The warden led detective Elliot Winter downstairs, past row upon row of cells filled to the brim with the assorted filth of the city. The place stank of piss and desperation. Grimy men reached through the bars of their cells, brushing his shirtsleeves and begging him to listen to their proclamations of innocence. Winter ignored their pleas, and proceeded through the dimly-lit hallway with the warden, who whistled contentedly.
It had seemed like an open and shut case to Winter. The killer had been caught red-handed, dragging his latest victim into the catacombs beneath the city. After spending a few nights in the lockup, the man had confessed to murdering no fewer than fifteen upstanding young men and women. He’d been tried and convicted, and was due to face the gallows at dawn the next day. But something Winter heard during the trial had nagged at him for days. His conscience wouldn’t allow him to rest until he’d had a chance to speak with the man.
“Here he is, detective.” The warden unlocked the cell and led Winter inside. A huddled form sat in the corner, head and upper body draped with a tattered brown coat. “He shouldn’t give you too much trouble. Been sitting like that ever since we dragged him down here after the trial.”
The warden turned to leave, jangling his keys. “You’ve got ten minutes. Holler if you need anything.”
“Much obliged, warden.” Winter said. He waited until the warden had left and locked the door behind him, then turned to the prisoner.
He nudged the man with his foot. “Mr. Hughes, I’m detective Winter. I’d like to ask you some questions.”
When he received no response, Winter reached down and tossed the man’s coat aside. His face was gaunt, eyes staring. Sweat ran down his forehead and red cheeks. The knowledge of impending death did harsh things to the condemned, but this fellow looked plain sick. It was quite a contrast with the well-fed, relaxed man who’d been led away from the court room in shackles a mere two weeks earlier. Apparently his society connections held little sway in the prison.
Winter briefly held the back of his hand against the man’s forehead. He pulled it back in surprise. It stung as if he’d been scalded by a hot iron. The killer may yet escape the noose by succumbing instead to fever. This would be a rather unfortunate outcome, leaving the bloodlust of the townsfolk unsated.
“I’m going to assume you can hear me,” Winter said. “I have doubts about your guilt. It seems to me most of the evidence against you is circumstantial. I also believe your confession is bunk.”
He crouched down to maintain eye contact. “You’re covering for someone else, and I’d like to know why?”
Hughes blinked, and licked his chapped lips. “Walk away, detective. You best not get involved.”
“So you’re willing to hang for your masters, Mr. Hughes?”
Hughes remained silent. Well, then. It was time to try a different tack.
“They say hanging can be a rough way to go.” Winter said. “If you’re lucky, your neck will snap and it’s all over fairly quick. And if you’re not so lucky, you’ll struggle for breath for a few minutes as you slowly suffocate. I’ve seen it happen many a time. Not very pleasant at all.”
Hughes squirmed, but said nothing.
“I’ve been doing some thinking, and there’s something about your case that puzzles me. Despite your confession, we’ve found no dead. Curious, would you agree?”
Hughes peered up at him, eyes narrowed.
“The girl you dragged into the catacombs was merely drugged, with no injuries or signs of molestation. She made a full recovery and couldn’t tell us much. We briefly had her in custody, but she has since flown the coop.”
Winter continued. “We’ve absolutely no solid evidence, only your word you’ve committed murder. It baffles me why you’re here and not in the asylum like so many other poor deluded fools. Who else but a fool would be willing to hang for crimes they did not commit?”
“I’m no fool,” Hughes spat. “Either I hang tomorrow, or I still meet my demise. Powerful people want me dead.”
“So it appears. I’m not privy to all the particulars of your case, since much of the evidence has been sealed under judge’s order. But I believe you are innocent of murder.” Winter said.
Hughes shook his head. “That doesn’t do me much good. I’m nearly out of time.”
“That you are. However, I may be able to assist if you’ll kindly tell me why these people want you dead. That business with the catacombs, is it?”
“Aye, I’m a delivery boy. I take care of errands and such. Now that I’ve drawn attention to the business, I’ve become a liability.” Hughes said.
“What do you deliver?” Winter had heard rumors of illicit trades taking place in the catacombs, but investigations thus far had turned up empty. Perhaps Hughes held the key to exposing the operation.
Hughes shrugged. “Packages. People. Animals. Whatever they need.”
“Who are ‘they?’ Where do you take your deliveries?”
“Not a clue who they are,” Hughes said. “I just meet up with their other lackeys. I take the goods deep into the catacombs and leave them there.”
“And they pay you handsomely, I gather?”
“Detective, you ever had to beg on street corners and wonder where your next meal’s coming from? It’s a living.”
Winter knew privation all too well. As a child, he’d often gone cold and hungry when his parents were unable to afford the basic necessities. Such a harsh environment bred desperation in even the most honest souls.
“Fair enough.” He said. “But answer me this–why confess to murder? You don’t strike me as the type. Why not do your penance behind bars, and avoid the gallows?”
Footsteps approached along the corridor, accompanied by the sound of jingling keys. Hughes’s eyes widened, though whether it was from hearing the approaching warden, or the question, Winter couldn’t say.
“It’s the only way out,” Hughes said hurriedly. “Some things are worse than death. Someone’d spirit me away to the catacombs if I were still to live. They’ve already been drugging me, I can feel it. They….”
As the key turned in the lock and the door creaked open, Hughes slumped forward and stared at the floor. The warden entered the cell, beaming.
“I trust it has been a productive visit, detective?”
Winter looked from Hughes to the warden. He gave Hughes a rough kick in the side. “A waste of my time. The boy’s catatonic.”
He turned and left the cell without waiting for the warden. He had a busy day ahead of him.
After stopping at the station to fill his coat pockets with ammunition, Winter caught a horse-drawn carriage to the catacombs. The entrance lay within the grounds of the Peterson abbey at the edge of town. Two monks stood by the huge wrought iron gate at the cemetery entrance, their faces hidden beneath brown hoods. The gate was flanked by weathered stone walls covered in moss and ivy. Somber chanting came from the nearby church.
“Good afternoon, brothers,” Winter said, doffing his hat. “Name’s detective Elliot Winter. I was wondering if I might borrow a moment of your time for some questions.”
The monks bobbed their heads in unison. He could imagine skeletal faces peering at him from within their hoods, their blank eyes fixing him with undead stares. It was ridiculous, of course. Such thoughts often came to him while walking near cemeteries, or worse, during murder investigations. In his line of work, death was a constant companion.
“I’m investigating reports of nefarious happenings in the catacombs. May I ask how one might gain entrance?” Winter was sure his colleagues had already investigated alternate entryways, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.
The monk to his left removed his hood and pointed to the gate. The man had pale skin, with a prominent forehead and a stubby, hooked nose. He regarded Winter with a bland expression of boredom. “Only through here. These walls surround the cemetery, and the gate is guarded constantly by our order. None pass without our approval.”
The second monk, still hooded, spoke. “What are these nefarious happenings, as you put it? Are you referring to the young man who was captured here recently?”
“The very same,” Winter said. “He’s due to hang tomorrow for his crimes, unless I can uncover evidence to prevent it.”
“We discovered him in the cemetery in commission of a heinous crime,” said the pale monk. “And yet you believe him innocent?”
“Insufficient evidence.” Winter said. “I believe he was coerced into a confession, an unwitting pawn in some larger conspiracy.”
The hooded monk chuckled. “Things are often simpler than they seem, Mr. Winter. We sometimes look for patterns in events that are just figments of the imagination.”
“Perhaps. But I’ve covered enough cases over the years not to distrust my instincts. For one, I find it interesting that the sole witnesses to the alleged crime were all members of your order.”
“That’s hardly surprising,” said the pale monk. “The man was on our grounds, and others are seldom permitted within. Francis here was guarding the gate at the time.”
The hooded monk, presumably Francis, nodded. “We heard sounds of a struggle near the entrance to the catacombs. We discovered the man dragging a young woman inside. She was crying for help. We immediately came to her aid, and subdued the man until the authorities arrived.”
Winter frowned. “If the gate’s always guarded, how did he get inside with his victim?”
“We stand guard in pairs for three hours until we are relieved by our colleagues.” said the pale monk. “On that particular evening, we were distracted by an incident near the church. A thief had pilfered some belongings from a wealthy man alighting from a carriage nearby. When Francis and Peter returned to the gate, they heard cries coming from the grounds.”
Francis sighed. “We already provided our testimony to your officers on the night of the incident, and during the trial, detective. I’m not sure what more information you expect us to provide?”
“I have one more question before I leave you in peace.” Winter said. “Are you aware of frequent deliveries of illicit goods and persons to the catacombs, for purposes unknown?”
The two monks looked at each other, but Winter found it hard to read their expressions.
Francis removed his hood and stared at Winter, eyebrows raised. “I don’t know where you get your information, but let me reiterate that only members of our order are permitted within the catacombs, and only then for the purposes of general upkeep and ceremonial burials. That is all.”
Winter had considered asking whether he might obtain a brief tour of the catacombs, but the monks were clearly stonewalling. He would have to consider another approach, preferably over lunch. His grumbling stomach was becoming rather insistent.
“Thank you for your time, gentlemen. I’ll trouble you no further.” Winter bowed and headed down the street to the bakery, toward the comforting smell of freshly baked bread.
Whilst consuming some pastries and strong tea, Winter planned his next move. He was keenly aware the hanging would likely proceed regardless of his efforts.
He canvassed the neighborhood, questioning store keepers and patrons alike. Few could provide any useful information. Most businesses had been closed at the time the incident occurred. Only a barkeep at one of the public houses could provide anything of substance.
“They’re always fending off curious tourists and miscreants over there,” the barkeep said. “Makes you wonder why they don’t just lock the gates and walk away.”
“Maybe they don’t trust the gate’s enough to keep people out?” Winter said. “And besides, they’ve already proven their effectiveness at catching intruders.”
“Aye,” said the barkeep, a glint in his eye. “Or mayhap they’re worried about keeping something in? I’ve always been suspicious about them monks.”
“What makes you say that?” Winter asked.
“Late at night on occasion I’ve heard strange noises coming from them catacombs. I’ve a room upstairs, and whenever I’ve heard things, I peer out the window. The monks are always by the gate, of course, but they never seem much bothered by what’s going on behind them. Very odd fellows.”
Winter told the barkeep about the monk’s account of the incident, curious if he would know any different.
“Sounds about right. There was some commotion in front of the church, and a bunch of monks came running. Didn’t see anyone sneaking in, though I didn’t have my nose to the window all night, either. There was a bunch of cries and shouting, and I saw them dragging a couple out of the cemetery soon after. Then, the police. You probably know the rest.”
Winter wandered over to the window facing the street and saw he had a clear view of the cemetery gates. He decided it might be worth watching the goings on for awhile, meanwhile sampling the fine ales on offer in the pub.
Two hours later, Winter was rewarded for his patience. It was after dark. The pub had become a good deal busier and rowdier since his arrival. The crowd was mainly working class folk, clearly enjoying the atmosphere and the band playing lively jigs on piccolo, drums, and violin. Outside, the same two monks guarded the gates the entire time.
Winter was about to order another ale, and possibly some pie, when he noticed the two monks leave their posts and head back toward the abbey. It must have been the end of their shift.
Shortly thereafter he spotted someone leading a goat laden with burlap sacks toward the gate.
Finding the gates locked, the goatherd peered over his shoulder and passed out of sight, leading the goat around the corner of the stone cemetery wall.
Winter left the warm comfort of the pub in pursuit of the goatherd. He followed the man along a narrow and muddy trail beside the cemetery wall, partially obscured by overgrown weeds and shrubs. Winter kept his distance, keenly aware of every rustle and muddy splash as he crept along the trail.
Upon reaching the end of the wall, the goatherd turned the corner. Winter peered cautiously around the wall’s edge, cocking the hammer of his revolver.
The goatherd had stopped halfway along the rear wall to light an oil lamp. It cast a feeble glow on the man’s face and illuminated the cobbled alleyway behind the cemetery. He tied the goat to a nearby pine tree and proceeded to heave aside pine branches covering an old sewer grate. He had soon revealed a hidden depression in the earth leading into the sewer.
The goatherd turned to untie the beast. Sensing the opportunity, Winter stepped forward and aimed his revolver at the man. “Stop right there, if you want to live.”
The goatherd turned slowly. The man had sunken cheeks and weather-beaten skin, with a short-cropped beard flecked with grey.
“You best leave me be,” the goatherd whispered, bottom lip trembling. “For both our sakes.”
“And why might that be?”
The goatherd waved the lamp toward the sewer. “I don’t get this goat down there quick, we’ll both be dead.”
Winter slowly reached into his pocket and produced his badge. “City police.” He said. “I’d just like to ask you some questions. Cooperate and we won’t need to take a trip down to the station.”
“Help me with this damned goat, and I’ll answer your questions.”
Winter sighed, holstering his revolver. “Fine.”
While the goatherd held onto the horns, Winter gave the beast a swift whack on its rump. The goat bleated in protest but begrudgingly shuffled forward. The goatherd snatched up the oil lamp and led them into the sewers.
The stench was unbearable. The sewers reeked of excrement and spoilt meat, forcing Winter to cover his mouth and nose with his handkerchief. He attached it to his head in the manner of an outlaw. The smell didn’t seem to bother the goatherd one whit. Though cautious, he seemed to trudge through the maze of tunnels with a degree of certainty.
“What brings you out here, copper?” the goatherd asked.
Winter told him of Hughes and the impending execution. “I have reason to believe he’s innocent. I suspect a coverup.”
The goatherd nodded. “I reckon you’d be right. Jason’s a good lad, though a bit of a toff. I ain’t seen him in weeks. Figured he’d skipped town, the way things are going.”
“Jason? He a friend of yours?”
“Somewhat. More like a fellow cog in the machine. With a risky business like this, you gotta respect the fellas who survive. Pays well, but you need brass balls.”
“What line of business are you in?”
“But why down here?” Winter felt stupid for even asking the question. It’d make for easy disposal of bodies, of course. But animals? Some form of underground trading network, perhaps?
The goatherd turned and grinned. “Oh, Mr. Winter. So naive.”
A sick chill ran through him. “How do you know my name?” He unholstered his revolver and pointed it in the man’s face.
“They told me I might run into you.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Powerful people are watching, Elliot. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll forget all about Jason Hughes, you’ll forget about me, and you’ll forget all about this place. It’s for the good of us all, really.”
Winter wrapped his meaty hand around the man’s scrawny neck, stopping him in his tracks. “I’m not leaving until you tell me what’s going on here.”
The goatherd’s eyes bulged and his face began to take on an ashen cast. The oil lamp dropped from his hand and fell to the floor. Winter reluctantly loosened his grip before the man passed out.
He coughed and rubbed at his neck. “These tunnels. They lead to the catacombs. This and the boneyard gates are the only ways in. We leave our deliveries here, and run like hell.”
Winter frowned. “Then what?”
“We live to survive another day. That’s all I know. Happy?”
Winter raised his revolver to the man’s forehead, finger hovering over the trigger.
The man’s features contorted as tears ran down his cheeks. “You must tell no one. No one!”
“All this.” said the goatherd. “It’s for the beast. We deliver it sacrifices, and it stays down here.”
“And if you don’t? Why not block the entrance and starve the bloody thing?”
“We do that, and we’re all damned.” The goatherd picked up the lamp and indicated the tunnel ahead. “We must hurry.”
The goatherd urged the animal forward, with Winter following close behind. He led them through the maze of passageways until the floor of the tunnel became littered with debris. Bone fragments? Winter squinted in the gloom.
They eventually came upon a junction of three tunnels leading away from the central clearing. A metal rod had been hammered into a huge stone in the center of the floor. Attached to the rod were several chains, manacles, and an iron cage about five feet high, all coated in dried blood and bodily tissue. Winter retched.
“Not long now, Mr. Winter. Just a few more preparations before we leave.”
The goatherd tied the goat to the metal post with a length of rope, and took the burlap sacks from its back. From one of these he removed a paper package wrapped in twine. From the other he took a polished brass horn, decorated with hieroglyphs. Winter remembered seeing similar symbols in the ancient civilizations section of the city museum.
“Hold this.” He handed the horn to Winter while unwrapping the paper package. Inside was a bloody collection of glistening organ meats. The goatherd dumped the lot onto the goat’s back and tossed the paper away, wiping his hands on a dirty rag from one of the sacks.
The goatherd snatched the horn from Winter. “After I blow this, we wait and listen. It’s part of the ritual. Then on my signal, we run.” The goatherd took a deep breath and blew the horn. A rich, sonorous note echoed throughout the tunnels. The goat bleated in response. The goatherd stuffed the horn back into its burlap sack and slung both sacks over his shoulder.
They waited. Winter strained to hear the slightest sound. Agonizing minutes passed.
Darkness encroached upon them from all sides. Winter fought back the urge to run blindly back the way they’d come, his mind conjuring up all manner of horrifying creatures that might be lurking in the dark.
When the sound finally came, it was difficult to tell whether it was real or imagined. The sound of shallow breathing drifted toward them through the dank air. This was accompanied by the rustling of dirt, as of something lightly scuttling through the tunnel. The temperature in the sewer plunged.
When the goat suddenly kicked its hooves and brayed loudly, Winter jumped involuntarily. The goatherd seemed unperturbed, nodding to himself as if this was the expected way of things.
They listened intently, waiting for a response from the tunnel. Instead, the air filled with a rank chemical stench that reminded Winter of something one might encounter in a morgue.
The light from the oil lamp wavered, as if something were attempting to snuff it out. The goatherd held it aloft and peered into the gloom.
Winter sensed movement directly ahead. It took a moment for his mind to comprehend what he’d seen. He’d caught a glimpse of rheumy eyes and a glistening maw, ringed with teeth.
The goatherd yanked on his arm. “Run!”
He led Winter expertly through the labyrinthine series of passageways. Mere moments later the goat cried out. Its voice was abruptly cut short, followed by a wet smacking and sounds of flesh being torn from bone.
Winter fought back panic, all too aware that he might lose his footing at any instant and fall to the floor. He was convinced the goatherd would carry on without him.
They made their way unsteadily back to the entrance, emerging from the sewers several minutes later, struggling for breath.
The goatherd dragged the pine branches back into place over the cleft by the sewer grate and turned to Winter. “Speak nothing of this, if you value your life.”
Winter frowned. “That’s supposed to keep the thing from escaping?” he asked, indicating the loose pile of branches.
“No. But that will,” the goatherd said, pointing to the moss-covered symbols carved into the wall opposite. They resembled the same hieroglyphs that decorated the horn.
The goatherd turned to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Winter growled. He cocked his revolver and waved it at the goatherd. “You’re coming back to the station with me for questioning.”
He spat in Winter’s face. “I would rather die here than answer your questions.”
Winter wiped his face against his sleeve, rage boiling in his blood. With an effort, he holstered his revolver and allowed the goatherd to leave.
“Drop the case, and leave it be.” the goatherd said. “Remember, they’re watching.” With that, he climbed up the embankment and drifted off into the night.
Winter awoke in an unfamiliar bed, momentarily disoriented. His head throbbed, and his mouth tasted of stale beer. Nightmarish fragments of the previous night came flooding back. He had decided to rent a room at the public house and get some rest. It had been too late to get a carriage back to his apartment.
Judging by the dim light streaming through the curtains, he was already running late. He threw on his clothes and shoes and hurried outside.
A short carriage ride later, he arrived at the cobbled square behind the prison. He’d expected to see the area filled with people, eager faces raised to the gallows to watch cruel justice meted out to the latest in a long line of miscreants. Instead, the square was empty, the gallows vacant, and the hangman’s noose was missing. Had he really been too late?
Winter headed for the warden’s office by the prison entrance. He flung open the front door, surprised to find no one guarding it.
He peered over the counter to find the warden slumped in a chair, a newspaper fluttering in his lap as the man’s snores ripped through the otherwise peaceful office. Any common thug could’ve strode behind the counter and shivved the fat bastard while he slept.
Winter slammed his fists down upon the counter, bellowing, “Good morning, warden!”
The warden jumped and nearly slid to the floor. His bloodshot eyes flicked haphazardly about the room before settling on Winter.
“Oh, detective Winter.” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Apologies. It’s been a long night.”
“Why’s there no one out back? Clock says I’m just in time.”
“Where’s the prisoner Hughes? The hanging?”
The warden stood, stifling a yawn. “Ah, yes. We tried to contact you last night, but you weren’t at the station. Hanging’s cancelled.”
Winter felt heat rise in his cheeks. “What?”
The warden chuckled. “Can’t very well hang a dead man, can we? Anyway, they carted him off to the catacombs. Last rites and all that.”
“Who are ‘they?’”
“The monks. You know the fellows from the abbey? Apparently our Mr. Hughes was a member of their order, and thus worthy of burial in the catacombs.”
“The hell?” Winter said. “Why didn’t that come up at the trial? Seems to me that’d discredit their testimony.”
The warden shrugged.
The wheels of suspicion began to turn in Winter’s mind. A common criminal turning out to be employed by the abbey would be bombshell enough, but to have those same monks testify against him and for him to raise nary a word in protest? Winter smelled a convenient pretext to spirit young Hughes away from the prison. His estimation of the warden sank even further, if such a thing were possible.
“Thank you, warden.” Winter spun on his heels and made for the door.
The warden called out. “Elliot, hold on.”
“Odd thing.” The warden said. “Hughes was fine earlier in the evening. He ate a full meal and appeared in good spirits, considering. The monks stopped by around three, asking to visit. I took them to his cell and there we found him, slumped face down. Stone dead.”
Winter said nothing. Hughes had appeared anything but well, and it was curious that the warden would say otherwise. Either the warden had plumbed heretofore unseen depths of cluelessness, or he was a lying sack of shite.
The warden continued. “It was almost as if they already knew he was dead….”
On his way to the cemetery, Winter stopped by the station to round up his partner, the junior detective Russell Martin. The monks he could handle, but he wasn’t so sure about the thing that dwelt beneath the catacombs. He would’ve preferred some of the other men accompany him, but they’d already written the Hughes thing off as a wild goose chase.
When Winter entered his office he found Martin rifling through the drawers of his desk. “What’s this, then?” Winter snapped.
Martin glanced up at him and frowned. “I’m looking for the files for the Flanders case. Remember that? Thought you might’ve squirreled them away somewhere.”
“Top shelf, above the cabinet.”
Martin closed the drawer. “Thanks.”
Winter cleared his throat. “Listen, I need you to help me out. Gotta pay a visit to our friends at the catacombs. Right now.”
“Oh? Got a spot of grave robbing planned?” Martin grinned.
“They’ve taken Hughes.”
Martin gave him a look of disgust. “Not that bloody Hughes thing, again. You can’t…”
Winter hissed. “Keep your voice down!”
“It’s over.” Martin said. “The man’s dead. Give it a rest, Elliot. Besides, we’re supposed to be working the Flanders case today. Captain’s orders.”
Martin had a point. Winter knew it’d be best to tread lightly and not provoke the further ire of the captain, but the damned Hughes case continued to gnaw at him. He couldn’t let it rest until he’d exposed the thing’s seedy underbelly.
Martin sighed. “Look, give me a few hours to work the Flanders case and keep up appearances. I’ll join you around noon.”
“Fine.” Winter left his office and hailed a carriage to the cemetery.
When he arrived, he found the cemetery gates guarded by a solitary monk. Black clouds bathed the place in darkness, despite the early hour. Winter heard chanting drifting from within the catacombs.
“We’ve been expecting you, detective!” The monk said, catching him off-guard. The man had pale skin and a stubby nose. Winter recognized the man from his previous visit.
“I expect the warden sent word?”
The pale monk said nothing, instead turning to unlock the gate. “Mr. Hughes is presently being interred within the catacombs. The ceremony is almost complete. This way.”
He led Winter down the winding dirt path between graves. Most were marked with simple wooden crosses, with the occasional headstone.
As they approached the entrance to the catacombs, Winter shuddered. The narrow doorway was edged with skulls, mortared into place amongst the surrounding brickwork. A flimsy iron gate hung to one side. Amidst its swirling metalwork Winter again noted strange symbols resembling those carved into the outer wall of the cemetery, opposite the sewer entrance.
The monk closed the gate as they passed, leading the way down a narrow passageway. The sound of chanting grew louder. To Winter it was musical gibberish resembling something one might hear in the halls of a lunatic asylum.
As they descended further into the catacombs, the brick walls gave way to walls made entirely of bone. White candles lined the walls, their flickering light the only illumination in the steadily darkening tunnel.
Up ahead, monks stood within alcoves, silent sentinels in the gloom. It was only when they passed by that Winter noticed they were not among the living. Their dusty skulls leered at him from beneath tattered brown hoods.
Eventually the tunnel opened up into a small room, revealing two monks guarding a heavy oak door which stood ajar. It reminded Winter of the doors within the prison. It was the kind of door that would stand up to years of punishment and muffle the cries of the condemned.
The pale monk nodded at the guards, before leading him down a flight of stairs to a circular chamber. Flaming torches lined the walls. The corpse of Jason Hughes lay on a raised stone altar. A pair of chanting monks stood to either side of the body, swinging tins of incense. A third was bent forward over Hughes’s torso, stitching together a long wound that ran the length of the body from chest to groin.
The monk waved his arm toward the body. “As you can see, detective, we’ve just completed the embalming. The young man will shortly be delivered to his ultimate resting place.”
Winter noted with disgust the shallow tray at the head of the altar. A collection of various bodily organs lay loosely arranged within. If not for the strong aroma of incense filling the chamber, he may well have added the contents of his stomach.
“Well, that’s that, then. The warden told me Mr. Hughes looked deathly ill all day.” Winter lied. “They probably would’ve had to drag the poor sod out of his cell to hang, if not for his untimely demise.”
The monk nodded. “We came as soon as we could. He died soon after we had administered his last rites.”
The stitching monk completed his task and gathered up the tray, briefly passing out of sight down a dark tunnel leading further into the earth.
The other two monks ceased their chants and followed their colleague upstairs, leaving Winter and the pale monk alone in the chamber.
Seeing no signs of injury on the body, Winter sighed. “I’m sorry to have bothered you. Everything appears to be in order here.” He’d secretly hoped to find Hughes still alive, perhaps held captive by the monks somewhere within the abbey. In hindsight it didn’t make a lot of sense, but he’d managed to convince himself the monks had some role in the whole nefarious scheme the goatherd had described. Martin, the captain, and the rest had been right. He’d been chasing ghosts. His one remaining lead had been snuffed out, and it was time to pack it in and move on.
The pale monk motioned for Winter to follow him up the stairs. When Winter remained motionless, the monk frowned. “Is there anything else, detective?”
“At the trial, why was there no mention of Hughes being a member of your order? It seems a convenient omission, given your testimony.”
The pale monk eyed him steadily. “There were… political considerations. It wouldn’t reflect well upon us for our reputation to be stained by a rogue member among our ranks.”
“I expected as much.” Winter’s mouth suddenly felt too dry. “How then, do you explain the illicit deliveries to the sewers behind the cemetery?”
What little color there was in the pale monk’s face drained, lending his skin a translucent appearance. Before Winter could stop him, the monk turned and ran up the stairs.
“Seal the door!” The monk cried, and the heavy door slammed shut in Winter’s face before he could reach it.
He jiggled the handle, but found it locked.
“Open the door, or so help me!” He beat on the door with his fists. In response, there came a sound that chilled his very marrow: a horn. He’d recognized the sound from his time in the sewers. The sound echoed throughout the small chamber, bouncing off the walls and generating an unbearable cacophony.
Winter took his revolver from its holster, stood back, and fired into the door. Even as his ears rang from the deafening report, he fired again. The door splintered slightly, yet remained stubbornly intact.
“Damn it!” He holstered his revolver and considered his options.
At the head of the altar he saw a selection of cruel embalming implements. He took the longest of these, a metal pole with a hook on the end, and swiped at one of the torches overhead. It wobbled briefly, then fell to the floor.
Winter snatched up the torch, ready to proceed into the dark tunnel, when he heard something approaching. He paused, head cocked. There were clomping hooves, followed by noisy chomping and slurping. A goat?
He recalled the organs the monk had taken down the tunnel, and felt his stomach clench. Did goats eat offal? He didn’t think so, but couldn’t say for sure.
Moments passed, and the eating sounds trailed off. His traitorous legs kept him firmly rooted in place.
He listened intently for further movement. A barely audible sigh drifted out of the tunnel, followed by hooves clacking on the cobbled stone floor. Winter took an involuntary step backward, bumping into the edge of the altar.
He jumped when a loud bleat came from within the tunnel. The sound was both reassuring and somehow terrifying. It was clearly that of a goat, yet it carried an undertone of menace.
Simultaneously, the torchlight overhead flickered before being entirely extinguished, filling the air with acrid smoke. The torch in his hand thankfully remained lit.
Heart thumping, he used the feeble torch glow to find his way back to the foot of the stairs. The hooves came closer, accompanied by ragged breathing. He sensed movement at the mouth of the tunnel, but couldn’t quite make out more than a rough shape in the darkness.
The clacking hooves entered the chamber, pausing at the head of the altar. The creature sniffed and bent forward over the body.
It was then that Winter felt his mind unhinge, for the thing before him could not possibly exist. This was no mere goat. The thing was the height of a man, its body draped in furs. Its face was long, with watery black eyes peering at him through a nightmarish mask of skin and horns fitted tautly over some hidden bone structure. A fetid reek of carrion filled the chamber.
The thing seemed to grin, its mouth a yawning void ringed with daggers of bone. It eyed Winter briefly before plunging its jaws into the corpse.
Winter reached for his revolver with shaking hands. Taking careful aim, he fired. Only then did the creature turn its attention from the mutilated body to Winter.
It leapt upon the altar on all fours, opening its mouth wide. Winter felt a tightness in his chest and fought for breath. A million yellow sparks appeared in his vision, and he dropped the torch.
He fumbled for the trigger of his revolver and fired again and again. The thing appeared closer with each muzzle flash.
His finger reflexively squeezed the trigger even after the revolver gave a dry click.
Wet claws gripped his head, and Winter screamed. As those horrible inky eyes peered into his, he felt the last shreds of sanity depart. Consciousness fled soon thereafter.
Elliot Winter heard voices. They were indistinct at first, but as he listened, one voice in particular sounded familiar. One of the men from the station, wasn’t it? Younger fellow. He was arguing with two or three others. They said he wasn’t in a good way. Maybe needed medical attention.
His head throbbed, and he felt something hard against his back. Soft fibers brushed his cheek, and there was an odd metallic smell in the air. Thunder crashed in the distance. Where was he? He’d had the most awful nightmare.
The voices droned on and on. He wished they’d all just shut up and leave him in peace so he could wake up in his own good time.
He tried to focus on the figures, but they were all a blur. He seemed to be outside, judging by the pleasant wind blowing past his face. It was dark, but not quite so dark as that horrible dank dungeon from his nightmare.
He cleared his throat. “‘Scuse me?”
The voices stopped their infernal nattering, and the young lad spoke. “Elliot, you’re alive!”
Winter tried to respond, but all he could manage was a dry croak.
“Get him some water,” the lad said. “My God, Elliot, you had me worried. They dragged you out of there on a stretcher. You’re covered in blood. Nobody seems to know what’s going on.”
He rubbed at his eyes. The face above him became clearer. It was Martin, his partner from the station. The lad looked pale, as if he’d just had a terrible fright. His forehead was creased with concern. Behind Martin, wooden crosses and headstones stretched off into the distance.
“Anyhow, we’ll get you off to the hospital and set you right. I’ll handle the captain. He’ll be none too happy with your exploits, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for all this.”
Another figure appeared, bearing a water jug. This one wore a brown robe and hood. He bent over Winter and held the jug to his lips. Winter drank greedily.
“Thank you,” he managed, wiping water from his mouth. The man said something in response, and it was then that Winter noticed the fellow had no lips.
He jerked upright. “What’s wrong with his face?”
“What do you mean?” Martin said. “He looks fine to me.”
The man flicked back his hood.
“No… no… this can’t be…” Winter clutched at the canvas stretcher, as if to regain his balance.
“What is it?” Martin looked from the monk to Winter.
“Can’t you see?” It was all coming back to him now. A monk had led him into the catacombs, and on the way he’d seen some of the dead in alcoves. They were just like this man, with his dusty skull and skeletal grin.
Winter felt for his holster and noticed it missing. “My gun, where’s my goddamned gun!”
Martin licked his lips. “Calm down, Elliot. You don’t need your gun right now. You’re not thinking straight.”
“I’m fine!” Winter snapped. “Get my gun. Now!”
Martin waved toward the cemetery gate. “Look, the hospital carriage is waiting. We’ll get you patched up, and then we can talk more about what happened.”
“You. And you.” Winter gestured toward the other two monks. “Remove your hoods.”
“I hardly think…” Martin began.
They threw back their hoods, and it was as Winter suspected: another pair of grinning skulls. The dead had risen, and had cast some glamor over his partner so he couldn’t see it. Everything was all starting to make sense. The show trial with Hughes, the evasive monks, the thing in the catacombs. All of it.
If no one else could see it, he’d have to take matters into his own hands.
One of the monks said something, but it sounded to Winter like total gibberish.
Martin nodded and turned to the monk. “Yes, you’re probably right.”
Winter scanned the ground by the canvas stretcher and spotted a jagged rock embedded in the loose soil. When Martin’s back was turned, he wiggled the rock free and tucked it into his pocket.
He stood unsteadily. “All right, off we go. I won’t be needing this stretcher.”
Martin led the way back to the cemetery gate and the waiting carriage, followed close behind by the three monks. Winter reached into his pocket and waited for his chance.
He managed to smash in one of their skulls before Martin and the others could subdue him.
They never saw it coming.
On the morning of his hanging, Elliot Winter sat alone in his cell, glazed eyes fixed on the bars. A half-eaten rat lay on the floor beside him. The warden would be here soon, and it would all be over.
After a week in the cell, Winter congratulated himself on successfully abstaining from the food and drink his jailers delivered twice a day. It was most definitely poisoned. They wouldn’t be tossing him into the catacombs now, would they? Unlike poor Mr. Hughes who couldn’t resist the temptation of sustenance.
The trial had been swift and damning. His lawyer had suggested an insanity plea, but Winter had dismissed the idea. He was the sanest person in the room. This absolute conviction, together with the testimony from Martin regarding Winter’s vendetta against the monks, had sealed his fate. In the opinion of the judge, the hangman’s noose would be a fair trade for the cold-blooded murder of a peaceful monk. Winter couldn’t disagree.
The warden appeared and unlocked his cell, accompanied by two guards. They led him down the hallway and past the other prisoners who jeered and clapped as he passed. Then it was a short journey up the stairs, out onto the cobbled square behind the prison, and up a final set of steps to the gallows.
He’d expected a large crowd, but nothing like this. Winter felt tendrils of terror wrap around his heart. Below him, filling the prison square to capacity, a sea of upturned faces stared at him with blank eyes in skeletal faces. They gibbered excitedly in a long forgotten language.
And there was someone–or something–else, wasn’t there? Up in the large oak tree in the corner, a lone horned figure sat, its bony limbs draped over the branches in a relaxed posture.
The warden gibbered briefly to the assembled masses, then turned to him and intoned gravely, “Any last words, Mr. Winter?”
His final words had seemed so important and meaningful when contemplated in his cell, yet now they seemed pointless. This audience couldn’t be made to listen to reason.
The warden waited as Winter’s silence stretched out. When it was clear he had nothing to say, the warden motioned for the hangman to step forward.
As the hangman tightened the noose around his neck, Winter scanned the faces in the crowd. He noticed at least a few among them had not yet succumbed to the undead plague afflicting their fellows.
Just before the platform dropped away beneath his feet, his perspective shifted yet again, and the assembled throng seemed to transform before his eyes.
There wasn’t a skeletal face among them.
Andrew Nicolle is an Australian expat, now living in the USA. He works as a software engineer by day, and writes fiction and apps by night. His short fiction has appeared in Pseudopod, Lovecraft eZine, Spacesuits and Sixguns, and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. Follow his adventures online at andrewnicolle.com.
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Story illustration by Dominic Black.
Good, fast-paced tale. Thanks for sharing.
I loved most of the “conspiracy” portions of the tale, and especially enjoyed Winter’s encounter with the beast.
I really enjoyed your story. Thank you for sharing.