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Tales From Hell's Gulf

We presume by now you've visited the gloriously backwards Hell's Gulf, wading through its murky waters before enjoying a drink at Large Marge's bar, and we trust you've avoided the questionable law enforcement. Now you can explore the Hell's Gulf literary universe through these short tales offered by Nick Carlson, even as he works on more horror novels for your delectation. Watch out for 'The God Tide', washing up on your shores this Hallowe'en.

Tale #1: The Plague Ship

Jonah Daughtrey and his First Mate, Esteban, delight in marine salvage. But when they investigate a wreck on the shores of Hell's Gulf, it's their sanity that will be difficult to save. Following your reading, you are most heartily invited to listen to the excellent audio performance of this tale by Erik Peabody, produced by the team from the Chilling Tales For Dark Nights YouTube channel. You'll find the video at the end of the story below.

Tale #2: The Devil's in The Details

Ginevra Sinclaire, teacher and devout Christian, lives in the echoes of an abusive marriage, accompanied only by her loyal greyhound, Richter. But when children start going missing from her class, the horror she encounters is nothing short of...ahem...off the scale. Following your reading, you are most heartily invited to listen to the excellent audio performance of this tale by Drew Blood, produced by the team from the Chilling Tales For Dark Nights YouTube channel. You'll find the video at the end of the story below.

Tale #3: Swine Song

The denizens of Hell's Gulf have long suffered tales of the elusive 'werepig', and when little Randy Duluth is missing and presumed horribly killed by the creature, a search and revenge party ventures into the storm drains. What they find is worse than they expected - so much worse. Following your reading, you are most heartily invited to listen to the excellent audio performance of this tale by the full cast from the Chilling Tales For Dark Nights YouTube channel. This one is a treat you'll want to get your snout into. You'll find the video at the end of the story below.

#1: The Plague Ship

Jonah Daughtrey’s heart skipped a beat when the simulation played out in its entirety. Not only was he certain that the prize was there, tangibly, tantalizingly there…but that he would be able to get to it first.

 

Jonah scarcely saw breaks so fortuitous in his ten years of marine salvaging. Whenever a seagoing vessel ran aground or sank, it was almost always local salvagers that tracked it down first, leaving him with a mere cut of the profits, or the scraps, or nothing at all. Despite his years of experience and his technology, he often found himself on the tail end of a desperate hungry convoy converging on the spot: good to lend a hand, but rarely to claim first finder’s rights.

 

This time was different, though.

 

Jonah had earned the nickname “The Reaper” for his hawkish monitoring of vessels passing through the Gulf of Mexico. Sitting alone in his cabin, his radios all tuned to the proper frequencies, he would wait and listen out for distress calls from nearby boats. Whenever panicked SOSs came through, he would mark down their coordinates and inscribe all relevant details…and wait. By cross-examining their locations with currents and weather patterns in the area, and plugging them into a computer simulator, he could deduce where an abandoned ship would go down or float off to. It helped him in getting there, but almost never in getting there first.

Watching the simulation play out again, this time Jonah was more than confident he would get there first.

Recent legislation had rendered it more difficult to outsource traditional Mexican shrimpers on work visas, so Floridian shrimp trawlers have had to settle with inexperienced crewmates, sometimes far beyond their typical geographic reach, to fill in the gaps: a development Jonah had been monitoring closely. Inattentive workers in high-stress conditions could only lead to disaster, and the Job 2:7 was no exception. Berthed in Sarasota, Jonah had picked up the shrimp trawler’s distress calls as she drifted northwest up towards the armpit of Florida. Communication went dark around 29.3 north, 84.6 west. Jonah’s subsequent calculations showed that by now the ship would have drifted towards an obscure backwater town along Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

It was only twenty miles from his current location.

Jonah gunned the motors and banked his tugboat east, sharing a private laugh with himself regarding the town’s unfortunate name: Hell’s Gulf.

---

The Job 2:7 would have been impossible to miss, a white-and-red sixty-five-footer adorned with its signature outriggers. Morning light slowly bled over the sky as Jonah and his first mate, Esteban Chauvet, cruised south alongside the forested shores of Hell’s Gulf. The sun had scarcely risen but already there was an oppressive mugginess to the sea air. The mixed conifer-and-oak woods were silent, apart from the occasional passing seagull. Even over a hundred feet offshore, biting midges managed to find them, and the two men had to retreat to the cabin amid the invisible bloodsucking cloud.

Consulting a map, Jonah determined they had already scoured over a quarter of the area’s shoreline, yet there was no other vessel in sight…no sign of human presence anywhere at all.

 

“This place is weird,” Esteban commented, swatting at a stray no-see-um. “Feels like we just sailed back to the Jurassic period.”

“Hell’s Gulf is one of those ‘unincorporated communities,’ I read,” said Jonah, peering out at the horizon. “Got one hell of a reputation for itself too. Killings, hate crimes, disappearances…you know, the works.”

“Christ,” Esteban muttered, shaking his head. “Why don’t they just carpet-bomb the place?”

Jonah shrugged. “Guess no one cares about a bunch of murderous hicks as long as they keep to themselves.”

Esteban opened his mouth to respond, but instead grimaced and resumed his vigil.

The boat chugged along in silence until they found the trawler.

“There!” Esteban announced, pointing to his left at the shoreline. The Job 2:7’s stern stuck out from behind a sandy peninsula; Jonah cut the engines and they coasted to an idle speed, observing the beached vessel. The trawler’s outriggers had fully extended, resembling the broken ribs of a massive whale. Its nets hung torn and tattered like cobwebs entombing the boat to its nautical grave.

“No visible signs of hull damage,” said Jonah, looking at it through a pair of binoculars. “Seems like they deliberately ran aground.”

“See anyone?” Esteban asked.

Jonah left the cabin and inched towards the port railing, scoping it closer. “Nobody,” he finally said. “Maybe they went into town to look for help…”

“Well if they’re still alive, and barring some status report, we can’t just swoop right in and strip the boat,” said Estaban. “That’d make us looters.”

“We’ll anchor off here and wait to see if anyone shows up,” said Jonah. As morbid as it sounded, he’d have preferred a missing-in-action crew, to streamline the salvaging process. Living crewmates were nothing more than a nuisance, a brick wall in his path to getting paid. Even if the vessel in question were out of commission, arguments regarding where to take it, how to handle it, and even whether to salvage it at all were inevitable.

Jonah scanned the surrounding beach, its sand tombstone gray in the early morning light. “Huh,” he said. The tide was lowering, so any footsteps in the sand ought to have been preserved…yet none led away from the ship.

The sun blotted out for an instant, and Jonah lowered the binoculars to see a black vulture circling above. Like a haggard ghost it floated down and landed unsteadily atop the starboard outrigger, before hunching over and picking at something in the net.

Jonah repositioned the binoculars and focused on the vulture, jabbing its beak into a folded clump of netting. The material tore open, and something pale and limp flopped out.

He drew in a sharp breath, nearly dropping the binoculars.

“We’re going over there,” he announced. “There’s a dead body.”

---

Their skiff slid onto the beach with a hiss and the two men jumped out, dragging it up beyond the high tide line. Up close, the Job 2:7 was a daunting, shadowy colossus, reeking of spoiled shrimp and rust. They stared in repulsion at the vulture, indifferent to their presence, as it pecked at the human arm protruding from the net.

“Fucking hideous,” Esteban said lowly, shaking his head. Jonah grimaced; he had seen his share of dead bodies, mostly from ill-equipped vessels taken under by stormy weather. Rich, poor, experienced, novice…it didn’t matter to the sea, whose harsh postmortem cleanse stripped corpses of hair and bloated them with saltwater. The sea consumed all. It never gave quarter.

Still, he hadn’t quite gotten used to the sight.

“What if we find more bodies onboard?” Esteban asked, covering his nose.

“We’ll wrap them in shrouds,” Jonah answered. “We have to get up on deck first.” His standard procedure was to clear out a salvaged ship of any loose goods and transfer them to his own vessel before tugging it out. Loose ropes hung down from the port outrigger; he grabbed hold and rappelled up the side of the trawler. All that time in the Army paid off, I guess, he thought. Thankfully his first mate was no pushover physically either. Esteban rappelled up with him.

Apart from the smell, the vessel was pristine…no indication of any trouble, anything that would have forced the crew to abandon ship. The presence of a body was another kink in the confounding equation…were they attacked? Stricken down?

Walking up towards the bow, they found their next body. The man had apparently perished gripping onto the railing, as if trying in vain to hoist himself back up. Jonah donned a pair of work gloves and approached. The corpse appeared unbroken, nothing to suggest he couldn’t stand on his own. He reached over and grasped the man’s sodden shoulder, turning him face-up.

“Shit!” he cursed, jumping away. The victim’s nose and lips were charcoal black, two swollen lumps protruded in his neck, and his fingertips had similarly darkened. “Esteban,” he called out, “they were afflicted with something.”

“Like a disease? Jesus!” Esteban sputtered, looking around. “I don’t want them to infect me!”

“They won’t infect you unless you stick a finger in their mouths and suck on it,” said Jonah, turning his back on the body. “But be extremely careful if you see another body. They’re biohazards now…not under our purview.”

“What disease could wipe out an entire crew at once like this?” Esteban asked, peering up at the vulture.

“I don’t know,” Jonah replied. “Nor do I want to.” He paced about the deck, wringing his hands and thinking. Despite the calm, the ship felt like a bomb primed to go off beneath his feet. No salvage before this had instilled such an uneasy air of mystery…or of imminent danger. “Let’s make this quick,” he decided. “Keep the gathering of goods to a minimum and let’s focus on getting this thing winched up when the tide comes in. Continue scouring the deck. I’ll head down below.” Esteban nodded and hurried towards the stern. Jonah wrenched the cabin door open and found a hatch leading below decks.

There, the smell of shrimp was at its strongest. A few dim lamps mounted on the walls revealed a narrow corridor with two doors on each side, the fishhold at its far end. As he descended the steps, cockroaches scuttled away noisily, disappearing between doors or through cracks in the walls. “God,” Jonah whispered, closing his eyes and bracing himself. “Just look through the doors…see if there’s anything worth saving...”

He tried the first door on his left. It revealed rows of lifejackets and ring buoys, nothing he felt a need to save.

Jonah crossed the hall to the first door on the right. He opened it, took a glance inside - and immediately slammed it shut.

He escaped the worst of the odor, but it still smacked him before dissipating. The room, what he presumed to be a latrine, had been crusted over with dried fluids, resulting in a vile miasma with a hint of antiseptic. Jonah staggered back against the wall, breathing into the crook of his arm, willing the bile back down his throat. He felt dirty, polluted, having inhaled those spiteful fumes into his body…the old belief that disease was passed on through bad smells in the air suddenly seemed credible…

“No,” he told himself. “Just check the other doors and get a move on.”

Once he had succeeded in keeping his stomach contents down, Jonah moved onto the furthest door on the left. He sighed with relief: it was a storage closet packed with first aid kits, freeze-dried meals, laden oil cans…stuff that could be saved and resold. A few roaches clung to the walls, antennae slowly probing the air, but Jonah shooed them away and began pulling containers off their shelves.

Scritch scratch.

He paused. It had been less of a sound and more a feeling of a sound…of psychic sand trickling down the back of his neck.

Scritch scratch. No…he definitely heard it this time. Ship rats and other vermin were familiar presences on wrecks, but the Job 2:7 couldn’t have been beached for longer than several hours…could rats have made it their home in that short a span? Somehow Jonah doubted it.

Regardless, he wasn’t opening the final door, the source of the skin-crawling noises. Pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together; no reason to intentionally let potential plague rats out into the open. He glanced at the door to the fishhold; there was equally no reason to venture into its putrid depths.

He paused.

Had it always been cracked open?

He couldn’t remember, he hadn’t looked at it too closely upon his entering below decks. It wasn’t protocol to leave the door to a fishhold ajar. There had to have been a reason…someone strayed inside, or stored something deep within it…

Jonah hesitated, then with a reluctant groan, inched towards the fishhold and peeked through the crack.

The odor of rotten shrimp was a relentless assault, one that bitterly discolored the very air around him. Jonah procured a washcloth from his pocket and pressed it to his nose and mouth, pulling the door open and taking a step inside. It swung loosely on its hinges thanks to the trawler’s angle. Darkness swallowed the fishhold’s interior; Jonah pulled out his flashlight and switched it on. Discarded shrimp and fish littered the slippery floor, but otherwise the fishhold appeared empty. White insulated bins lined the side walls. It was only by tilting the light up did Jonah see the third body…he too had been ravaged by the swollen blackness. He had pressed himself against the far wall, as close to the ventilation fans as possible…presumably to temper the blistering fever that had overtaken him.

That’s when the door slammed shut.

“Fuck,” Jonah hissed, wheeling around and nearly slipping. He forced himself against the door, feeling around for a handle. No avail - he looked around the hinges for the emergency release. “Esteban!” he shouted, banging on the metal. “Hey! Open the door!”

The bins behind him began to rattle. Jonah turned around again, the beam of light trembling in his hands as they bucked back and forth as if rocked by a giant phantom hand…

The lids exploded and shrimp poured out - much more than they should have feasibly held - a lava surge of slimy reeking bodies, sliding over each other in a flowing heap, flooding the floor and rising quickly -

Panicking, the smell piercing his nose, Jonah fumbled around until he found what he was looking for - a rubber button the size of his fist - and punched it. The fishhold door burst open and he fell out into the corridor on an encroaching wave of shrimp. Cold shells and hairlike feelers clung to his skin as he scrambled to get up, the taste of brine and death in his mouth, stinging his eyes…

He lunged forward and pushed on the door. It jammed on a backlog of shrimp. Jonah forced it closed, crushing countless little bodies, their fleshy guts squeezing between the cracks…until the door clunked shut.

He sprung to his feet, wiping shell fragments and shrimp juice off his front. He cursed, realizing he had dropped his flashlight somewhere amid the crustaceous deluge behind the door.

“I’m done,” he gasped. “Esteban!” he shouted up the corridor. “Forget the salvage! This vessel’s fucked to high heaven! Ready the skiff and…”

He froze. Instead of a set of stairs, the front end of the corridor simply ended with a solid, inert wall.

Jonah strode up to it and felt across its metal surface, finding no hinges or locks. It was as if it had always been there.

“Esteban!” he yelled, pounding on the wall. It produced no reverb; his voice died immediately against its surface. He was essentially soundproofed.

Cold, scratchy nerves flared under his skin. He pivoted and paced the enclosed hallway, thinking in delirious circles. Something structural within the ship groaned. It was joined by the familiar sound of scratching.

Jonah regarded the far right door, the scratching seeming to beckon him.

“This is fucked up,” he whispered, heading for the door.

The noises became louder…more excited, the closer he drew.

The instant his hand touched the handle, the scratching stopped.

Jonah drew his tactical knife. He sighed before squeezing the handle and forcing it open.

The sight before him nearly made him laugh, a desperate laugh of misery and rising apprehension. Beyond the door was a carbon copy of the same corridor…the same four rooms, two on each side…the entrance to a fishhold sitting at its end.

“What is this?” Jonah lingered in the doorway, his vision tunneling. The dimensions were impossible…the duplicate corridor would have jutted from the trawler’s starboard side. He took a tentative step forward. His reverberating footsteps didn’t lie. It was all solid ground.

Trembling, Jonah pushed forward and examined the doors. Lifejackets and ring buoys. A horrific latrinal scene. A storage closet filled with things that could have been saved.

And once again, across from that room, a door harboring the mysterious scritch-scratch. With less hesitation this time, Jonah opened it.

He laughed again, at the second corridor clone sprawled out before him. It was a cyclic trap. One more like it and he’d go full-circle…doomed to wander the ever-repeating lower decks of a plague ship until madness or dehydration took him down.

“Think, man, think,” he whispered, slumping against the doorframe. If he completed the square loop and popped out into the original corridor he had first descended the stairs into, there’d truly be no turning back. He figured had to preserve the integrity of his starting point if he wanted any chance of leaving himself a potential out…

“Clues,” Jonah muttered to himself. “There’s gotta be something…”

The invisible scratching behind the one door had to hint at something…as much as he dreaded it, finding its source would be a change of pace, a step forward, if not a step in the right direction…

“Every time I open that door it just leads me back to the start of the corridor,” he recalled, pacing again. “There’s something I’m missing…another way to get through…”

Never in his life had he felt so small…so constricted and lost and confused, on the precipice of damnation if he made one misstep. He wondered what Esteban was up to, probably scouring the boat and shouting for him, wondering where the Hell his boss wound up. Really, though, Jonah could have just used the company…

He scowled. He wasn’t truly alone in the lower deck…the poor fevered sucker in the fishhold was the closest thing to a warm body he would find. He regarded the thick, insulated door at the end of the hallway. The smell of rotten shrimp in his clothes seemed to intensify, as if daring him to try it again. But in a morbid way, the corpse knew more about the Job 2:7 than Jonah did…if the trail had gone cold, it ought to have ended with him.

Jonah migrated to the storage closet and quickly found what he wanted first. The new flashlight gave him some comfort. He knew what to expect now…in and out, just like last time…

He squared up outside the fishhold. He took a deep breath. Switched the light on.

He pulled the door open.

Same reeking interior. Same white insulated bins on the sides. Same plague-ridden corpse prone against the far wall underneath the ventilation fans. Jonah wasted no time crossing over to the opposite end, scanning the body with his flashlight. Up close, his swollen glands were like inky pustules about to burst. The inside of his mouth was black, like he had imbibed a flagon of tar. But it was the object hooked to his belt loop that intrigued Jonah…a keyring the size of a tangerine, dangling with a collection of worn keys. Jonah drew his knife and cut through the fabric, lifting the jingling keys above him like some long-lost treasure.

A cold, stinking breeze blew through the fishhold, and the door slammed shut again. Jonah jumped, but he walked towards it, knowing he only had a few moments to find the emergency release before -

The bins blasted open, their lids crashing against the ceiling with a sound like a gunshot - and a billowing tornado of flies exploded from them, and suddenly the fishhold was a reverberating cacophony of buzzing and tiny scratchy bodies buffeting Jonah’s face and flesh…

He yelped, gagging at the handful of flies he had accidentally breathed in - he retched, stumbling towards the door, his flashlight beam swinging wildly about the enclosed space, the millions of passing insect shadows like a light show at a hellish rave…

Swatting and swinging his arms, Jonah pounded on the emergency release button and the door spat him out onto the floor. He kicked the door shut, but at least a hundred of the angry fuckers had made it out - they scattered in a discombobulated mess, disseminating and filling the empty space inside the corridor.

Jonah struggled onto all fours, gasping for breath, the keyring digging into his palm. Aside from the buzzing there was a new sensation…one much closer to home, one infinitely more troubling. Before his eyes, tiny red itchy bumps swelled up on his wrists and forearms. He instantly knew their source, the realization coinciding with images of rats and ghost ships and plague doctors.

“Fleas,” he hissed, scrubbing his flesh to dislodge the microscopic little germ-bags. But he knew it was too late. Their saliva was in his blood…blood that was now incubating bubonic plague.

Jonah rose to his feet, sorting through the keys with a trembling hand. “Swear to Christ if I get outta here I’m getting an office job,” he muttered. “But not before getting a fucking warehouse’s worth of shots.”

He turned to the final door, fidgeting against the rising itchiness, the scratching noises becoming anxious...

The third key he tried on the keyhole worked. It clunked, and the door shifted on its hinges slightly.

Once more, the scratching stopped.

His patience razor-thin, Jonah threw the door open.

The new room was much smaller than he’d anticipated. It was a sick bay, a simple cot and nightstand cramped in a room barely large enough to lie down in. Yet the cot was occupied by the fourth dead body Jonah had seen that day. This man had been dead a long while: he emitted no odor, and his blackened skin was dry and shriveled around his bones. Patient zero, Jonah realized. They’d stowed him away down in the sick bay too late, not realizing what they were dealing with before casting out…

The plague’s rare enough as it is, Jonah thought, scratching himself. He remembered the reports of shrimp trawlers having to reach beyond their usual worker pool to garner a full crew. Odds of them picking up a contagious man in their search were small…but devastatingly so…

Upon the nightstand sat a journal. Jonah picked it up and flipped through it, finding the most recent entry:

“Zero sign of improvement with Mr. Sullivan. His sleepwalking has worsened to the point of us having to lock the door to keep him isolated. I don’t suspect he’ll last the night. The bastard’s all but doomed us all. The disease, whatever it is, has spread among the crew in full. Sightings of ship rats continue. Suspect something viral spread among the vermin. Currently seeking to make port. Fever is unbearable. I’m having to take breaks in the fishhold with those glorious fans. Anywhere else is just too damn hot. Fingertips hurt, glands sore. But the shrimp must be preserved. They must.”

It sobered Jonah, knowing he was cradling the words of a dead man in his hands. The Job 2:7 was a brewing seaborne epidemic. In a way, Jonah was glad the trawler beached somewhere remote…god forbid if the plague ship with its fleas and rats and contaminated bodies ran aground anywhere else on the Florida coast…

But none of it explained the maze. Nor the impossible presence of creatures on the trawler. “There’s something more going on,” said Jonah. “I haven’t found shit.”

The door slammed shut behind him.

Jonah whipped around, startled but unsurprised at that point. He brandished the key and made to unlock it again - and stopped at the sight of long gash marks on the inside of the door. He raised his hand and lined up his fingertips with the gouges.

Dragging his nails down the gouges, it produced an all-too-familiar scratching.

“Shit,” he spat, fumbling with the keyring.

Behind him, leather cracked, cloth folded, and brittle bones produced twiglike snaps. Jonah felt eyes upon him. Dead, dry eyes that could see without seeing.

Jonah turned his head, granting the aberration only the slimmest corner of his vision. But even those optic scraps still told him the corpse, Patient Zero, Mr. Sullivan, was sitting up in his cot.

Jonah’s hand blindly swam about the door for the handle. The hinges had disappeared. The frame was gone. Everything about it was…gone.

All that remained was a solid wall.

“Pity,” the disembodied voice croaked, “that you must share this space with us now. We hate that for you.”

Jonah pounded on the wall with painful despair, but his prison was a vacuum of solidity. Nothing was ever getting out again.

“They locked us in here to rot,” it continued. “This is all we knew. How long have you pushed through our prison, wondering if you would ever see the light of day again?” Jonah could hear it smile. “Now you know our agony. Delicious, is it not?”

“Shut up,” Jonah whispered, throwing his weight against the wall. “Shut up…”

“This is where your journey ends,” it sneered, seeming to stand up. “But don’t think you have nothing left. We’ve been pining for something new…”

Gripped with dread, Jonah turned his head a bit more. The walking corpse was convulsing, its limbs spasming like an electrocuted frog. Its exposed flesh underneath its ragged clothes seemed to bulge…a dark cloud like a nanite swarm seemed to surround it…

“Communion,” it garbled, and Jonah suddenly realized it wasn’t one voice talking, but hundreds…

The body bloomed with dozens of black tumors that protruded up from the skin…the dark cloud intensified, spreading to fill the sick bay entirely, and the itchiness erupted on Jonah again as he knew the cloud was actually millions upon millions of fleas…the tumors emerged entirely, cascading and crawling down the crumpling corpse and he saw they weren’t tumors at all, but nightmare-black ship rats…

Whatever remained of Patient Zero Mr. Sullivan collapsed into a pathetic heap. The congregation of mangy rodents, surrounded by their miniature fogbank of fleas, stared up at Jonah with their beady eyes.

“Partake,” they said in chorus. “Communion. Partake.”

They converged.

---

It was late afternoon by the time Esteban had gathered enough men from the nearby town of Hell’s Gulf. The group of two dozen or so had arrived with their own watercraft and equipment, eager to take a piece of the Job 2:7 for themselves. Esteban had made it clear that his primary concern was finding his boss Jonah Daughtrey, but three subsequent searches of the trawler, from the outriggers to the cabin to every room in the lower decks, confirmed the only other people on the ship had been her original crew…all dead for days, at least. Those bodies were wrapped up in shrouds and shuttled off on the town sheriff’s boat.

As they milled through the ship like pillagers, Esteban sat by himself in a grim daze. Their skiff hadn’t been launched away, and no footprints led away from the wreck. And he was a hundred percent certain he hadn’t seen Jonah emerge from the cabin.

Over the next day, the Job 2:7 was slowly taken apart, her cargo salvaged and scrap metal torn away and shipped off. Esteban watched as the wreck became a rickety frame, then a pile of debris, and suddenly there was only a few bits of junk and a middling impression in the sand.

Their work done, the townsfolk departed from the secluded beach, leaving Esteban with nothing but dark thoughts and half-memories.

He tossed a seashell into the waves and meandered towards the skiff. He hadn’t the scantest idea where he would go next. But wherever that was, he prayed it wouldn’t be where Jonah was.

Now listen to the audio and immerse yourself in the true horror of 'The Plague Ship'

The Plague Ship

#2: The Devil's in The Details

The approaching summer break was a source of much excitement for the schoolchildren, but unbeknownst to them, none cherished it more than their teacher, Ginevra Sinclaire, known to them as Ms. Ginny. Soon would be gone the days of being cooped up in a stuffy classroom, sweating in a tweed dress under the impending heat. The afternoons became the worst as late spring dragged on, and by the end of Friday English she was fidgeting almost as much as her pupils.

The clock still read five minutes to go. She decided to show mercy.

“Boys and girls, your attention please.” The class set down their pencils and stared expectantly at her. “Remember, while you can’t take those study guides you’re working on into your exams next week, you’ll have all weekend and before class to look them over. I’m glad to see you all have made progress.”

“When’s the English final?” Jacob asked, raising his hand.

“Thursday, ten a.m.” She rapped the blackboard, dated May 24th, 1946, with her pointer. “As it says on the schedule right here.”

“You doin’ anything fun this summer?” said Jessica.

“Might see my family up in North Carolina,” Ms. Ginny replied. “But otherwise I’ll be planning for next semester’s lessons.”

Next semester?” Patrick piped up. “You’re already thinkin’ about next semester?” The class groaned and laughed in response.

“Enjoy your summers while you can,” Ms. Ginny said with a grin. “When you grow up, you’ll find there’s really no difference.”

“I ain’t comin’ back next semester,” John announced from the back of the room. “I’ll be hoein’ potatoes for the rest of my life!”

“Oh. Well, good for you then,” Ms. Ginny commented. “The world needs potato farmers, anyway.”

“Will our exams be hard?” Susan asked softly from the front.

“I’m afraid I can’t speak for them,” Ms. Ginny answered, shaking her head. “But to a bright bunch like you? As long as you know your study guides, I think they’ll be cakewalks.”

She offered them a smile. But the class merely gaped at her, quiet yet alert. “Well, if you’re still unsure, there’s a prayer I can teach you. One for the patron saint of exam-taking.”

“Golly, there’s a patron saint for everything!” Patrick quipped.

“Indeed. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve said this prayer before any big exam I had to take. It never fails.” And with that, Ms. Ginny turned to an empty space on the blackboard and wrote down the prayer from memory. “I’ll leave this up for everyone during the exams,” she declared. “Let’s go over it now.”

And as one, the class recited it:

“Oh great St. Joseph of Cupertino, who while on Earth did obtain from God the grace to be asked at your examination only the questions you knew, obtain for me a like favor in the examinations for which I am preparing. In return I promise to make you known and cause you to be invoked. Through Christ our Lord. St. Joseph of Cupertino, pray for us.”

*

 

The walk home in the North Florida heat was no less demanding, and by the time Ginevra crossed the threshold into her home, she was yearning for a cool bath. But the bath would have to wait. There was a birthday to celebrate, and she had promised Richter she would not keep him waiting.

Dressing into her old smock and an apron, she took out the steaks marinating in the refrigerator and set it on a platter of aluminum foil. Next came the green beans and the fingerling potatoes, seasoned with generous amounts of olive oil and salt.

As she laid the veggies upon a sheet, she glanced at the picture frame sitting on the kitchen windowsill. The man behind the glass was giving a cheeky smile, posed at an off angle, his head tilted downward. At one point, that face had swept Ginevra off her feet, made her promise that she would spend the rest of her life with him and do all she could to make him happy.

She turned the frame around. Now was not the time for grieving.

A half hour later, the table was set, and aromatic steam filled the entire house. Ginevra seated herself and, heart bursting with pride, gave a whistle.

A sleek black greyhound bounded into the room and jumped onto the opposite chair. His jaws found the steak before his eyes did, and he devoured the slab in two bites, leaving the ring of vegetables untouched.

“Happy birthday, Richter,” Ginevra crooned. The dog licked his chops and goggled at her, panting expectantly. “My special man’s turned four today,” she continued, reaching over the table to scratch under his chin. “You’ve always been there for me. So loyal, so undemanding…not like…well...” She pushed her late husband Aaron from her mind with a grimace. “You are the only one for me, dog. Don’t you ever leave me. You won’t ever leave me…will you?”

Richter cocked his head, but held his same silly grin. “I thought not,” said Ginevra. “Now come on, I think there’s some leftover cake in the fridge.”

*

After the birthday meal, Ginevra let Richter out to do his business, then wandered upstairs for early bed. The long spring evening slowly darkened outside her window, a chorus of mole crickets serenading her. Finals week was a stressful time for her as well as her pupils; she figured she’d take all the time she could the weekend before to rest up and prepare.

As she dozed off, Richter bounded into her room and sat by the edge of the mattress, giving her the puppy-dog eyes.

Ginevra grimaced at him. Richter wasn’t allowed up on the bed despite him begging every night. But the steak dinner still lingered in the air, and Ginevra reminded herself it was a special night indeed. “Up up,” she commanded, patting the empty space next to her. Richter jumped up, spraining the springs under his weight, before circling and curling up. His paws were muddy from being outside, but Ginevra didn’t care. It would wash out.

“Love you, boy,” she whispered, patting his head. “Don’t know what I’d do without you. Go mad, I suspect. You’re the only one for me…”

Her heart gave a twinge as she scooted closer to him. Inspiration overwhelmed her, and she turned her gaze to the crucifix on the opposite wall.

“I thank thee, Lord, for deliverance from my darkest times. I thank thee, Lord, for my greatest companion…the one and only of Your creations to love me unconditionally. I thank thee for making Richter more than just a pet…for making him my best friend. The one most worthy of my dedication. You above all know how much I have to give…bestow upon us many more memories, to many more years, together. In Christ our Lord, amen.”

Richter emitted a contented rumble. Ginevra dozed off, feeling the most at peace since before those darkest times.

*

The pressure of finals week fell upon her before she even arrived at the schoolhouse.

Ginevra was an early bird out of necessity; not just for school but ensuring Richter got his outside time before she left for the day. She had scarcely cracked the back door open before he jostled past her and bolted into the backyard, disappearing into the sandhill forest beyond. Ginevra was too tired and too rushed to call out to him. Richter always came back anyway.

An hour later, cleaned up and dressed for the day, she hurried out the front door - and immediately had to halt.

Sitting at the foot of the front steps was Richter, his mouth stuffed with a dead marsh rabbit. “Richter, drop it,” Ginevra said, unable to look at his kill. Richter was completely still, staring at her with his amber eyes. She noticed his legs and belly were coated in swamp mud. “Shoot, Richter, I can’t let you inside like this,” she groaned.

He cocked his head, the rabbit twitching limply in his jaws. Ginevra sighed and shut the door behind her. “I’d wipe you down if I weren’t running late,” she said, stepping past him. “You’re just gonna have to stay outside until I get back.”

She took off down the dirt road, the first traces of sunrise peering over the pines. Shuffling her papers in order, she glanced back at the house.

He had turned to face her, but Richter was still sitting in the same spot, prey still in his jaws, his eyes gold pinpricks against a black shadow. “Weirdo,” she muttered, refocusing on the road. As Ginevra got her papers in order, she thought about the way he had looked at her with those honey-yellow eyes that somehow lacked its warm sweetness.

She faltered a little. She thought Richter’s eyes were more of a light brown. Maybe it was just the light, like how flowers or sundresses seemed more vibrant in daylight, and she hadn’t noticed until now…or maybe she didn’t know her precious dog as well as she thought…

The schoolhouse was just around the corner. Ginevra pushed the morning aside and strode through the doors, ready to deliver the Monday morning math final.

*

The day was long and stuffy as expected, but other than little Jacob being absent, it went without a hitch. Jacob would have to report the next day with a signed excuse and retake the exam the following week, cutting into his summer vacation time. Ginevra smiled amusedly to herself as she left the schoolhouse and headed down the dirt road again; school in summertime was probably a fate worse than death for a fourth-grader.

 

But whatever amusement she felt died when she saw what was on the front steps to her home. Richter had apparently just left the dead rabbit there; its neck hung at an askew angle, and its blood-matted fur had attracted a veritable communion of blowflies.

“Disgusting,” she grimaced, grabbing a broom from the patio and sweeping it off the path. It was heavier than she expected; it rolled off onto the grass, its head almost dragging alongside it, and the flies scattered in a glittering haze. Swatting at them with the broom, Ginevra hurried up the steps and slipped through the front door.

Richter was inside the house, sitting at the end of the foyer, staring at her with those unseemly yellow eyes.

They looked at each other, deathly silent. A single stray fly flew against a windowpane, its buzz an aural aftertaste in the nothingness.

Wagging his tail, Richter trotted up to her, pressing his flank against her legs. Ginevra sighed with relief, bending down to pet him. The greeting was a welcome respite from the stress and unpleasantness of the earlier hours. As she looked around for his collar and leash, she reflected on the fact that she explicitly left him outside that morning on account of his dirty paws.

Perhaps I didn’t close the back door properly, she thought, as she led him on his walk. As he strode ahead of her, she noticed his paws and the fur on his legs were immaculate…a better cleaning job than she could have done.

Perhaps.

*

Later that night, after a long evening of prepping for the Social Studies final, Ginevra collapsed atop her bed. She had barely closed her eyes when the mattress pitched and shook; Richter had jumped up in bed without permission.

“Hey!” Ginevra snapped, groggy from incipient sleep. “Did I say you could come up?” She shoved at his body; he simply stared at her, unmoved. But it only took a moment for Ginevra’s resolve to loosen. “Ah, heck,” she muttered, rolling back over. “You’re alright, dog.”

Richter stretched out and laid on his side, a paw pressed against Ginevra’s back. She closed her eyes. His presence was comforting, familiar…it almost reminded her of Aaron, his warm form a rock for her to latch onto, that husky voice of his promising he’d love her for the rest of their lives…

Life sure is inscrutable sometimes, she concluded, finally dozing off.

Richter’s paw slid further over her side.

*

At the Tuesday Social Studies final, Ms. Ginny realized she had two extra exams left over after passing them out. Jacob was still absent. Suddenly she realized that the front row seemed emptier than normal. Little Susan, soft-spoken yet smart as a whip, was missing as well.

“Class, does anyone know where Susan is today?” she asked.

They remained silent; some allowed her a noncommittal shrug. “Maybe she couldn’t take the pressure,” Patrick offered. “Social Studies was the only class she got Bs in!”

“That’s enough,” Ms. Ginny chided. “And how about Jacob? Anyone seen him since yesterday? Over the weekend?”

More shrugs and stares. Ms. Ginny sighed and wrung her hands nervously. “Okay…well…let’s get started then.”

As the pencils scritch-scratched through the rest of the morning, the two empty seats seemed to emit a bad smell…drawing her attention, forcing her to look at them. The twin screw caps in the chairs’ headrests were like eyes, blank silver eyes judging her with venom from beyond the grave.

Ms. Ginny forced herself to look out the window. Something was wrong…she just couldn’t piece together what.

*

That evening, Richter refused his dry kibble, instead gazing at Ginevra with those amber eyes of his. No, they’re definitely that color, she realized, now that they were inside with low lighting. I could have sworn they were brown before

“Well, what do you want then?” Ginevra said out loud. “I don’t have anything else for you.”

Richter bared his teeth and growled.

Ginevra’s heart sank as she backed up. He had never done that before…never given her a reason to think he’d act out. But before she could scold him, he pointed his muzzle at the refrigerator. Hesitantly, she opened it to reveal the Cornish hen still in its packaging. She looked at her dog to find him panting and wagging his tail, wearing that silly grin of his.

“I guess so then,” she said. “I was saving it for the weekend, but sure…”

She took the bird out of the fridge and set it on the counter - but Richter surged forth and snatched it, bringing it crashing to the floor and ripping into it.

“Richter!” she tried shouting, but her voice was lost among the dog’s snarling and wet chewing mouth. Eventually she threw her hands up and walked away. “Whatever, it’s fine, meat is meat. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it more than me...”

She sat at the table with a can of spam. Richter jumped up across from her, laying half the mangled chicken across the tabletop. She couldn’t help but smile. “Dig in, I guess,” she declared. “That’s a good boy…”

They both enjoyed their meals, happy and content with what they had.

*

Richter jumped into bed with her again that night, and Ginevra didn’t bother protesting. He nuzzled up close to her, his arm splaying over her shoulder again. She reached for it, for a moment sensing Aaron’s muscular arm…but instead felt coarse fur and clawed pads. Still, she could feel the dog heaving behind her, deep sleepy breaths syncing with hers. Relaxed, she finally closed her eyes and began to drift off.

“Thank you for letting me in.”

Ginevra’s eyes shot open with a gasp, and she sprung up, looking around wildly for the intruder. But the bedroom was empty, and Richter had barely moved from his spot. A heart-drumming moment later, she had to conclude they were alone.

But that failed to put her at ease. Instead she looked down at the canine form in bed next to her. Richter was still motionless, but his eyes had locked onto hers again. A wave of disillusion washed over Ginevra as she uttered her next words.

“Was…was that you?”

The dog continued staring. Ginevra scowled and shook her head. The stress and worry of the week was getting to her…

“I love you, Ginevra.”

Her hand drifted to her mouth. There was no other explanation…that voice, that hoarse, deep, sensual whisper, had come from...

Slowly, the dog rose to his haunches, sitting up in the bed, on eye level with Ginevra. His expression was flat, but those eyes burned with sickly golden fire.

“My pearl. My sweet dove. My doting mistress.” The voice seemed to emanate from the depths of the dog’s throat, sifting between the teeth in his unmoving jaws. “You let me in. You brought me to being. I am forever indebted to you.”

Ginevra’s voice was strangled and low. “...How?”

“You asked for me. And I delivered myself unto you.” Richter licked his chops. “By your invocation of the powers that be…you granted me the gift of voice. Now I grant you the gift of my unconditional committance.”

“I don’t…” Ginevra scrambled out of bed, trembling at the knees. “I don’t understand…I did this? I allowed you to talk?”

“There is power in prayer,” Richter whispered, lowering his neck. “And love has a way of unlocking one’s inhibitions.”

“My prayer did this?” Ginevra shook her head. “No…no, God would never…this is a dream, it has to be…”

Richter emitted a low sigh. “Very well. As you wish.”

The room went dark, and Ginevra keeled over, her skull thumping hard against the carpeted floor.

When she awoke, she was lying in bed, the covers pulled up to her chin, unruffled and undisturbed, as if she’d had the most peaceful sleep of her life.

“What a strange dream,” she grunted, rolling over, nuzzling Aaron’s arm around her. His fingertips curled, brushing the skin below her shoulder. Her hand drifted up to his, fingers interlocking and closing around each other, and she brought his hand up to her lips, kissing it softly…

The arm around her was black-haired and muscular, but very much human…

Her eyes sprung open. She shrieked and sprung out of bed again, throwing the cover off of her, revealing nobody but Richter laying next to her…just Richter, his canine features intact, who peered up at her with a blank expression…

Goosebumps erupted on Ginevra’s skin, the same spot where that nightmare hand had stroked…she wiped her mouth, trying to expel the taste on her lips, a taste that was earthen, yet somehow, bodily and sweet…

She fled to her bathroom, snapping the door shut and turning on the tub’s faucet. The noisy fluid rush filled her head with mundane static, all but washing the fear away.

“What are these visions?” she hissed, her voice lost amid the gushing water. For the first time that week, she was keen to get out of the house and hone her mind on the monotony of final exams.

*

Her troubles only escalated at the schoolhouse.

“Ms. Sinclair,” Principal Ketter said, standing in the doorway to her classroom. “A moment, please.” He beckoned her to follow him to his office.

“Ms. Sinclair,” he said once she sat across from him, “are you aware that two of your students have been missing the last two days?”

“Yes, I’ve marked them down as absent and they’ll have to make up their exams next week,” she replied.

“No, I mean, they’re reported missing,” Ketter said, narrowing his eyes. “Susan Cole’s parents said she left for school yesterday morning and that was the last they’d seen of her. Same deal with Jacob Barnes.”

“I had no idea,” said Ginevra, her eyes wide. “What are we going to do?”

“For now, we’re going to keep quiet,” said Ketter, leaning back in his chair. “The ‘thorities are doing all they can, and the rest of the school still has work to do. Best not to burden your pupils with bad news in the middle of this week.”

“I understand,” she answered, standing up. “I hope they find those kids safe and sound. I’ll pray for them. Please, keep me updated.”

“Will do.”

Ginevra strode down the empty, reverberating hallway and entered her classroom briskly. “Sorry I’m late, class,” she announced, readying the Science finals on her desk. “I’ll give you all extra time to make up for it.”

The class was quiet as they stared back at her. Ms. Ginny made a small noise through her nose. No comment from you, Patrick?

She looked up and her heart sank.

There were three empty chairs in the room now.

*

Every bone and joint ached in Ginevra’s body as she finally made it back to her place that afternoon. Predictably, Richter was waiting for her in the foyer.

“Welcome home,” the ethereal voice said.

Ginevra halted. Something sharp and acidic boiled in her chest. “So…so it wasn’t a dream...”

“Passion knows no time of day, my love…but I ought to have told you at a more…wakeful hour.” The dog’s ears perked. “Now there is no more doubt in your heart…is there?”

She shook her head. “No…no there isn’t.”

Richter walked up to her and pressed his flank against her legs. “Good. Now…I yearn for your touch.” As if in a trance, Ginevra leaned forward and scratched the base of his tail. “Come, let us break bread.”

A half-hour later, a pork dinner for two sat steaming at the dinner table. Richter, sitting across from her, devoured the meat in two bites, again leaving the vegetables untouched. Ginevra couldn’t help but smile as she took a small bite herself…for a moment it was Richter’s birthday again, and he was the same goofy lovable dog she had known for those four years…

“I don’t understand,” Ginevra finally said, breaking the silence. “My prayer made you able to talk? The one I said that night?”

“All the credit is yours,” said Richter.

“But…” She toiled over her next words. “I always learned that prayer was meant to show gratitude and to give yourself strength…it was never to make things happen. I love you, Richter, as my best friend…but I didn’t ask for this…”

“There is power you are unaware of,” said the dog, cocking his head. “Power and grace given to the most worthy of mankind. I am your miracle…your divine apparition.”

“‘The most worthy of mankind,’” Ginevra repeated. “...Me?”

Richter gave a nod. “God rewards. And I am your reward.”

Something warm, inexplicable, sense-stealing, rose in Ginevra’s stomach. It was unbridled, fluttering ecstasy…elation of the heart and soul. “I’ve been through a lot in my life,” she replied in a small voice. “Heartbreak…misery. But you’ve always been there…you…you are my blessing, Richter. I love you.”

Richter’s tail thumped like a drumbeat against the back of his chair. Ginevra stood up, overcome with mirth. “There’s still some leftover cake in the fridge, if you’re craving sweets…”

He barked, the chair practically shaking from his manic wagging.

*

That night, the two cuddled in bed again; Ginevra had finally relented and turned to face Richter for the first time. “It always seemed like science was hit-and-miss for my students,” she was saying. “Once you get into cellular biology and all that jazz, all those organelles, chromosomes…I think it’s just too much for kids that age. When I graded their papers today it was the widest grade distribution so far. I wonder how Susan would have done…”

Darkness settled inside her, and some of that infectious passion ebbed away. “Poor Susan Cole…I hope she’s okay, wherever she is…Jacob and Patrick too…they’re just kids, for God’s sake…if they’re lost and alone somewhere they won’t last long…but I hate to think that someone took them…or someone did something with them…oh God…”

Her throat constricted with impending tears; she took several shuddering breaths. “I do love those children…as if they were my own…”

The dog licked her face. “Cast your woes aside, woman. You take on enough troubles already.”

She sighed. “I suppose so…” She scratched behind the dog’s ears. He continued licking her cheeks, her throat. She closed her eyes, letting that electricity jolt through her.

Hands gently squeezed her shoulders.

She dared not open her eyes again, out of fear that what she might see would sully the illusion, would shatter the welling feelings inside her…

“No,” she said in a muffled tone. “This is wrong…” Despite seeing nothing but darkness she imagined the tiny figure nailed to the cross on the opposite wall, watching her with God’s eyes. “He’s watching us…I can’t.”

“You and I…are alone.” There was a bizarre scratching, rattling sound. “You and I…on top of the world.”

The solid-sounding thunk of an object falling to the floor. Ginevra suddenly felt shameless, uninhibited. Those holy eyes were now blind. She relaxed.

The hands gripped tighter…strong, dexterous, very much human. The form next to her shifted, and she could sense it over her now, casting a psychic shadow across her body.

And still that tongue licked…impossibly long, muscular, boiling like the tip of a molten spear.

It drifted. Exploring places left unattended amid years of loveless void.

*

Ginevra was late the next morning. She burst through the schoolhouse’s front doors, face greasy with sweat, dress rumpled and wrinkled. Her death grip on the stacks of English finals had left impressions in the papers. She almost ran straight into Principal Ketter, who again was stationed in the doorway to her room.

“Office. Now.” His expression was even more grave than the day before.

Her insides seemed to freeze up as she reluctantly followed him back to his office. He closed the door, but didn’t bother sitting down.

“Patrick Hudson has been reported missing too,” he said, not looking at her. “But there’s a development with him. His parents say one moment he was walking down the road, they looked away, and then he was just gone. He had just passed by a house.” He finally met her face. “Your house.”

“What are you implying?” she said.

I’m not implying anything,” he replied, holding his hands up. “But don’t be surprised if they start viewing you as a suspect.”

“They talked to you, didn’t they,” said Ginevra, her eyes narrowing.

“I told them I couldn’t imagine you doing anything so horrible,” he clarified. “Much less anything at all. I don’t have any reason to think you had something to do with this…but it’s in their hands now.”

“I didn’t do anything!” she asserted, her throat locking up again.

“I know you didn’t,” he said. “But this has to play out. Justice must be dispensed for the sake of those little ones.”

Shaking her head, she excused herself from Ketter’s office and hurried over to her room. “Sorry again, class,” she said breathlessly, nearly collapsing into her desk.

“Miss Ginny,” Katie said, raising her hand. “Where’s Susan and Jacob?”

“And Patrick?” another asked.

“They’re just absent,” said Ms. Ginny, the back of her neck prickling. “I’m sure you’ll see them again by next week. Let’s stay focused on today’s exam right now.”

But as the morning progressed, Ms. Ginny could tell schoolwork was the last thing on their minds. Eyes kept flitting towards the empty desks, and she had to tell off the class a handful of times.

She could only be thankful they hadn’t yet noticed the fourth vacancy, the desk that had once belonged to little Jessica.

Even as they left for the day, turning in their papers for her to grade, she could not concentrate. Not only was the grade distribution chaotic for this exam too, but her mind swam with the memories of the night before…the lascivious acts she had partaken in, unholy bonds that would have made God Himself blush, even if those bonds had been with an actual man…

Her sins were so massive, so encroaching and strangling, she couldn’t possibly articulate them…perhaps it was for the better, keeping them bottled up inside…the shame of admitting to such horridness might have killed her on the spot…

It was early evening when Ginevra finally left the schoolhouse, yet she had graded only three-quarters of the exams. The sunset glared upon her as she shambled down the dirt road back home.

Richter was sitting patiently in the foyer, watching her with pleasant bemusement.

She felt boxed in. Behind her, the looming, obscure tragedy that threatened to sweep her up in its incriminating tide…before her, the source of her unchristly transgressions.

Neither direction seemed particularly commendable.

But despair tugged at her soul.

She slammed the door shut. “Just take me, Richter.”

Ginevra glimpsed the dog standing on his hind legs and thrusting his paws for her shoulders…but she closed her eyes, and hairy humanlike arms encompassed her, and the body that pressed against hers bore the musculature of a man…yet the slithering organ that stroked and constricted her was still an inhumanly long tongue…

And right there in the foyer, he took her.

*

When Ginevra came around, everything was dark. The grandfather clock in the neighboring living room read well past midnight. She slowly rose to a stand, still weak at the knees. Despite the gloom, she could make out a dark red stain pooled underneath her. It formed a trail through the house, heading for the back door.

She followed it.

The droplets led outside. The full moon made it easy to determine them from the ghostly pale grass.

The trail stopped at the metal shed covering the entrance to the root cellar. Ginevra paused; she hadn’t been down there since Aaron was around. He had gone through a gardening kick, and he had yielded a meager crop of onions and potatoes which he had stored in the cellar, promising her one day when he had enough he’d make a delicious root vegetable medley for her. She never got to have that dish.

Still, the blood called to her, and she resumed following.

She wrenched open the trapdoor and climbed down the ladder, six feet underground. Everything smelled of dirt and decaying plant matter. Her feet touching the ground, she turned around and absorbed the sight before her.

Years of neglect had allowed tree roots to snake through the earthen walls, criss-crossing and tangling through the wooden support beams like the veins of some subterranean giant. But the path ahead was clear, illuminated by hellish red light. And at its end was the brunt of the procession. She recognized Patrick and Jacob at her right, their dead bodies stuck in standing positions through pikes, garbed in loose-fitting suits. At her left was Susan and Jessica, mounted in the same fashion, stuffed into flowing white dresses.

Presiding over them was the corpse of Principal Ketter, hung from the ceiling by a tree root noose, clad in a black cassock. The blood trail stopped with him.

The groom was sitting on his haunches, regarding Ginevra with his glowing yellow eyes.

“Here comes the briiiiide,” he sang. “Here comes the briiiiiide…”

Tears finally broke through as Ginevra proceeded down the aisle. She approached the children and saw they had all died the same way…the flesh around their necks was shredded, as if torn up by a dog. Jessica, the flower girl, held a cluster of nightshade in her lifeless grasp. Jacob delicately clutched an obsidian ring in his.

Susan and Patrick, the maid of honor and best man, wore contorted grins on their faces. Ginevra wondered if they had died smiling.

“My bride-to-be,” Richter cooed as Ginevra drew level with him. “I knew you would find your way here.” He addressed the dead people. “Dearly deceased, we are gathered here tonight, to join these two sinners in unholy matrimony.”

“I never wanted this,” Ginevra whispered. “Not at all.”

“By the time you summoned me, it was too late,” Richter admonished. “I found the perfect vessel. You gave yourself to me days ago. Your story ended before you knew it even began.”

“‘Perfect vessel’...” Ginevra echoed. “You mean…”

“Your beloved Richter has not been with us for some time,” the thing mocked. “Ever since that night you uttered your idolatrous creed. You tilled a ground most fertile. You let me in.”

Ginevra’s vision spun. She struggled to stay upright. Her voice was small and diminished. “Lucifer.”

“One name among many,” he confirmed, “but one of my more favored. The light-bringer…I brought light to your life, I set you ablaze.”

The dog stood on its hind legs again, and this time Ginevra forced herself to watch. Its front legs thickened. Its paws became wormlike fingers. Its chest and shoulders crunched with fresh burgeoning muscle. Its muzzle flattened…it became a man’s face, tainted with animal features, but handsome and full, nonetheless.

“You and I will properly consummate,” he assured, “and christen these lands with blood. This, I vow.”

Principal Ketter’s suspended corpse gave a twitch. His lips parted, and a handful of wriggling mealworms dropped from his mouth onto the ground.

The voice that emanated from him was grungy and low. “Do you take this woman to be your underworldly wedded wife?”

“I do,” Lucifer promised, brushing Ginevra’s cheek.

“Do you take this man to be your underworldly wedded husband?”

Ginevra shuddered at Lucifer’s touch. Her eyes flitted around. The corpses had all moved to look at her. Each one bore a smile.

Her pulse jumped in her neck. The whole week had been one maddening descent, culminating in the precipice of Hell’s maw. Carnal longing stirred inside her…shameful, yet insistent.

Why should she refuse?

“I do not,” she stated.

“No?” The entity before her almost sounded amused. “You would turn down the world? You would give up all the delicious satisfaction damnation has to offer…for the sake of your irredeemably condemned mortal soul?”

“I would,” said Ginevra, looking away. “If I’m to do one last good thing on this Earth…it’ll be telling you ‘no.’ That’s all I have left…all…all I can do.”

Lucifer cocked his head. “You know you loved it when I fucked you like that.”

Ginevra’s fist clenched. “No more.” She dipped her head. No more.

Lucifer spread his hands apart and backed away. “Very well. I am bound to your word.”

In a puff of black smoke, he vanished. Those golden eyes lingered for a split second longer.

And suddenly Principal Ketter’s corpse exploded. It showered the root cellar with blood, caking the dead corpses and Ginevra’s living body in salty, acrid red. The sour iron taste stung in her nose and mouth and she screamed, rushing for the ladder, stumbling and bouncing off the walls, finally wrapping her hands around the rungs. Her palms and feet were slippery with blood but she pulled herself up, gasping and crying and choking…

The trapdoor flew open before she could touch it. Flashlight beams pierced her eyes and she screamed again, shielding her face.

“Here!” a voice shouted. “She’s covered in it!”

Ironlike hands reached down and hauled Ginevra out from the cellar, and immediately forced her facedown into the grass.

“Ginevra Sinclaire, you’re under arrest for the murders of Jacob Barnes, Susan Cole…”

“It wasn’t me!” she shrieked as her wrists were bound behind her. “It was the dog! Richter! The dog did it!”

“...Patrick Hudson, Jessica Tremblay…”

“He’s the Devil! Please! He’s the Devil in disguise!”

“...and Dean Ketter. Are you of sound mind to understand these charges?”

“You have to listen to me! He’s down there now! Go and see!”

“There’s nothing down there but bodies, you scummy bitch. That, and the trail of blood you tracked this way.”

“Maybe the dog ate her homework, too.”

“You’re done, Ginevra.”

They hauled her up, still screaming her head off, and dragged her to the waiting police car. They left their sirens off, courtesy for those in the town of Hell’s Gulf still sleeping, but Ginevra’s screams carried through the night regardless all the way down to the station.

*

In the shadows, watching the chaos unfurl, was a black greyhound. As the convoy of police and bystanders eventually disbanded and left the scene, he slunk away into the depths of the woods.

“This world has no more left for you, my love,” he promised. “I think…I’ll be seeing you again soon.”

Now listen to the devilish audio and immerse yourself in the doggone darkness of 'The Devil's in The Details'

The Devil's in The Details

#3: Swine Song

For eight-year-old Randy, dragging his fishing pole to the neighborhood storm drain was just another typical day.

He ignored the quiet rumble in his stomach as he looped monofilament line through the eyelets and retrieved a hook from the confines of his tackle box. Bad times had fallen upon the family. A freak cold front had greatly disturbed conditions in the bay, sending the native ladyfish and black drum scattering for warmer, more bountiful waters. No fish meant no food. With his father on a days-long “excursion” in the sandhills hunting for wild boar, and with his mother left at home to nurse his six-month-old brother, Randy had taken it upon himself to bring home bread.

 

Or in this case, fish.

 

The storm drains were an open secret in the town of Hell’s Gulf. Heavy rains would flood over the neighboring wetlands and wash out fish into the manmade pipes. There, isolated in darkness with a steady supply of food in the form of bugs, trash, and waste, the fish could simply sit there in little pools and grow fat. One could trudge through miles of grasses and longleaf pines and throw a line into the sprawling swamps, hoping to tempt a fish onto the hook. Or one could walk fifteen feet up the street, drop it down one of those manmade fissures in the sidewalk, and give it a few seconds.

 

Despite the ease of this endeavor, Randy still fidgeted with nerves; he had swiped the last of the hotdogs from the fridge to use as bait. A stringer loaded with fish would be more substantial than two and a half links, but he understood the mathematics of this calculated risk: if output (o) equaled less than input (i), then he’d be royally fucked (rf00).

He removed a link from its packaging and coughed at the stench. It was a few days past its printed expiration date: smelly enough to lure in a fish.

 

He stuck a slice of hotdog on the hook and flipped it down the storm drain. A solid plop of an object hitting water followed.

He waited.

Something tugged on the line and Randy set the hook with such vigor that he yanked his prize straight out of the storm drain and onto the road. A bullhead catfish no longer than his hand flopped about on the asphalt. Randy smiled as he grasped it, avoiding its nail-like spines, and tossed it in his bucket. A half-dozen or so more like that and they’d have dinner for the night…he could already taste the breaded, deep-fried goodness…

He had scarcely baited his hook again and dropped it down when he felt another tug. “Gosh darn, I got me the honey hole!” he exclaimed as he set the hook.

A sudden surge that nearly tore the rod from his grasp - and the line snapped.

Randy stared blankly at his limp, inert fishing pole. Even he knew that big fish struggled for at least a moment before making cotton-fiber splinters of his gear. Something else was down there…something that wasn’t a fish.

His first thought was an alligator. Randy had seen them basking on the banks of cattle ponds, but he had never been allowed to get near them. Now, however, with a storm drain several feet deep, he assumed he was at a safe height…

Randy lowered onto his belly and crawled forward, keeping a death grip on the sidewalk. His head barely fit through the opening in the street. Just a little peak, just to catch a glimpse of this gator, then he’d clear out and move on, he swore to God…

It was a peculiar sensation. From the shoulders down he felt rough sunbaked asphalt, but the neck up registered a cool, black void. The storm drain stank of mold and bad water, hissing with the flow of air. Randy remembered reading about how one’s pupils had to adjust to low light, so he closed his eyes, counting silently to himself.

…six…seven…eight…

The sound of the flowing current was oddly relaxing.

…eighteen…nineteen…twenty…

Randy opened his eyes. Something was staring back.

His heart hadn’t the chance to jump before it leapt up and sank its tusks into his skull.

That brief, violent spark of agony was the last thing he knew before darkness settled.

*

The crowd gasped and retched when they pulled the boy’s body from underneath the storm drain. They had expected resistance once they reached his head; they all knew how much children loved getting their heads stuck in places they didn’t belong: staircase banisters, the slats of a chair, pet doors, et cetera. But his neck emerged from the fissure cleanly.

Just his neck.

That image seared itself into the minds of the onlookers…such grotesquely jagged geometry, the flaps and slivers of skin like wrapping paper, the folded textures of coagulated flesh like ground beef, the protruding fragments of bone like shards of ivory glass…it was incongruous, unholy. The human body ought not to have been denigrated in such a way, the inner workings on full display, so broken and unseemly…

He didn’t stay out in the open too long, for a shroud was thrown over the body and it was immediately shipped off to the sheriff’s office.

As the gatherers lingered, straws were drawn to determine who would deliver his discarded fishing gear, and the bad news, back home to his mother.

The shroud only came off in the cold room, under the sober eyes of Dr. Hall and Sheriff Hank Crowley.

“Damn,” the sheriff muttered, shaking his head. “Kid probably didn’t feel nothin’.”

“Morbid to think about, but you’re right,” said Dr. Hall, probing the headless stump with a pair of forceps. “Way too clean to have been much of a fight. And the lack of abrasions on the skin implies the victim didn’t even struggle. One quick strike. Over with.”

“An ambush?” Crowley mused. “From the sewer? Gotta be a gator. I heard they got them sewer gators up in New York City.”

“Doubt it,” Dr. Hall replied. “Even if a gator could jump that high, the trauma is unlike one.” He waved a gloved hand near the cadaver’s neck. “A gator would rip off a limb…or head, in this case…by grabbing on and twisting in a death roll. I’d expect to see contortion of the flesh, a dislodged vertebra. But this is a clean bite. Something was powerful enough to crush right through the skull and just take it off. Like plucking fruit from a vine.” The doctor shuddered.

“What else we got ‘round here then?” asked Crowley. “Bears? Panthers?”

“Potentially,” the doctor reflected. “In a storm drain, though…not quite their m.o.”

Commotion rose up outside the cold room. The sounds of a scuffle, of aggravated men’s voices, but they couldn’t drown out the woman’s screaming. “LET ME SEE HIM! LET ME SEE MY BABY!”

The doctor and the sheriff looked away, sighing. The frosted glass window only showed murky shadows, but the chaos and heartbreak beyond the room painted an impossibly ugly picture.

“THEY KILLED MY BOY! OH GOD, WHY! HAVEN’T THEY TAKEN ENOUGH FROM THIS GODFORSAKEN TOWN?!”

 

“People are gonna start talking,” Dr. Hall said ominously, retreating to a quiet corner away from the turmoil. “They’re gonna bring up that old wives’ tale again.”

“‘Old wives’ tales be damned,” Crowley muttered, trailing him. “I don’t see how they’re gonna pin this to anything else but the -”

The clamor outside silenced with a gunshot.

Crowley sprung into action, drawing his pistol and bursting out the door into the main room. The foyer was in complete disarray; papers had been flung off the desk and random townsfolk were scattered all around. Three of them were holding back Mrs. Duluth, whose face was red and shiny from crying.

The gunman stood in the front doorway, but he had already set his rifle upon the ground. Everyone was turned towards him; Crowley even lowered his own weapon, realizing the shot had just been to grab their attention.

“I know what did it,” Mr. Duluth said in a shaky voice. He stumbled into the station, white as a ghost. He clutched something in his fist. “I was goin’ after its kin in the woods just this mornin’. It knew. It wanted to…to make us pay…”

He unfurled his fingers. In his palm was a clump of wiry hairs.

“It was the fuckin’ werepig that killed my boy.”

*

It only took a few hours to assemble the hunting party, such was the conviction of that cursed word, “werepig”.

The beast was a local legend in Hell’s Gulf, allegedly responsible for a decades-long string of brutal killings. Only one had ever been clearly seen, on a moonlit July night on the beach nearly forty years earlier, where it had massacred six men before finally succumbing to enough shotgun blasts to take down a bull. The sole surviving witness had described a hunched, pig-skinned monstrosity with a broad snout and bulbous tusks…but that was all he got out before he finally bled out in the townsfolk’s arms.

For the decades following, however, the creature remained elusive, the only evidence of its presence in the form of mutilated bodies strewn throughout the town’s various haunts.

But with the killing of Randy Duluth, they had a lead. A plausible explanation as to how the werepig could slip in and out of sight like a murderous phantom.

Damn thing’s been runnin’ around right under our feet,” Gus remarked, glaring down the storm drain.

“These tunnels must criss-cross for miles,” Yanni muttered. “Werepig could go anywhere.”

“Then find a nice lil’ hidey-hole to stash its meat,” said Braum.

“Please,” Mr. Duluth growled. “Let’s not refer to my boy as ‘meat'.”

“Sorry, Stephen,” Braum muttered.

“Where does the storm drain let out?” Sebastian asked, flanked by his twin brother Jerome.

“Just south of the bay,” Gus answered, waving his hand vaguely southward. “Might be wise to set up a perimeter at the spillway. In case we flush it out down thataway.”

 

“‘Flush it out?’” Jerome echoed. “Wait…you sayin’ we gonna go in the sewers?”

 

“Storm drains, there’s a difference,” Gus corrected.

“Yeah, the only crap you’ll see’s from Gerry tossin’ his bags of poodleshit down there,” said Braum.

“And maybe from Gerry himself, from that one time he got drunk…”

“Those two times…”

“Three…”

“Ten, I reckon.”

“Naw. We not goin’ underground,” said Jerome, backing up. “Even if there is somethin’ down there, we not gonna put ourselves in its den.”

“This thing has killed a lotta folk over a lotta years,” Yanni retorted. “Now we got the edge over it and you wanna back out? Besides, you two said you’d help us.”

“We had our fingers crossed,” said Sebastian, holding up a hand and demonstrating.

“No ya didn’t!”

“We saw your hands!”

“They were crossed in spirit,” Sebastian offered.

“Ah, blow it out your asses then,” Yanni jeered, brushing them off. “We can do this without you two bums.”

“Well, hey, I just remembered we doin’ a huge sale on carnations down at the baitshop,” said Jerome, walking off. “Get ‘em now while you can, I think a lotta mourners gonna be needin’ them soon.”

“Get outta here,” Braum leered.

“C’mon, Sebby,” Jerome beckoned, stomping off down the street. “Let’s leave these crackpots to their death wish.” Sebastian shrugged before following his brother.

“Good riddance,” Braum commented. He turned to address the gathering bystanders. “Meanwhile, the rest of us who care so deeply for our dead children, we’re gonna go down there, and we’re gonna bring back the fuckin’ werepig’s head on a stick.”

The crowd applauded, whooping and pumping their fists. The hunting party strapped on their weapons: machetes, hatchets, and knives. Firearms ran the risk of igniting noxious vapors in the drains and barbecuing the men like stuck werepigs.

“God bless, friends!” a voice from the crowd called out.

“Watch yer sixes!” another advised.

“Avenge your boy!” a third shouted.

“One, two, heave!” The party looped a rope through the manhole cover and dislodged it, dragging it across the concrete and setting it down.

One by one, Gus, Yanni, Braum, and Stephen Duluth descended the ladder, the crowd cheering them on.

The four gathered in the cramped catch basin, barely tall enough for them to stand up in. The air was dim and heavy with a subterranean musk. The water was ankle-deep, cool to the touch even through the thick rubber of their waders. The exposed manhole cover above formed a spotlight in the chamber, illuminating the dried slick of blood trailing from the opening.

Stephen’s gaze was averted. “Let’s go. C’mon. Please.”

In silence, the men turned on their headlamps and lowered themselves to a crouch, shuffling through the inlet-outlet pipe.

Within moments they arrived at an intersection in the pipe. Arbitrarily, Gus, the frontrunner, turned left.

And with that, the light and sounds of the above world were extinguished.

All that laid ahead was the dank labyrinth.

*

Each footstep sent eerie echoes crawling down the pipe interior. Dripping water sent subtle plinking sounds through the corridor. The musty odor was everywhere, to the point where the men had tied cloth masks around their faces to block out the miasma.

For fifteen minutes, the men trudged in silence, the pipe never allowing them enough height to do more than hunch over.

"Anyone else think this venture was made a mite hasty?” Braum finally said.

"Yeah, but no way I was involvin’ the sheriff,” Gus answered. “Permits and regulations and whatnot? Trail would’ve run cold long before we ever got permission.”

"The hell’re you talkin’ about?” Braum snapped. “What ‘trail'? We’re just walkin’ right now. We don’t even know where in town we’re under!”

"Well, I know we’re near water,” Yanni commented.

"Oh, shut up, smartass.”

"Make me, dickfuck.”

"We’re downstream of Gordo’s,” a voice from the back said. The three men up front turned to address Stephen, who had plucked a soggy hamburger wrapper from the floor. “This here’s the same wrapping he uses. There’s a grate in the street just outside his diner.”

And sure enough, a few paces up, bars of sunlight wafted through a grate in the ceiling overhead another catch basin. The party made their way to the open space and straightened up, stretching their strained backs.

"Alright,” Braum said. “So now we got our bearings. But that leaves us no closer to the werepig.”

"Damn thing probably smelled us and scampered,” Yanni said darkly.

"Stephen, didn’t you say you were huntin’ hogs in the sandhills?”

"Yeah,” he replied. “It was a revenge killin’. They took Randy from me…”

"Then maybe we oughta head east towards the woods. Maybe it thinks thataway’s safe,” Braum reasoned.

"Better than what we’ve got,” Gus agreed.

"Let’s go, then,” Yanni said, turning east, only to find solid concrete in his path.

"These pipes aren’t that straightforward,” said Gus. “C’mon. First chance we get, we turn east.”

They crossed the basin and entered the pipe leading north, back inside the cramped darkness.

*

“Shh. You hear that?”

The party stopped, so suddenly the silence seemed to roar back into place. But the new noises were quick to be heard: the sounds of splashing somewhere up the pipe.

"Lights off,” Gus whispered, and blackness overtook them. Ahead was a lone blueish glimmer from another catch basin.

"Not a sound,” he hissed, and the four men crept forward in a beeline through the pipe.

The sloshing became louder. Whatever it was, it was big, and seeming to enjoy itself, like a kid having fun at the pool.

The convoy arrived at the end of the pipe. A lone sunbeam illuminated the basin before them as they crowded around each other silently to look.

The beast was wallowing in the flooded chamber, snorting and grunting, the smell of wet animal billowing off of it. It stuck its snout into the water, snuffling about for a moment before striking and lifting its head. A bullhead struggled in its maw before it was crushed and swallowed whole.

The convoy watched it with disgust. It was a run-of-the-mill wild boar: an uncommon sight in the sandhills, but recognizable nonetheless. The townsfolk had learned to let them be, as they could be lethal when aggressive; and the hogs for the most part left them alone in turn, apart from raiding the occasional dumpster. They couldn’t speak for a half-man, half-pig abomination though; and the presence of a plain old hog in the storm drains was perplexing regardless.

Its noisy shuffling blotted out the men’s voices. “Youngin,” Gus whispered.

"Was it what killed the boy?” Braum asked.

"Can’t be,” said Gus. “This hog’s too small to fit a kid’s whole head in its mouth.”

"Shh, shut up,” Yanni urged, nudging Gus. Behind them, Stephen remained silent.

"Can’t let him stay down here though,” said Braum. “Whatdaya say, we do the Brant technique?”

"Sounds dandy,” Yanni agreed, unsheathing his Bowie knife. “Back me up, boys. I did get bronze in that contest.”

"It was pewter, actually,” Braum muttered, but they shifted aside so Yanni could crawl forward, knife clutched in his teeth.

He went low and quiet, like a leopard about to pounce. The boar’s rear was turned towards him as it continued foraging through the drain water.

"My blade thirsts for blood, boys,” he declared before pouncing.

The man tackled the boar from behind, squeezing it with his arms and legs and bringing it to the ground. It squealed and thrashed, sending water up the entire height of the catch basin, splashing the other three men in the face.

"Hoo-wee!” Yanni whooped, spitting the blade from his mouth and catching it with his free hand. But the weakened grip gave the slick, slippery hog a chance - it surged forward, dislodging from Yanni, who fell face-first into the water - and barreled off down an eastward pipe, its hoofbeats like a rainstorm.

"Oh no you don’t!” Yanni cried, brandishing his knife and taking off after it. “Get back here you pork-bellied sonofabitch!” His fading bellows became ghostly and dim, until he too disappeared within the pipe.

"Yanni!” Gus cried. “You stupid-ass, don’t...” But he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Whatever, just let him at it.”

The three emerged from the pipe into the basin, watching and waiting for Yanni to return, hopefully smeared with the blood of his porcine victim.

*

The tunnel was slippery and Yanni nearly lost his footing several times, but the conditions ensured the hog, whose hooves were even more poorly-adept, wouldn’t get too far ahead. “I gotcha, you fucker,” Yanni growled, the light from his headlamp bobbing in front of him, passing over the boar’s hindquarters on occasion.

Eventually the pipe ended at a left-right intersection. Yanni had by then lost sight of it, but the hog’s frantic noises were emanating from the right side.

"Not a chance!” he huffed, turning down the tunnel in pursuit.

As he surged forward, gravity pulled at him - the pipe was sloping downward. Invigorated, he quickened the pace, half-running, half-falling down the pipe -

Then it dropped away entirely, and he plummeted for a dizzying half-second onto hard, damp concrete.

“Shitfire!” he swore, wringing out his sprained palms. He quickly recovered his knife and reoriented his headlamp to examine the space around him.

It was much wider than the pipe he had emerged from, yet still not tall enough to stand in. Multiple pipe openings led into the cistern, some of which were actively gushing water.

And the room was jam-packed with hogs.

At least two dozen of them, twice as large as the “youngin” he had chased, so tall their bristly backs scraped the ceiling. Yanni’s headlamp cast harsh light and psychotic shadows across their milky eyes, their wet slobbering gums, their shiny bloodstained tusks.

As one, they turned their great ugly heads towards him.

A growling rumble rose up. Their teeth bared. They stamped at the ground.

Three tons of tusk, muscle, and maw converged.

*

“Quiet. You hear that?”

Back in the catch basin, a crashing noise was echoing down the eastward pipe.

"Stay back,” Braum said curtly, approaching the opening and aiming his headlamp down the tunnel.

For a moment he was silent, hands forming a brim over his eyes to try and see further into the pipe’s depths.

Then he saw it.

"Oh shit!” he spat. “Scatter!”

Stephen leapt back into the southward pipe they had emerged from; Gus and Braum took the opposite way. The noise became a crashing thunder, concentrated through the acoustics of the eastward pipe like a succession of bullets…

They poured from the pipe, a squealing, screaming herd of giant devilish hogs, forming a swirling cyclone in the crowded basin, piling up and over each other in their manic urge to charge. Hair and water and saliva exploded from the fray. The chaos drowned out the three men’s hysterical cursing.

The sheer number of hogs rose like a flood. They were on level with the rest of the pipes. Some climbed their way inside, surging forward, hungry for blood.

"Run, goddammit!” Gus hollered, and the men turned tail and bolted.

*

Stephen lost track of where he was, who he was…all that concerned him was putting as much distance between the encroaching furious mob of pigs as he could.

He took turns down the pipes at random, whatever “bearings” he’d gathered left behind at the catch basin. His headlamp beam bounced chaotically ahead of him, pumping up and down with his heaving chest. Underneath his clattering footsteps and rhythmic breathing, the sounds of beastly mayhem approached.

He took another left turn. A disc of daylight stood at the far end of the tunnel. Stephen gave an involuntary whoop of excitement, coursing through the pipe at top speed.

A hog’s squeal pierced the air behind him. It, too, sounded excited.

"You ain’t gettin’ me too, you sons-a-bitches!” Stephen gasped.

The encroaching hoofbeats were a death march. The concentrated noises were forcing Stephen’s hair on end, blasting up the back of his neck like hot air…

He burst out into the blinding sunshine, straightening up in the open space. He cursed - yes, he was outside again, but it was a concrete pit with a metal grate over its opening to prevent people getting into the drains.

Or getting out.

The pursuing beasts were closer than ever.

Stephen looked across the pit; there was another pipe opening he could crawl through. But his moment’s worth of hesitation had cost him dearly…no way he could outpace the hogs now…

He glanced up. The grate was beyond his reach…but only just beyond, and the bars seemed wide enough to squeeze through…

He jumped, grasping a bar with one hand. His feet dangled and kicked in the air, a tantalizing treat for any passing hog…

No,” he huffed, tensing his arms and swinging his legs. “You…ain’t…gonna…get me too!”

Energy spiked through his body, and he found the strength to haul himself up. The sides of his head strained as it pushed through the metal bars and he nearly lost his grasp, thinking about what his son might’ve endured, that sudden pressure around his skull and then nothing…

His shoulders were through, then his ribs. Stephen slid up through the bars, sunlight drenching his body as he rolled away from the grate onto the surface.

From the pipe below, two snarling, snapping, squealing heads emerged, jamming the entryway like some chimeric hell-beast - then they broke through and the pit filled with hogs. They sprung onto their hind legs, jamming their snouts between the bars, tongues rolling and tusks clashing. But even they couldn’t break through the reinforced steel. Stephen simply turned and ran, not granting them a snowball’s chance in Hell to catch him.

Finally, when his soul returned to his body, he stopped and gave himself the opportunity to look around.

"Goddammit,” he panted. “...Where am I?”

*

Far away underground, Gus was having a worse time of it.

"Braum!” he hollered, having fallen behind. “Goddammit, where’re you at!” He knew Braum was far ahead, his heavy footsteps and a sliver of light occasionally making themselves known…but it wouldn’t be long before he -

Gus stopped at a four-way intersection in the pipes. He glanced down each of the three possible routes. No lights. No audible sounds.

"Braum!” he called. “Braum, you yellow-bellied horse’s ass!”

No response.

"Dammit!” he spat, taking the left tunnel.

The mayhem seemed diminished behind him…they too might have been confused by the intersection. Gus slowed, stemming his labored breath, listening out. Nothing seemed to be approaching.

"That’s that, then,” he whispered, stalking along.

He knew things were far from okay, however. Yanni was almost certainly dead. There was no indication that either Braum or Stephen were alive either. The hogs were still out for them. And he had no idea where in or under town he was.

"Calm,” he told himself. “Calm down.” He had spare batteries for his headlamp, and the cool, damp conditions ensured he could last without water longer than normal. But the labyrinth was unyielding. His projections of hope and safety went unreciprocated. He was at the mercy of the underground.

After several minutes of walking, Gus noticed a trickle of water running past his boots. The trickle soon turned into a small, steady stream, like the flow from a hose.

"Rainstorm,” he realized. “Shit.”

He worked his way up the pipe…he had to reach a safe spot…if the rain came down hard enough, he’d get swept away or drown…

The stream became a torrent splashing past his shins. Gus pressed his palms against the side of the pipe for stability. His bracing wouldn’t last forever…

Heavily gushing water sounded off ahead. He followed a right angle in the pipe and saw a waterfall coursing from an opening in the ceiling. He just had to edge ahead past it…

The water was soaking his knees. He dug his hands in, taking slow, low, shuffling steps…he could feel flecks of water from the falls hitting his face…

He was underneath it, encased in it…he was soaked, his vision blurry…

The air became cold and dry. No more water pushed at his legs. Gus sighed with relief, rubbing water out of his eyes. Readjusting his headlamp, he looked ahead.

He was face-to-face with a hog.

And suddenly Gus was on his back, sliding headfirst down a raging current, his forearms screaming with pain from the tusks that had gored him. At his feet, sliding down the rapids with him, was the beast’s ravenous maw.

"Shit!” he cried, his voice lost among the rushing water. The current had already pushed him down the pipe the entire length he had arduously covered, and well beyond.

The hog had taken to lunging forward, its snapping jaws licking the tips of his boots.

"No! No!” Gus shouted, drawing his hunting knife.

With a rubbery crunch, the hog closed its mouth around Gus’s left boot and yanked it off. It chewed it to a leathery pulp, spit it out, and resumed chase.

"You fuckin’ creature!” Gus bellowed, brandishing his blade.

For a split second he went airborne - and fell into a deep, open pool.

Instinct took over and Gus kicked off to the side, surfacing immediately. The hog came surging forth next, crashing into the water with a splash that sounded like cannon fire.

“Die motherfucker die!” Gus yelled, jumping forward and stabbing it in the throat. The hog turned to bite him but that only dug the blade further into its neck. Warm blood spurted onto his hands, contrasting wickedly with the cool water. It jumped, pushing him back against the wall…then collapsed, gurgling and twitching, the basin turning deep crimson from its wounds.

“Got you…I got you,” Gus wheezed. The adrenaline had left his body. His forearms felt like they’d been shot, his joints ached. He leaned against the wall, catching his breath, seething as he rubbed his fingers across the puncture marks.

Exhaustion hit him like a truck, and despite the rising water and imminent peril, he felt he could have let go and just fallen asleep in that cool, wet basin.

Instead, he crawled up into the opposite pipe and pushed on. Find Braum and Stephen, kill the werepig, or get out alive…whichever came first.

*

 

“Gus! Stephen! Yanni!”

A quarter mile west, Braum’s mantra echoed throughout the storm drains as he tore through the pipes. Before he was certain his voice would carry far enough to be heard…now there was a rushing noise coursing up the tunnels like distant static. A storm had hit, thankfully not coursing through his section of pipes…but if the others were anywhere close, they’d be at the mercy of the floodwaters too.

"Goddamn fuckin’ bullshit,” he swore, stamping at the ground. “What did I tell them? Didn’t I tell them this venture was a mite hasty? I did, didn’t I? Now lookit us. Lost and confused and on our way to becomin’ pig slop. I didn’t ask for this!”

He kicked at a piece of refuse on the pipe floor. “Guess we all just had this comin’ huh.”

As he pushed on, he thought about what could have forced an entire mega-herd of wild boar into the storm drains, and how they could even thrive down there. They had plenty of water (“Duh,” he told himself), and food wasn’t out of the question, what with all the fish and other animals that washed down the pipes…but enough to feed all those big beasts? Plus the legendary werepig?

Randy Duluth was far from the first victim…there had been others, at least dozens of others, in the years before…yet they always found the bodies, never the perpetrator…except for that one time, that horrible night on the beach, all those decades ago…

The hogs that attacked them earlier had proven hungry already, hungry enough to kill and devour…

"It’s them,” he realized. “It was always them…always the hogs…that we blamed on the werepig.”

Theirs was truly a fool’s errand. Yet, ironically, the sobering truth gave him strength…fresh resolve to find his way out of the storm drain and warn the rest of the town about their misbeliefs…that they had feral storm drain hogs to worry about instead…

The pipe widened and led into an open space, wide enough to qualify as a room, yet barely tall enough to stand in. The sides were lined with concrete channels filled with water.

And at the center of the cistern was carnage.

"Jesus H. Christ,” Braum whispered, surveying it with his headlamp. It was a boneyard…human skeletons, he could tell…most of them cleaned of their meat, some still stuck with rotten globs of flesh.

Yet the longer he stared, the more he saw that while it was grisly and horrific…there just weren’t that many. Ten, maybe twelve skeletons at the most. Not enough to account for every disappearance…a good number, maybe, but definitely not all.

"Maybe there is a werepig,” Braum hissed. “Lord help me, I’m so fuckin’ confused…”

From two other pipe openings in the cistern came the sounds of approaching swine.

"Oh, fuck me,” Braum spat. Too late to try and turn back…he looked around and saw the concrete channels. He dashed over to the left side and lowered himself into it, submerging in cold, nasty water up to his chest. He ducked, eyes peering over the rim into the cistern.

A porcine head emerged from a pipe. Braum fumbled with his headlamp and switched it off.

It was complete darkness. Braum could hear their snuffling, their hoofbeats. He estimated at least six of the beastly fuckers. He could smell them too…scat and blood and musk and raw pork.

The sounds turned to crunching and slurping. Braum was grotesquely reminded of chicken dinners back at home…cracking the bones open with his teeth to suck out the tasty, nutritious marrow.

At least they ain’t wasteful, he thought.

He had to move on…their snuffling snouts reminded him that he probably smelled a lot more appealing than old bones…he had to sneak past them, find a pipe entryway and get out of there…

Clopping hooves approached. Braum’s ears sharpened - one of them was coming his way.

He submerged, the water closing around the top of his head. He held his breath, daring not to make even the tiniest bubble.

He could hear it above him…heavy, snorting grunts directly over his scalp. Skull-crushing death was a mere four inches overhead.

Taking the greatest of care, Braum inched to his left, not even letting the tips of his hair touch the surface.

Something broke the surface to his right, followed by the sounds of thirst-quenching slurps. Braum quickened the pace, hoping the hog was sufficiently distracted.

A good ten feet further left, he finally exposed his face to breathe. Sure enough, the hog sounded like it was lumbering off to join its herdmates, water sloshing off its front.

Braum hit a wall, the end of the channel. He emerged from the water, hugging the far side of the cistern, feeling for a pipe. Water dripped off his clothes, but the sounds of hungry hogs were insurmountable.

His hands danced along the wall, blindly feeling for a pipe. His fingers curled around an opening. So close…so close to salvation…

Searing pain shot against his forehead - his headlamp had shorted out and sparked - it flashed on for a second before sputtering out for good.

That one glimmer of light revealed every hog in the room turning to look at him.

He didn’t even waste time shouting - he hauled himself into the pipe and ran for his life.

The hogs weren’t far behind.

Barreling through the darkness was a nightmare made flesh. Braum had no idea what laid ahead - intersection, dead end, catch basin - but the approaching wall of hungry squealing mouths forced him to push on…

The pipe turned right, and Braum saw light ahead - he forced himself to run faster - he was going to make it…

He burst into the sunlit room, his boot making contact with the floor - and the floor gave way, and Braum tumbled in midair, flailing his arms…

One second, two seconds -

And suddenly he was flat on his back, groaning in agony, unable to move his limbs. He must’ve fallen through an old grate into a lower section of pipes…daylight sat above, taunting him. His spine felt torqued…no chance he was moving anymore.

Around the opening twenty feet above, hog heads gathered, peering over the rim, staring down.

“Git!” Braum jeered. “Get outta here! Fuck off!”

The hogs jittered at the edge, as if daring themselves to jump.

“Don’t you even!” Braum choked. “I swear to fuckin’ God I’ll cut y’all up!” But he couldn’t muster the strength to grab his knife.

They seemed to hesitate, circling the opening, squealing and snapping at him.

“HELP!” he cried. “GODDAMMIT, HELP ME! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SOMEBODY HELP!”

One of the hogs reached a hair too far. It lost its balance and fell.

“NOOOOOO!” Braum screamed. “FU-”

It crashed into him, hooves and jaws tearing at flesh and shattering bone. The rest of the hogs plummeted down with their herdmate.

Braum only knew the fear of being eaten alive for a few merciful seconds.

Then the daylight above disappeared.

Along with the pain.

*

Stephen was hopelessly lost, but he very much preferred being hopelessly lost in the sandhills weighed against the storm drains.

The sky had become overcast, yet the rich iron smell in the air and cluster of clouds to the southwest told him he was out of the rainstorm’s path. He had felt a few drops, but the canopy of pine needles overhead had covered him nicely.

He didn’t feel safe, however. The sandhills had a hypnotic quality to them…so much open space, yet everything looked the same. Every tree was similar, the rolling yellow grass was nondescript, and the horizon was blocked by the occasional wall of gnarled shrubs.

It was exactly the sort of psychological mind-trap a werepig would call home.

Queasiness overtook Stephen as he trudged through the forest. He imagined the werepig hiding out in the impenetrable woodlands, sneaking through the storm drains and popping out only to kill…just as easily as leaving the house for a fast-food joint.

Only one thing gave him reassurance: that civilization lay west. He scoped out the sun from behind the clouds and headed that way. Each step towards town, however, put him further away from the truth…of finding his son’s killer, of finding retribution for all those mangled souls. Heavy chains seemed wrapped around his ankles, rooting him to the ground, keeping him from truly departing this place. It wasn’t just his son he was leaving behind…Gus, Yanni, Braum, who might have escaped already, or gotten themselves killed.

He kicked a pinecone across the forest floor. He hated not knowing.

The air had been filled with bird calls, but Stephen soon picked up a new sound…rushing water.

He sighed. If the pipe was in his path, there’d be no reason not to check it out.

A few moments later he came across a muddy ditch next to a hillside. A large concrete pipe, tall enough for him to walk through, emptied a copious stream of water into it. As far as Stephen could tell, the pipe extended far beyond his vision deep into the storm drains. He rubbed the side of his head. Was it worth going back in?

Bubbles formed at the surface of the brown water. Stephen watched them, numb from the trials he’d endured. He was sure after all he had gone through, nothing could scare him anymore.

He was wrong.

A child emerged from the ditch. His skin was pitch black, so much so it made the darkest night look gray. It almost hurt to look at.

His clothes were ragged, faded, and gray. Yet Stephen recognized the cartoonish dinosaur on the front of the shirt. He remembered getting Randy that shirt for last Christmas, his son’s face glowing with joy. Velociraptors were his favorites ever since he first saw Jurassic Park.

None of that joy was in his face. It wasn’t his face at all. It was familiar still…horribly familiar.

“Do you like my new head, Daddy?” he cooed. “I found it down there…I’m sure Yanni won’t be needing it anymore.”

Stephen kept his gaze lowered. “You ain’t my boy,” he muttered.

“Well, I’m the closest thing you’ve got now, old man,” the thing snapped. “Why don’t you come with me. There’s nothing left for you up here.”

“Go to Hell,” Stephen growled.

“There is no Hell,” the thing leered. “I would know. Now I said follow me. Or you can go back home and let the mere thought of me kill you softly.”

Slowly, Stephen’s legs forced him forward. The apparition seemed to drift a millimeter above the ground, coursing up the pipe into the darkness. Stephen waded through the flooded ditch, clamoring into the opening and following.

“So,” the apparition said, luring him further into the gloom. “You believe the werepig killed me. I can understand that. It hurt really bad, Daddy. See?”

It reached up with a snaking hand and removed Yanni’s head from its neck. The face crumpled in its grasp like a plastic bag. “But death has given me vision that life only seeks to obscure.” Its voice rattled up from the hollow tube of its throat. “I know exactly what killed me, Daddy. Do you want to know?”

“...You ain’t my boy,” Stephen muttered again.

“Well, you’re right about that, but that’s not important right now. It was a pig that killed me, Daddy. Just a plain old wild boar, the same ones that got Yanni and Braum and Gus. No werepig. There isn’t one down here. I doubt there’s even one at all.”

“No werepig,” Stephen echoed. He sank to his knees in festering despair. “All that…all my anger…for nothing…”

“Shhhhhh.” The thing put its head back on; it was wrinkled and malformed like a bad clay sculpture. It walked up to Stephen, placing its hands on his shoulders. “Not for nothing. You tried. You tried to avenge me, Daddy. And you did a good job. Just…not good enough.”

Stephen shook his head. “I’m sorry…for everything…”

“It’s not your fault,” it assured. “You didn’t know. There are things going on in this town, leagues beyond your comprehension. Things much greater than dead kids or a werepig.”

It leaned in closer, its warped face expressionless. “...do you want to see them, Daddy?”

Stephen gagged. It was hard to breathe from the grief, the horror of it all. But finally he nodded. He wanted to know. He wanted it to be over with.

The thing raised a hand and touched Stephen’s forehead.

And what he saw was enough.

His limp, lifeless body slid down the pipe, splashing back into the flooded ditch, sinking from the weight of forbidden knowledge.

At least he would rest in peace.

*

Further south, down by the bay, the weather had just begun to let up. A small crowd had gathered at the endpoint of the main drainage pipe, which spilled out into the ocean. If any bodies - man, werepig, whichever - had dropped within the system of tunnels, they’d almost certainly wash out here. And if it was still alive and out for blood…they’d strike it down fast.

The townsfolk bristled and waited. The noisy gush of water was all the pipe was willing to yield.

Then, something came streaming down the frothing current.

The crowds’ voices rose in alarm, and they raised their various weapons - and lowered them again upon seeing who it was.

He splashed into the seawater, and two men immediately rushed in to haul Gus onto dry land. He was in horrible shape; his face was cut up and bruised, his eyes squinted tight against the outside light, and his forearms bore two ugly puncture marks. He refused to let go of his hunting knife as they set him down. He sputtered and coughed, pounding at his chest as the onlookers watched.

"Gus! What did you see!” one inquired.

"Did you get the werepig?” another asked.

"Where’re the others!”

"Where’s Stephen Duluth?”

"Shut up,” Gus rasped, holding out a hand. They silenced immediately and backed away. Gus rose to his feet, feeling strangely like a prophet about to deliver a sermon before the masses.

"We ain’t fuckin’ with that shit again,” he declared. “There’s a whole herd of wild boars down there that’ll kill whoever sets foot in those pipes.” The crowd mumbled at this revelation, but he continued. “Don’t even bother. And…as for the werepig…”

The gatherers silenced. He drew a breath. “That monster’s way too smart for us. All we saw was its vanguard. It was long gone and sent its goons to kill us instead.”

They muttered again, lowering their weapons. Some backed away from the pipe as far as they could within earshot.

"We lost too many good men today,” Gus said soberly. “Today, let’s cut our losses and mourn. Tomorrow…we’ll carry on and walk away as smarter folk.”

And so, the crowds dispersed, infused with a bold new fear and respect for the Hell’s Gulf werepig.

Now immerse yourself in the audio and roll around in the mucky darkness of 'Swine Song'

Swine Song
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