Stood on the quayside in the village of St. Mottram, with its quaintly gabled, clapboard buildings rising up the slopes of the hillside behind him, Ray Wetherell had been gazing out across the sea for some minutes, lost in reverie, when it happened. Early autumn, the climate was mild, barely a breath of wind. Yet suddenly, for no reason, a chill, like some kind of ominous premonition, came over him. He shivered, looked skywards to see if there had been a sudden build-up of clouds, but everything looked the same. The same small clouds and cobalt sky, the same deep red sun slowly sinking towards the hills, the same gulls circling a fleet of fishing boats out across the bay.
Even when he returned to the inn, where he had a room booked for the rest of the week, Ray could not shake the feeling that something was not right. He felt disjointed, as if reality had made a subtle shift.
A couple of his fellow guests were standing at the bar when he strode in and ordered a Budweiser. Later he would have something to eat, but for now a drink would do; it might help shake the feeling that came over him by the quay.
“Hey, what’ve those guys got?”
Ray glanced over to where the others had gathered by one of the windows. Through the nearest he caught sight of the masts from one of the fishing boats, moored against the quay. Its crew were grouped in a tight knot on the quayside, pulling on a rope. Whatever they were trying to raise from their boat, though, looked as if it was too heavy for them to shift.
“Do you think they could do with some help?” one of the men said, a tall, athletic type with greying hair.
“Why not?” the man’s shorter, darker companion said. “Are you with us?” He turned to Ray. “Might be worth our while. Might have caught some extra lobsters.”
Still not feeling himself, Ray nevertheless shrugged. “Okay.”
When they gathered behind the fishermen a few seconds later, the men had already almost succeeded in pulling whatever it was they had onto the quay. Ray craned over and was surprised to catch sight of a shell-encrusted statue almost half as big again as a man.
By the time the fishermen had lowered the figure onto the quayside a crowd had gathered. The captain of the fishing boat, a pot-bellied man with leathery skin and a grizzled beard, tried to scrape away some of the molluscs that covered it in layer upon dripping layer, obscuring its features so much it was far from clear whether the statue was of a man or a woman. One arm was raised as if in salute or some kind of command, and from the tips of the fingers Ray glimpsed the dark, coppery metal it had been cast from, tarnished by the sea.
“How the hell did something like that get in the waters around here?” someone asked.
“Must’ve been dumped overboard,” an old villager said. “Prob’ly contraband.”
“Perhaps there was some ancient civilisation around here no one’s heard about.” Which raised a few raucous laughs.
“Atlantis. We’ve found Atlantis.” The boat’s captain grinned hugely.
“Yai. And now we know what happened to them. They were wiped out by Indians,” another of the locals said.
“Native Americans,” someone corrected. “You’re not supposed to call ‘em that nowadays.”
Ray shook his head, bemused, though fascinated – and at the same time repelled – by the statue.
“Let’s get Professor Collins,” a large, gruff-looking crewman said. “He’ll know what it is.”
“He’s the local celebrity,” one of Ray’s fellow guests told him. “Retired here from Brown University in Providence. Which tells you something, when a retired university lecturer is a local big shot.”
Ray edged closer to the statue, which was laid on its side like a toppled dictator. Gingerly, he stretched one hand to feel it. His finger tips tingled as they neared the statue as if they were closing in on a powerful electric current. The nearer he reached towards it the more intense it became – the more painful it became.
The voice seemed to come from a vast distance away, as if he’d stumbled into a deep canyon filled with echoes.
“Are you okay?”
With an effort, Ray withdrew his hand from the statue. Immediately the pain in his fingers began to recede.
He nodded his head.
“It’s strange. So weird,” he managed to say.
“You’re not kidding,” the bearded captain said. He scratched the statue’s upraised hand with the edge of a knife. Molluscs were flicked away like black poppy petals to reveal bare metal – and the webbed fingers of the statue’s hand. “How’s that for weird, eh?” the seaman said with an even bigger grin than he’d been beaming before, as if he could already feel the money he was certain would come his way from this find.
Someone backed a pickup truck onto the quay and the statue was manhandled onto it. Al Westmore, owner of the local garage, offered to store it till Professor Collins could be contacted. Taking him up on his suggestion, the boat’s crew and several locals accompanied the truck uphill to the garage, while Ray and the others, the excitement over, returned to the inn.
“Mike Rayburn,” one of Ray’s fellow guests volunteered. “And this is my friend Jeb Holowitz.”
They shook hands as the bartender poured fresh beers.
Mike was a six foot, ex-football player from one of the minor leagues who coached sport at a school in Maine. Jeb, a lean, leathery, outdoor type with a Clarke Gable moustache and a pipe stuck in one corner of his mouth, owned a deli in the same town. They had been friends since High School and were here for the fishing. They had hired a local offshore fishing boat and gone out nearly every day after shark.
“And what are you here for?” Jeb asked when they settled down to their second beers.
Ray gazed at his drink for a few seconds before giving his answer. In the face of these anglers with their no nonsense jobs and no nonsense lives, he found it difficult to admit he was recovering from a nervous breakdown after a bad divorce and the near bankruptcy of the advertising company he started up after leaving college. He had come to St. Mottram because this was where his parents had grown up. In a way it was like escaping to his ancestral roots away from the world outside, where everything he had hoped and planned for had gone horribly wrong.
In the end he gave them a brief synopsis. Brief enough to avoid self pity – and brief enough for him not to dig up too many memories he had been hoping to forget on his holiday here.
They commiserated with him, then ordered another round of beers. The topic had been covered. Now they could move on.
For which Ray was grateful. He still felt out of key, almost as if what was happening around him was not quite real, as if it could have been a dream from which, any minute, he would awake. Talking about his recent troubles, his divorce in particular, made everything seem even more surreal. He still found it difficult to believe Janie walked out on him for someone else, that she had been planning it for over a year. That alone had displaced a substantial part of his sense of reality. Nor had he found it easy to readjust to being alone.
The next morning his head felt thick with a hangover. He showered, then shaved in the hope of helping to clear his head. Then he went downstairs to the smell of ham and eggs and hot coffee. The surest cure he knew for the after effects of too much alcohol.
Mike and Jeb were already there, tucking into platefuls of pancakes as if they hadn’t a care in the world. They called him over to join them.
“You got anything planned for today?” Jeb asked. When Ray admitted he hadn’t, Mike said: “Why not come with us? There’s room on the boat. And I can guarantee you’ll not be disappointed. When we went out Tuesday we caught us a couple of woppas.”
Though he was not sure how good a sailor he might be, especially in a small fishing boat, their companionship seemed preferable to mooching about by himself with the threat of too many bad memories crowding in, despite the change of scenery.
“You’ll need a good pair of jeans or something like that and a thick jumper. It can get a bit windy out there. Other than that we’ve more than enough gear for us all,” Jeb told him.
It was a little after nine when they left the inn. As they approached the quay Mike recognised the captain from the fishing boat that snagged the statue the day before, and called out to him: “Have you found out what that thing is, Ed?”
Still bubbling with excitement from his catch, the man strode over as briskly as his portly form would allow, teeth flashing in the depths of his beard.
“That Brown University professor’s supposed to be coming down today to take a look at it. He’ll have an idea what it is, if anyone does. We managed to clear most o’ them molluscs and stuff last night. And a damned peculiar-looking thing it is.”
“I thought it looked a bit like the Statue of Liberty,” Mike joked.
Ed gave him a wide-mouthed grin. “You wait till you see it, then tell me that again. The thing’s face looks like someone’s parents got a bit too friendly with a fish.” His laugh was a booming bellow. “Much too friendly!” He turned to call something jocular to one of his crewmen down by the quay, when his laughter died. “Blast it,” he muttered.
Ray followed his gaze. A bank of clouds had gathered across the horizon. Even as he looked it grew ominously darker. At the same time he caught a sudden drop in the temperature.
“Looks like we’re heading for a storm,” Mike said, the disappointment obvious in his voice.
“Yep; no fishing today, I think,” Jeb added, emptying his pipe with disgust.
The clouds spread wide across the skyline, with the distant flicker of lightning.
“That friggin’ statue had better be worth something,” Ed grumbled, his good humour soured. “’Cause we’ll get no more catches today. We’re in for one hell of a storm by the looks of it.”
“Perhaps we should have a look at Al’s garage when the professor comes,” Mike said to his companions. “Not as much fun as going out fishin’ for shark, but, hell, who knows what the guy’ll have to say?”
Neither Ray nor Mike had a better suggestion, so they wandered in the general direction of the garage. Nor were they alone. A crowd had already gathered in anticipation of Collins’ arrival and his expected revelations about the statue’s ancestry. Ray hoped they were not going to be disappointed by the professor’s expertise. He glanced seawards, surprised at how the storm clouds had grown in just a few minutes. The wind was stronger now, and he wondered how many of the crowd would linger once the storm hit.
None of them, though, had much longer to wait for the professor. Whether it was the unusual nature of the find or the fact he had nothing better to do in his retirement, it was only a few minutes before his car drew up at the garage.
There was a ripple of excitement amongst the crowd as the professor, a stern-looking man in tweeds, with a misshapen pork pie hat and a white beard, climbed out. Ed hurried up to show him into the garage.
Ray allowed himself to flow in with the rest of the crowd as the professor stared at the statue, propped upright against some oil drums. Ray was surprised how many of the molluscs encrusted to it when it was dragged from the sea had been removed to reveal the stained metal beneath. Ed had not been exaggerating about the statue’s face. It did look extraordinarily fishlike. Eerily so. Ray had seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon on late night TV, and the statue had some vague similarities. But so much that wasn’t. In fact, its face looked far more intelligent, despite its fish-like features. It also looked unmistakably evil. Its body was more portly than The Creature, with a pronounced paunch and a frog-like look to its legs, though its splayed feet ended in long, curved, razor-sharp claws.
Professor Collins had so far not spoken. Nor had he touched the statue, remaining a good few feet from it.
“Well, what do you think?” Ed asked eventually, impatiently tapping the scaly chest of the statue. “Is it valuable?”
The professor made a gesture as if to say don’t touch it, then took a step back from the statue.
“I do not think it would be wise to handle it,” he said.
“Why? Is it poisonous?”
The professor shrugged. “There may be pollutants. There very probably are.”
“Pollutants? From where? There aren’t any industries around here, professor. We only picked this up a mile out to sea. There’ve never been any pollutants there.”
“You don’t know how far this thing might have drifted.”
“Drifted? This? It hasn’t moved more than half a dozen feet for years. It’s too friggin’ heavy.” He laughed heartily, but Ray could see he was disturbed. “D’y’ave any idea what it is? Where it might’ve come from? It ain’t Injun, is it?”
The professor shook his head. “Whatever it is it isn’t native to this area. It’s made of metal – possibly copper – for a start off. And the style, the features are unlike anything seen around here.”
“Where did it come from then? How’d it get here?”
Professor Collins shook his head again. “Someone may have dumped it offshore. That I can’t answer. As to where it came from, it will need a more detailed examination than I can give it here to answer that. It would need carbon dating for a start off to determine its age. It may be modern. Some avant-garde artist could have created it.”
“Artist, eh?” Ray could see the calculations in the seaman’s mind. “A famous artist, maybe?”
Professor Collins shrugged. “I couldn’t say. Art isn’t my field. But it may be.”
Somehow, Ray was not convinced the professor was being as honest in what he was expressing as he was trying to make out, that he was concealing something about the statue. Why else did he look at it with so much wariness, Ray wondered, unless he also felt the strange electrical sensation he experienced the previous day?
The storm clouds had meanwhile drawn over the bay, making the inside of the garage even gloomier, and Al Westmore went to switch on more lights. The statue, looming as it did over the professor’s head, looked menacing, as if it was about to bring its upraised web-fingered hands down in a savage blow. Shadows darted about its face, giving it a strange semblance of life as a gust of wind made the neon lights hung from the rafters swing back and forth.
“If you wish I’ll get in touch with Brown University and see if they can examine it for you,” Collins told the fisherman. “That’s the best I can offer. I could phone some contacts I still have there when I get home.”
Ed looked dubious at the thought of bringing others in to look at the statue, perhaps, Ray thought, because he feared the thing might slip through his fingers – along with whatever money he might make from it. But in the end the captain nodded his head. “You do whatever you think best, professor. I know you won’t try and cheat me.”
Thunder was peeling closer now and the first heavy rain was beginning to clatter against the tin roof above them, drowning out their voices.
“Time we went back to the inn,” Mike said, “before we get ourselves drenched.”
Ray decided to linger for a short while and told the others he would follow in a few minutes.
Bemused at his interest in the statue, Mike said they’d meet back at the bar, then hurried out into the rain.
As the others drifted out of the garage, Ray made his way to the professor, still staring intently at the statue.
“Did you feel it too?” Ray asked.
Professor Collins looked at him, his face pensive.
But Ray could tell: he could feel it all right. Of that he was certain.
Ray tentatively held one hand towards the statue. Three feet away, it still emanated a strange pulsating tingle that seemed to bite the flesh of his fingers straight to the bone. He drew back his hand and massaged it as he turned once more to the professor.
Collins nodded. “Not everyone seems to be sensitive to it,” he said. “Ed Gamley isn’t. He wouldn’t have spent so much time clearing those shells from it if he was.”
“Or the molluscs either,” Ray said. “Not unless they like that kind of pain.”
Collins smiled wryly. “Odd, isn’t it?” He pursed his brow in thought. “My first thought was it was radioactive. But that wouldn’t explain why most people don’t appear to be affected by it. Nor is the sensation what you would expect from radioactive material.”
“You can’t feel radiation,” Ray said.
“Quite. Which makes it even odder.”
“You have any idea who created it?”
The professor paused before answering. “I didn’t like to say anything in front of that crowd – most of them would think I’d gone crazy – but, yes, I recognise something about it. It’s not something you would find mentioned in any standard work on history or religion. Or on cults, for that matter. I’m not even sure I believe it myself – though I know colleagues at Brown University – most of them retired some time ago now – who would talk about things similar to this.”
“How long ago?” Ray asked, intrigued.
“Oh, they were talking about the eighteenth, maybe the seventeenth centuries.” Professor Collins frowned. “I thought most of the tales that used to go around a bit fanciful – too fanciful to be given any kind of credence in a respected academic institution. But these were not men I would have dismissed as fanciful or naïve.” The professor shook his head. “I had better return home and make my phone calls. The sooner this thing is carted off for examination at the university the happier I will be.”
That night, as Ray sat with Mike and Jeb in the inn, they had news of the first death in the village. Ed Gamley, whose nets had been fouled by the statue, was found inside Al Westmore’s garage, his throat ripped open.
When the three strolled out after their meal, the local sheriff and his deputies had already arrived at the crime scene. Their patrol cars, lights flashing in the gloom, were parked outside.
Sheriff Harper’s investigation into Ed Gamley’s murder was thorough and methodical – textbook to the letter – and discovered nothing. This was the general conclusion of most people Ray talked to the following day. Like everyone else at the inn, he was seen by the sheriff, a large, bluff, overweight man with an easygoing smile that looked a tad constrained under the circumstances. It was a casual interview in the hotel manager’s office, with one of the sheriff’s deputies taking notes. But Ray knew nothing that could help the investigation and had rock-solid alibis in Mike and Jeb and the barman at the inn during the time the doctor estimated Ed’s death took place.
It was mystifying to everybody. Ed had been well liked in town and had no known enemies. And in a place as small as St. Mottram everyone just about knew everything there was to know about everyone else.
Adding to the mystery was the sheer savagery of Ed Gamley’s wounds. There was talk it might have been a wild animal that attacked him. Allegedly the wounds on his throat could have been caused by claws or a knife slashing it again and again. It would take a thorough examination by the Medical Examiner at the County Coroner’s office for a determination to be made about it.
In the meantime rumours were rife.
Nor was the investigation helped by the weather. The storm clouds that had come in the previous day had persisted overnight and well into the morning. In the end they gave way to an almost impenetrable fog.
“Looks like we’re destined not to get much shark fishing done this week,” Jeb said as they settled into a light lunch at the inn, with several ongoing coffees.
The fog was so dense even driving a car through the village was perilous and most people preferred to go by foot. With its density and the lack of any motorised vehicles moving about the place, there was a peculiar hush. St. Mottram felt isolated, cut off from the outside world.
It was during the afternoon that Al Westmore was found dead in his garage just like Gamley, his face so badly torn by whoever – or whatever – killed him he was all but unrecognisable. Lying not far from the ill-omened statue on the floor of his garage, it was noticed that someone had tried to move the statue, despite its weight. It stood several feet nearer the open doors.
“I wish that professor feller’ld hurry up and get that damned thing shifted out of here,” one of the locals grumbled as they gathered outside the garage while the sheriff examined the corpse inside.
Whether it was the weather or the violent deaths, but there was a superstitious dread amongst some of the locals. Not that Ray didn’t feel some of this rub off on him, adding to his feeling of dissonance. More and more the place was beginning to feel like a dream, unreal somehow, however solid everything was to the touch.
“I wonder if that professor feller’s been in contact with Brown University yet,” Mike said.
“Perhaps someone should ring him,” Ray suggested. “I suppose the last person to have spoken to him about the statue will have been Ed Gamley. He might not even know about Gamley’s death.”
Mike asked someone if they knew the professor’s address. It turned out he lived a couple of miles outside the village at Bluff Heights, a large house near the summit of the cliffs that overlooked the bay, built many years ago by the professor’s great grandfather, General Nathan Collins, a veteran of the Civil War.
“Why don’t we drive to see him?” Mike said. “The fog’s bad here, but I’m sure we’ll drive out of it when we gain height up the road.”
Jeb said he was game. “Anythin’s better than hanging about that bar all day. I don’t think my liver’ll stand much more of it,” he joked.
Ray said he would join them. Perhaps a drive out of here would help restore his sense of normality, he thought as they headed for Mike’s SUV, a huge Mercedes, several years old and showing signs of hard wear. Its engine, though, started powerfully enough and they were soon making their way through the fog out of the village.
As Mike had forecast the fog thinned out as they drove uphill, till it had gone altogether by the time they were heading along the coast road, hugging the heights. Soon they could make out the professor’s house, a Victorian mansion sited as close as anyone would have dared to the edge of the cliffs. Dark wooden walls, with mullioned windows, high peaked roofs and a wrought-iron weathervane, it was probably the most impressive house in the area.
They parked on the gravel drive. Mike rang the doorbell, then waited for it to be answered. None of them had bothered to ask if the professor lived here with anyone, though the house looked too large for someone to live in alone.
It took two more rings before the door was finally answered. It was the professor who opened it, and Ray was shocked at the change in the man. His face looked swollen, giving him a jowled, almost batrachian look, while his skin had an unhealthy greyish pallor. Even his hair seemed different, thinner now, streaming from his brows in frail cottony wisps.
“We’re sorry to disturb you,” Ray said.
Professor Collins gazed blankly for a moment as if he failed to recognise him. His eyes were enlarged and glassy, with cold hard pupils.
“You were at the garage when I examined that statue,” the old man said suddenly. “We talked.”
Bothered by the roughness of the professor’s voice, Ray said: “If you’re unwell, we’ll come back some other time.”
Shaking his head, Professor Collins said: “Now will do. I feel fine. Only age bothers me, as it bothers all of us eventually.”
He stepped back, leading them into the hallway. Though finely furnished, Ray was surprised to see a chair tipped over, while one of the paintings hung on the panelled walls was askew, as if someone had bumped into it and couldn’t be bothered to put it straight. There was a smell in here too, a cloying, fishy kind of smell. Not of cooked fish, but raw.
“You sure you’re okay?” Mike asked as they followed the old man into what they took to be the study. There were shelves of books on the walls, a large globe of the world as it was mapped several centuries ago, and a wooden desk, hand-carved and impressive. There were books and papers scattered on the floor. An inkwell had been upended on the desk and had spilled its contents over the edge of what looked to be an expensive antiquarian book, its leather binding ruined by the ink that had soaked into it.
The room didn’t look so much as if it had been ransacked or vandalised, than as if someone – presumably the professor – had fallen about it, knocking things over, in a drunken frenzy.
“What can I do for you?” the professor asked. He stroked the side of his face; his fingers looked unwashed and scaly, with large, yellowing nails.
“Folks are wondering if you’ve been in touch with anyone at the university about that statue yet,” Mike put in. “They’re getting a bit restless. On account of the murders.”
“The murders?” Professor Collins’ head jerked to face him. “What murders?”
“Ed Gamley and Al Westmore. You know them?”
“I know Al, yes. He repaired my car a few months ago. As for Ed, he was the fisherman who caught that statue.” The professor slumped onto a chair. “Who would have killed them? Either of them? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Some are muttering it’s because of that statue. That there’s a curse on it. Though that’s just stupid,” Mike went on dismissively. “There’s no curse in the world that’ll leave a feller with his throat ripped out.”
The professor stared at him for a few moments in silence, his eyes peculiarly studious in a way Ray found disconcerting.
“You been having a bit of trouble here yourself?” Jeb asked. He indicated the scattered papers and the ink spilled on top of the desk with the stem of his pipe. “Someone would think you’d been burgled, the state of things,” he added.
Professor Collins shook his head. “I was searching for something – something important,” he replied vaguely.
“Anything we can help you look for?” Mike said.
But the old man shook his head again, more forcibly this time.
“It will do later,” he said. He gestured impatiently that he did not wish to talk about it anymore. He had things to do. “Important things,” he added.
The men exchanged glances, unconvinced by what the old man was saying.
“Is Mrs Collins anywhere about?” Mike asked.
This brought an even more impatient response. “She’s not here at the moment. She’s staying at her sister’s in Boston.”
When they asked him again about the statue, he told them he had been in touch with several people at Brown University. He was merely waiting for them to get back to him as to when they could come here to look at it.
“Any idea when that might be?” Mike asked.
The professor said this was out of his hands. “When I find out I’ll contact Sheriff Harper and let him know.” He cocked his head, then added: “I take it no one has moved the statue from the garage?”
“Someone seems to have made an attempt,” Ray told him. “Probably whoever it was killed Al Westmore. But it’s there at the moment. Or was when we set out.”
Professor Collins nodded, satisfied. “Very good,” he muttered. “Very good.”
When they left a few minutes later, none of the men was happy about what they had seen or heard at the old man’s house.
“Damned strange,” Jeb muttered. “He was definitely not being straight with us. There’s something wrong.”
But none of them could understand what.
Ray remained silent while Mike and Jeb talked together about it. He felt even more disorientated than before, with an urge to return to the old man’s house. He said nothing about this to the others; neither of them would understand why he felt this way. He barely understood it himself, and was puzzled why a house he had never seen before should have such a pull on him.
By the time they arrived back at St. Mottram, the sheriff had sealed up Al Westmore’s garage and padlocked its doors till forensic experts could be called in to investigate it.
After parking up the SUV, Mike and Jeb returned to the inn. If anything the fog was denser than before. Too disturbed to sit at the bar, Ray made some excuses and strolled towards the quay. The waters beyond were barely visible in the fog and there was a claustrophobic silence everywhere. Even the gulls were quiet, gathered in huddles along the seawall.
Ray gazed through the fog back towards Al Westmore’s garage. He couldn’t see it through the fog, but he could feel it – sense it – sense the statue inside it. As he stared he was suddenly overcome with a feeling of dizziness and for an instant he seemed to experience a dream. It was vivid, with a violent feeling of motion, of dark figures leaping clumsily in dripping caverns strung with seaweed and huge wet boulders covered in moss, of waves crashing against the entrance, of moonlight reflected across the sea in a dazzling line that stretched to the horizon to a massive, eerie, blinding moon far larger than any he had ever seen before, menacingly low against the skyline. The glistening bodies that danced about the caverns were of the same fishlike, manlike shape as the statue, though some had odd deformities: stump-like limbs and strange, abortive tentacles that straggled from their shoulders. He felt himself try to mimic them, moving with awkward, spastic motions.
Just as suddenly as it came over him, though, the dream passed. A gull squawked in fright as he staggered towards it, before he managed to regain his balance and reached for the seawall to steady himself, gasping for breath, his feeling of unreality even stronger now. If what he had experienced had been a dream, he could not shake the feeling he had not yet woken from it. The fog that hid almost everything from him as he retraced his steps to the inn made this dreamlike quality even stronger. Even the clearer air inside did little to diminish this feeling, and he was more than ready to accept a drink from Mike as he stepped into the bar and the others greeted him.
That night Ray found his sleep more disturbed than usual, filled with hectic dreams in which movement and light seemed to clash and jar, as dim grey glistening figures cavorted about in insane dances while howling with harsh guttural voices at the sky.
“Hiieeyyaa hiieeyyaa, aiee aiee haghanha.”
Aching in every limb and drenched with sweat, he awoke with some of the words still on his lips. His mouth felt dry, as if he had been crying out all night, while his head ached badly, a sharp pain focussed between his eyes.
Swallowing a pain killer, Ray padded into the bathroom. It was daylight already, though the world beyond his bedroom window was still hidden behind a solid wall of fog. It was as if the world had shrunk to this small miserable patch of land. What had seemed quaint and attractive to him before, looked old and decrepit now, fouled by the cold, dank air.
Even Mike and Jeb looked concerned when he made his way downstairs into the dining room.
“You should go see a doctor,” Jeb said, tapping his pipe on the table. “You might be coming down with something bad. This fog won’t make you feel any better.”
Any thoughts of leaving St. Mottram, though, were dashed by news there had been more deaths in the village overnight. One of the sheriff’s deputies, checking on Al Westmore’s garage in the early hours of the morning during his normal rounds, had been attacked and killed. His body lay on the street outside, drenched in blood. The padlock, securing the doors of the garage, had been wrenched free and the doors were open, though nothing appeared to have been taken.
The other death was one of the crew of Ed Gamley’s fishing boat. He had been attacked on his way home from a bar on Beach Street. Like the other deaths, his throat had been slashed open and his face mangled so badly that at first it was only by his clothes anyone could identify him.
To make matters worse numbers of people in the village were coming down with a virus. Its symptoms were so close to what Ray was feeling he knew he must have caught it himself. Aching limbs, a greyish, dry-skinned pallor, and restless sleep filled with morbid, violent nightmares. His eyes hurt too with a burning sensation as if they had been dosed in something acidic, though he supposed this had probably more to do with the fog.
When he went outside Ray saw some of the locals gathered by the quay. On an impulse he wandered towards them. Several turned to stare at him as he approached; their gaze was disconcertingly steady. Yet it felt all right to him. Comfortable. Even though he did not know any of them. The only thing they had in common was the pasty greyness of their faces, even more monochrome in the gloom.
Too late, as he joined their silent ranks, did he start to feel a large part of what he was begin to disappear.
Mike had only just stepped out of the inn when Ray moved into the crowd by the quayside. His first inclination was to call out to him. But there was something about the look of the locals, pressed against the quay, that dissuaded him. There was also something about Ray – something different. For some reason Mike felt intimidated by the crowd, and he was wary about drawing attention to himself, as if he instinctively knew how dangerous this would be, that there would be something bad in their reaction to any attempt he made to attract Ray’s attention. Nor was he sure how Ray would react. Not now, somehow.
He felt a movement by his side. “What’s up?” Jeb asked.
“I’m not sure.” Mike felt puzzled at his own reaction. “There’s something odd going on. A crowd’s building up and for some reason Ray’s gone over to join it.”
“Isn’t that Professor Collins?” Jeb asked; he pointed with his pipe to a stooped figure on the fringes of the crowd. The pork pie hat from the last time he came to the village was gone and his thinning white hair was plastered about his head, but the rest of his clothes looked much the same. His arms were raised as if he was exhorting the crowd, though any words he might have been saying were muffled by the fog and the steady murmurs of the crowd itself. Though these murmurs were taking on a disconcertingly unnatural beat.
“Damn me if that isn’t beginning to sound like some revivalist meeting,” Jeb said, his pipe glowing as he sucked on it in concentration. “But I can’t make out what they’re saying.”
One thing they did understand, though, was the palpable air of menace resonating from them. Affirmation of this came a few seconds later when a car pulled up by the quay near them. It was the sheriff’s patrol car, its roof lights flashing. The sheriff squeezed out of one door while one of his deputies exited the other. Even at this distance Mike and Jeb could see they both held guns. No sooner had the lawmen spoken to the crowd than it surged towards them, swallowing them in a mass of bodies. There was a crack of gunfire, muted by the fog, then a terrible, drawn-out scream.
“Jesus Christ!” Mike said, a chill coming over him. He knew he should run over to see what was happening, to help the sheriff if he was in trouble, but a dreadful, debilitating feeling of fear made it impossible for him to move. He knew it was too late to help whoever had screamed. It had ended with such an awful abruptness he knew for certain whoever made it was dead.
Jeb grabbed his forearm. “I think we’d better make for the car and get out of here. Whatever’s going on over there, there are too many of them for us to handle. And if they decide to come over here…”
“I’m with you,” Mike grunted, ashamed of his fear. He could feel his flesh crawl as he watched the crowd move around the patrol car, before some of them turned and looked their way.
“They’ve seen us,” Jeb said. Jolted into action, the men burst into a sprint, heading for the Mercedes.
“Damn it.” Mike swore, fumbling in his pockets as he ran. “I must’ve left the keys in the bedroom.” He looked back and knew there would not be time to go inside before the mob reached the SUV.
Abandoning any idea of using the car, the men continued up the street. No one else was in sight. Nor were there any other sounds, just their own footsteps and the louder, deeper steps of the mob, hidden by the fog behind them. Mike looked back, saw they had outpaced the mob, then pointed down an alleyway several blocks from the inn. “We could weave our way back to the inn. If I can get inside for the keys, we can still get away in the Merc.”
“A hell of a risk,” Jeb told him. “Who’s to say they’ll leave the car unguarded.”
“There’s a chance they might if they think we’ve decided to head through the fields.”
Jeb shook his head uncertainly, but went along with Mike’s idea. It would be easier getting somewhere safe using the SUV than trying to make it all the way on foot, especially if some of the mob took to their cars. They could cut them off on the roads out of here if they did.
Hidden by the fog from those behind them, the alleyway they chose was cluttered with crates and piles of lobster pots. They picked their way between them as carefully as they could, hoping to avoid letting their pursuers know where they had gone. Still hidden in thick swathes of fog that swirled around them, it was not long before the locals ran past the alley, continuing up the road.
“Mob mentality,” Jeb muttered. “Only as bright as the dumbest amongst them.” He grinned uneasily at Mike, as they set off down a gap between the buildings, one of which looked like a warehouse, towards the inn. Its walls emerged from the fog a few moments later as they approached the door to the kitchen. Beer barrels were lined up outside, alongside crates of empty bottles and sacks of refuse. Mike took hold of the door handle and gave it a push, but the door was locked. He looked back at Jeb. “We’ll have to try the front and hope all of ‘em have gone up the street after us.”
They approached the end of the alley. It was impossible to see very far in the fog, which was even denser here near the waterfront, which encouraged them to risk breaking for the front of the inn. Again, Mike pushed the door.
“Take care,” Jeb cautioned as he rushed inside.
In the short time that had elapsed since they fled up the street, some of the mob had attacked the inn. The signs of a struggle were everywhere in the overturned furniture and broken glass that cluttered the place. And, although he thought he was prepared for the worst, Mike was horrified when he saw the stocky figure of the barman, his face, chest and arms a mass of lacerations, sprawled across upturned stools and a large pool of blood at the end of the bar, a pool cue, its shaft broken, still clasped in one hand.
“What the hell’s going on?” Jeb asked. “What’s made them act like this? It’s madness. Madness.”
Mike shook his head, unable to voice what he felt. Instead he raced up the stairs to the bedrooms on the next floor. Though there was some disorder up here, too, it was less widespread. Perhaps because only the barman had been seen as a target. Had the rest of the people, the inn’s owner and his wife, got away? Or had they joined the mob?
“The barman came from Chicago,” Jeb said as they headed for their rooms. “He told me the other night. He’s a stranger to this place. Not like the others. Most are third or fourth generation locals. Their families have lived here for decades – perhaps longer. Perhaps a hell of a sight longer.”
“What are you getting at?” Mike asked as he rummaged through his stuff for the car keys, then hefted a broad bladed knife he used for fishing.
“Perhaps it’s only locals – locals who’ve lived here for generations – that have been gripped by this madness. Look at Ray. His folks were locals. And the professor: his great grandfather built the house he lives in.”
Mike shook his head, uncertain. “Why should that make a difference? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Perhaps not.” Jeb sighed. “Perhaps it doesn’t to us yet because whatever’s going on here is like nothing either of us have ever been involved in before, something no one has ever been involved in before.”
“If we don’t get to the car soon we might not have time to think about it much longer either. It won’t be long before that mob decides we’ve not gone up the road and head back here.”
Outside it was still silent, though. If anything, the fog seemed even denser than before, so that they could barely see more than a few yards ahead of them. Wary about stumbling across any of the locals, Mike held the knife ahead of him, ready to fend off any attack, while behind him Jeb wielded the remains of the pool cue he had prised from the barman’s grip.
They had not gone far when they came across a body on the cobblestones.
“Who’d they get this time?” Jeb asked as Mike knelt by the man’s head, before reaching and touching his chest. He peered at his hand. It was covered in blood.
“Look’s like this guy’s been shot.” Mike pushed the head over so he could see the face. It was Professor Collins.
“Must’ve been him Sheriff Harper or his deputy shot when the mob attacked them,” Jeb said.
“Probably because he was their ringleader,” Mike suggested, though he found it hard to believe. Yet the face he was looking at had barely a trace of the man they had seen before. His features looked debased, bestialised, his mouth wider, his open, staring, sightless eyes almost unnervingly inhuman, while his skin had a coarse bluish-grey cast like a long dead fish.
Mike let go of the man’s head with disgust and wiped his fingers. They had to get to the car and drive out of this hell hole. He felt close to panic at the utter senseless insanity of what had happened this morning, at the build up of violence and death over the past few days in this backwater village.
As they hastened towards the car they heard the footsteps and murmured mutterings of the mob that had pursued them heading downhill. Mike sprinted the last few yards and yanked the driver’s door open. Inserting the keys, he started the SUV’s engine with a ferocious burst of acceleration as Jeb plunged into the passenger seat beside him.
“Lock your door,” Jeb shouted as they saw the first of the mob emerge from the fog.
Mike gritted his teeth as he edged forward, even now, even after all the sickening violence he had seen, reluctant to ram his way through the mob, though one part of him kept urging him to do so.
Clenched fists and thick, yellowing finger nails beat against the windows, but Mike forced himself to ignore them, just as he made himself try to ignore the panic inside him. He had no illusions what would happen if the mob forced their way into the car – and he was glad, despite the grumbling of his wife, who saw the gas-guzzling monster as a waste of their hard-earned cash, he had stubbornly held onto the SUV. Its height and bulk gave them an advantage which anything smaller would have lacked.
An iron boat hook smashed against the window beside Jeb, fracturing it into a maze of splinters.
“Put your foot down, for Christ’s sake! One more blow like that and the window’ll be in!” Jeb shouted.
Mike pressed down on the accelerator and the large vehicle speeded up, forcing its way through the crowd that tried to block it. For a moment it slowed when a group of locals tried to push it to one side. But the four-wheel drive was too much for them, and the Mercedes kept going with a relentless momentum that swept them aside.
Once they were free of the mob, Mike kept the car to a steady ten miles an hour. The fog was still too dense to risk going any faster. The road was narrow, with drainage ditches on either side, and too many unexpected twists and turns as it headed uphill, for him to risk any more speed. A slip could result in a broken axle at the least.
They had only been travelling a few more minutes when a beam of light appeared ahead of them, waving back and forth across the road. An amplified voice boomed out, ordering them to stop as a line of National Guardsmen emerged from the wisps of fog, automatic rifles levelled towards them.
Mike eased his foot off the accelerator and brought the SUV to a halt.
An officer appeared at his window and Mike opened his door to him.
The soldier held a cocked handgun in one fist and a megaphone in the other. “Have you just left St. Mottram?” the man asked.
It transpired Sheriff Harper’s remaining deputy, Pete Volk, had been in communication with his boss from his patrol car on the edge of town when the sheriff pulled up at the quay. His radio had still been on when shots were fired and someone screamed. When he failed to get any response from his chief, Volk contacted the State Capital. The Governor had ordered out the National Guard, while Federal agents were sent to investigate the violence in St. Mottram.
The town had been sealed off with units of the National Guard, while coast guard vessels were patrolling the bay.
Lieutenant Gravowitz, the officer in charge of the guardsmen, arranged for Mike and Jeb to be deputised by Volk, who had taken over as acting sheriff. Although he looked as if he felt out of his depth with what had happened, Pete Volk was a stolid, fair-haired man with a sombre personality who was obviously trying to cope with everything from a sense of duty. He handed Mike and Jeb rifles and told them to help him guide the guardsmen into the town. “You probably know its layout as well as me. Together we’ll coordinate the guardsmen and round up those bastards and try and figure out what’s going on.”
“Some kind of madness,” Jeb retorted, but he shook his head with incomprehension.
“Some kind of madness will do for now,” Volk said. “It’s the best suggestion we’ve had so far.”
As the guardsmen headed down the road into St. Mottram there was sporadic firing as some of the villagers attempted to attack them. But it was not long before they were driven back. What numbers there were retreated into Al Westmore’s garage. Mike was not surprised. Somehow he had expected it.
There was a monotonous droning from the garage as Mike, Jeb, Pete Volk and National Guardsmen closed in on it, rifles at the ready. How many villagers had joined the murderous rampage, no one yet knew. They had come across the slaughtered bodies of scores of villagers as they advanced through St. Mottram. Mike suspected most of the victims were wives or husbands who had married locals. A sick feeling told him their killers had probably been their own spouses or immediate neighbours. The strange physical decline of those villagers who had been taken over by the madness was even more disconcerting, as there seemed no reasonable explanation as to why they should have changed so much in such a short space of time; their faces had acquired a bestial appearance, coupled with a hideous coarsening of the skin and even a subtle change to their eyes, with hard, black, fish-like pupils.
Despite the armed men beside him, Mike felt apprehensive as they closed in on the garage. It was dark inside and the villagers milled about the statue that towered above them looked threatening. Their bodies slouched as they watched the soldiers square up to them. There did not appear to be any kind of defeat in their stances. There seemed to be a build up of aggression, instead, as if they were ready to launch themselves in a frenzied attack.
Mike tightened his finger on the trigger of his gun, made sure that the safety catch was off, and licked his lips.
The attack, when it came, was swift and brutal.
Sickened already by the torn bodies they had found on their way here, the troops cut their attackers down as soon as they moved. Again and again they fired in to them, then moved forward, beating down those they had only injured with the butts of their guns. They had been told by Lieutenant Gravowitz to take what prisoners they could once their own safety was assured, but in the heat of the moment some of the blows were deadly.
Mike nodded to Jeb. He had already recognised Ray Wetherell, even though, like the others, he had changed so much. He’d been shot in the shoulder and was slumped against a pile of tyres, his face contorted with anger and pain. Mike flinched as Ray swung his uninjured arm at him, grazing him with the talon-like nails on his fingers.
“Calm down,” Mike told him, though he was unsure if Ray could still comprehend his words. “You ain’t going anywhere, buddy, so you might as well give in without a fight or we’ll knock you out somehow.”
Jeb nodded beside him, gun butt raised. “Might be the only way to deal with this crazy bastard.”
There was a moan from the surviving locals as a chain was draped around the statue. Some of the guardsmen had commandeered a pick-up and were ready to hoist the statue off the ground and onto the back of the truck.
Mike saw Ray’s eyes smoulder with rage.
“Careful,” he shouted back at the troops. “Perhaps we should secure this lot first before we shift that thing. Moving it has got ‘em worked up.”
Lieutenant Gravowitz confirmed his suggestion. “Ease up on that till we’ve got ‘em secured.” He glanced at the wounded locals. There were less than a dozen of them left alive, though there was a dangerous lunacy in their hate-filled faces that warned him that, injured or not, they were still a danger.
When the prisoners had been fastened with lengths of rope, they were herded onto the street while a group of guardsmen continued loading the statue onto the truck.
“What d’you make of that thing?” Mike asked the lieutenant.
“Looks like some kind of idol to me, though what or where it originated is anybody’s guess. Ugly looking brute, isn’t it?” The lieutenant grinned, his relief at having killed or captured the locals obvious.
Mike reached out and touched the statue. For a moment he felt nothing but the rough surface. It was a strange looking metal. Coppery, yet somehow there was something different about it, swirls of dim colours that looked as if they were just beneath the surface.
“Damnedest thing,” he muttered, sure he could feel a faint tingling in the tips of his fingers.
When the troops had taken their prisoners and the statue away, Mike and Jeb headed back up the road to the SUV. The fog was thinning and the day was beginning to heat up as they walked. When they reached the Mercedes, Jeb said: “What do you think about taking a look at the professor’s house? Out of curiosity?”
“Only if the place hasn’t been cordoned off by the sheriff.”
“Naw, Pete Volk’ll be too busy helping to process those prisoners with the National Guard to be bothered about that place yet.”
A few minutes later they were parked on the gravel drive at Bluff Heights. The house looked deserted, its front door open, leaves blowing into the hallway. The upended chair was still there, as was the picture, hung at an angle on the wall where it had been bumped. There was also the same clammy smell of raw fish.
Still feeling unsure about trespassing, even though he knew the professor was dead, Mike paused in the hallway.
“The smell’s got worse.”
Jeb wrinkled his nose. “There’s something added to it. Something rank.”
Still holding their rifles, they glanced into the study, which looked much as it had before, except that a large, age-darkened manuscript lay across the desk, covering most of the dried-up ink that had been spilled earlier. Mike picked the manuscript up and scanned the lines of closely written letters, most of it so old fashioned in style he could barely decipher it.
“Is this a transcript?” Jeb asked, indicating a newer sheet of A4-sized paper. They compared the opening lines, which appeared to be the same.
“Much unrest in the township today,” Mike read. “The Reverend Phillips accused many of falling into the grievous error of Devil worship when it was discovered that Martha Craik had erected up a statue, which had been brought here by her husband from his last SouthSea voyage. She had had it placed in a barn that lies on their land, and had secretly had the inside of the barn made into the likeness of a temple. The Reverend Phillips announced the ill-featured statue was of a heathen idol, a Devil worshipped by ignorant and illiterate islanders, who had attacked the captain’s ship and been cut down and killed by his crew in revenge. The Reverend Phillips stated the Captain and his wife had, through their unhealthy close contact with this wicked object, succumbed to the worship of this vile thing. Much was said of the Captain’s illness and the strange and sinister changes which all have observed in him since he returned with it. So grievous were these changes that it has been noted he had stayed indoors these last three months. Some spoke of him staring at them, before he avoided public places, with eyes like those of a fish.”
Mike turned to his friend. “There’s a break in the transcript, then it picks up again some days later: The army restored order after the Reverend Phillips and Councilman Able Cartwright rode overnight for help from Bridgetown when rioting broke out in the town. Many casualties, including violent deaths, were reported. Captain Craik was captured and taken to Bridgetown for trial. His wife, Martha, was killed by musket fire, though not before she attacked the soldiers and inflicted death on one of them, he not expecting such wicked violence from a woman of her years. Under orders from the Reverend Phillips, the hideous idol was despatched to a brig and taken out to sea, where it was disposed of in its watery depths.” After a pause, Mike went on: “There’s a postscript, which I think the professor wrote himself: St. Mottram has been noted over the years as a place of high incidence of premature senility amongst its residents, including some as young as thirty, particularly amongst those who have rarely, if ever, left the village for prolonged periods of time. The peculiar form of Alzheimer’s found here (if it is indeed Alzheimer’s at all, which I personally doubt!) tends to be of a form that makes the subject prone to outbreaks of extreme violence, accompanied by a morbid physical deterioration in the subject’s body, as if there was a malign influence at work on them. I suspect that closer contact with the source of this ‘ailment’ would bring about these mental and physical changes much more quickly. Is this what we are experiencing here, even as I write, now that the cause of these symptoms has been brought into the village itself? Are we becoming victims of it?”
“That’s nuts,” Jeb retorted, when he’d finished reading it. “The old man was going off his head when he was writing this stuff. Look at this here, where he speculates about the extra-terrestrial origin of the statue, of the unknown metal it is supposed to be made of. He calls it a conduit for outside influences – whatever that’s supposed to be! It’s nuts.”
Mike agreed, folding the papers and stuffing them inside his jacket. “Let’s take a look at the rest of this place while we’re here.”
They did not go far. In the living room, that also led off from the hallway, they found the source of the newer smell: the battered and torn body of an elderly woman, laid face down in a pool of blood, dried now. Like all the others murdered in this area she looked as if she had been mauled by a wild animal, though they knew better now.
“Mrs Collins?” Jeb speculated, still not used to the sight of such violence. “Do you think the old man did this before going to St. Mottram?”
Sickened at what they had found, they returned to the car and drove into Bridgetown to report it to Pete Volk at the sheriff’s office.
Volk looked dazed by it all. Adding to his problems was the growing lobby of pressmen and TV camera crews milling about outside.
“What have you done with the statue?” Mike asked, after returning the rifles they’d been issued with.
Volk nodded across the road to the Town Hall. “It’s stored in there for the time being. There’re supposed to be some eggheads from Brown University coming in the next few days to look at it. Though whether what they can tell me about that thing would go any way towards explaining what happened in St. Mottram, Lord knows.”
Mike handed him the papers they had found in the professor’s house.
“I don’t suppose these’ll be much help either,” he said.
Volk shrugged, non-committed. “I’ll leave that for the experts. There’s a whole bunch of Federal agents coming here. They’ll need to interview you, so you’ll have to stay here overnight. I suggest you book in the hotel down the street. It’s plain, but decent.”
That night, as Mike slept fitfully in his hotel bedroom, the nightmares began.
As fog swept along the streets.
David A. Riley‘s first professional sale was in 1970 to the 11th Pan Book of Horror Stories with a story that was recently reprinted in Cemetery Dance’s Century’s Best Horror Fiction, edited by John Pelan, The Lurkers in the Abyss. Since then I have had numerous stories published in anthologies and magazines in Britain, the US, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia by Sphere Books, Doubleday, Tor, Corgi, Robinsons, Prime Books, etc. I have a collection of my earlier short stories due from Noose & Gibbet Press in a limited edition hard back in the UK next year, The Lurkers in the Abyss & Others. I also have a Lovecraftian horror novel due from Blood Bound Books in the US next year called The Return.
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Story illustration by Ronnie Tucker.