradually louder. The words were in some ugly foreign language; they scraped like sandpaper over his skin. Cordigan fought down a shudder of revulsion. It would be over soon, and he would be free of the city and Howard and all of it.
“It puts part of itself in you, in your brain.” Mellie was saying. “It makes decisions for you. He told me it doesn’t, you’re still yourself, but I read the books in his library, I know what it really does…what it makes you do after it’s inside you…”
“Shut up.” Cordigan said absently. He watched the ritual. The people remained in their spots, but they were sinking, falling to their knees as if they were slowly melting in the heat. Howard stood before the well, his arms half-raised, head thrown back. His face was slack with a hideous, almost carnal ecstasy. The chanting swelled, filling the basement. Cordigan couldn’t keep himself from wincing as it forced itself into his ears.
Mellie took advantage of his movement to yank her arm away. She flung herself around the corner, to the waiting stairs. Cordigan jerked himself out of his stupor and dove after her. It was very dark, after the light of the lamps; if it hadn’t been for her red dress he might have lost sight of her. She was nearly to the steps when he caught up. She fought him in the darkness. He managed to twist her arm behind her back. She struggled, her free hand groping for his eyes, but he grabbed her wrist and forced it down.
“I trusted you, Cordigan.” Her hair had fallen down over her face, but her voice was full of tears. “I trusted you. What could he offer you that’s worth more than that?”
He pushed her back toward the ceremony, yanking her to her feet when she stumbled. As they turned the corner, he answered. “Australia.”
Mellie made a soft noise, a cross between a sob and a moan. She sagged against him, all resistance drained from her. He put an arm around her waist, liking the way it curved under his palm; he knew this was the last time he’d feel it. Something that was almost regret plucked at him. Cordigan snorted and crushed it like a bug beneath his heel. Nothing mattered but Australia, so close the desert air burned his throat.
The cultists had gathered even closer to the well, tightening like a pulled knot. They all leaned forward, the shorter ones even standing on their toes. The air was taut with expectancy; they slobbered their eagerness even as they kept up the droning chant. Cordigan involuntarily dug his fingernails into Mellie’s flesh. The chanting and the tension felt like needles in his skin. He wanted nothing more than to let her go and run, back to the night and the chilled air aboveground. But he couldn’t risk Mellie following him. He waited for one of the cultists to take her.
Howard shoved them aside and fell to his knees before the well. He raised his hands and threw back his head. His eyes bulged like a toad’s. The chant, alternately grating and whining, poured from his mouth. Cordigan couldn’t make out much, but he heard Klth’ryl repeated several times. The other cultists were swaying, moaning under their breaths in eagerness. Mellie slumped, staring vacantly. He could hardly feel her breathing.
As Howard raved, something happened above the well. The air wavered, shimmering with an oily sheen. Revulsion nearly choked Cordigan, but he managed to stay still. The blackness began to solidify, taking shape- but not a shape he recognized, not any shape that belonged in the world. It bulged and wobbled gelatinously. Howard cried out. The thing became clearer: a mass of mottled skin the color of moss, eyes…far too many eyes running with ichor and, rising from the bottom, a nest of tentacles like a squid’s. Instead of suckers, the tentacles were covered with gaping mouths lined in tiny sharp teeth. The smell that accompanied it was putrid; like rotting vegetation.
The thing hadn’t risen from the well; they’d called it somehow. But why bring it here? Unless…
Unless the creature was enormous, and only the well was deep enough to hold it. How far beneath the ground did the shaft extend?
The cultists had fallen silent, staring transfixed at their god. Mellie suddenly stirred, whispering something. Cordigan leaned down a little to hear her.
“He’s going to die.” She repeated. “He’s going to die, he’s going to die.”
“No, Melanie.” Howard’s voice swelled to fill the cellar. Cordigan started; how had he heard her? The old man swiveled his head further than it should have been able to go, looking over his shoulder at them. His face was twisted with some inhuman pleasure, his eyes burning. “I’m going home.”
One of the tentacles whipped forward. The mouth nearest its tip gaped wide. It rose over Howard, then descended. In an instant he was gone. Blood ran between the tiny teeth, and the tentacle withdrew. The cultists moaned with delight.
Mellie closed her eyes. “Daddy.”
Cordigan thought she might faint, but she kept her feet, swaying. Two of the cultists- one the greasy police chief- left off contemplating Klth’ryl and turned to Mellie and Cordigan. One took her free arm. The chief reached for the one Cordigan still held. Cordigan’s grip tightened as the chief took Melanie’s hand. She didn’t open her eyes. The fat man gave a tug, and Cordigan let go.
They led her away between them. He felt a twinge of gratitude that she didn’t look back.
Klth’ryl shuddered and heaved as it digested its meal. Cordigan closed his eyes briefly, opened them, and turned to go. He had given them Mellie; he didn’t have to stay and watch what it did to her. He concentrated on the wall; follow the wall and it would lead to the stairs. Follow…
He was nearly to the corner when Mellie screamed.
No one had called him that since he was a kid, since he’d dropped out of school. How did she even know his given name?
He didn’t have to turn around. He shouldn’t turn around. He didn’t…Cordigan turned, just enough to catch a glimpse of the creature and the cultists. And Mellie.
The two held her at the edge of the well. Klth’ryl undulated with excitement. Mellie had twisted in their grasp. Her tangled hair partially covered her face. But not enough. The terror in her eyes reached across the cellar to find him.
“Sean!” Her voice strained, broke. Tears traced paths down her cheeks; they shone in the lamplight.
Behind her, a tentacle rose up. From the center of its mouth protruded a long, slender needle.
Cordigan swallowed, hard. He turned his back on Mellie and the god and the worshippers. She screamed his name again, and again. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, her screams had dissolved into wordless shrieks. By the time he reached the entrance of the school, the shrieks had stopped. Something slithered out of a crack on the steps and disappeared into a brown, thorny bush that clung to the building. Cordigan kicked at it and missed in the darkness.
The suitcase was in the backseat, just as Howard had promised. Cash, passport, the papers he would need to show the guards at the city gate. He went to close the door, and saw one of Mellie’s ridiculous heels on the floor of the car. He left it there.
The fog had grown thicker; even the headlights didn’t penetrate it. But he knew the way to the gate by heart. Cordigan turned out of the weed-ridden parking lot. The city rose all around him, the buildings curving inward like the claws of a giant beast. The ground trembled, so that the steering wheel shook in his hands. Earthquake? It was over in seconds. Cordigan headed toward the wall, toward escape. In the morning he would be out of this cursed place. What kind of shape would Mellie be in, when dawn found her?
It didn’t matter, not really. He was getting out. He was going to Australia.
Patricia Correll lives in Kentucky with her husband, son, and cat familiar. She has also been published in The Absent Willow Review, Silver Blade, and Lightning Flash Magazine. She likes gory horror movies, pepperoni pizza and Hello Kitty. Hit her up on Google +!
Illustration by Ronnie Tucker.
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