The Darkness in their Eyes, Part One

by Derrick T. Perkins

Captain XO's note: Derrick has written another crackerjack de Curieux story, a bit different than his usual Ruritania type stories.  We are proud to continue to publish his work.

“I don’t like this at all,” said Sergeant Siobhan O’Leary, pacing the cramped hotel room, one hand on her hip, the other on her holster. “Not at all.”

Sitting forlornly on one of the two beds crammed into the place, mechanic’s apprentice Joe Miller nodded silently. From the lumpy mattress, he had a full view of the angry, gray Atlantic beating against the oddball collection of docks and piers lining this stretch of the eastern Maine coastline. This time of year, it proved difficult to determine where the water ended and the overcast sky began.

“He left two hours ago, two,” O’Leary said. “And all he has with him is that funky revolver and the nerd we picked up yesterday. There’s something rotten in Rottsport, Maine.”

“That’s the third time you’ve said that, and it’s still not funny,” Miller replied, not breaking his gaze from the window. “I’m also pretty sure it’s pronounced ‘rotes-port.’”

“The point stands,” O’Leary said. “I say we go looking for him.”

“How? And where would we even start?” Miller replied. He liked O’Leary. The fiery public affairs specialist for the pirate airship The Renegade was equal parts sass and bravado. More often than not, though, the traits combined as well as fire and gasoline. Two things she liked, oddly enough.

“I’m sure there’s someone who knows something. Maybe that dumpy fishermen’s bar down the street, or that creepy church by the docks,” she said. “Anything is better than sitting here.”

“His instructions were pretty clear,” Miller replied, gesturing at the note they had found underneath their door that morning. “Enjoy the view until he returns.”

The lanky, roseate-haired woman stopped and grinned daringly at Miller.

“There’s a lot of places in this town to enjoy the view,” she said. “Let’s go sightseeing.”

Miller groaned. But he reached for his gun. Maybe he wouldn’t need it, he thought. Not likely, but a man could hope.

Two days prior, Miller had been back in Wick, Scotland, still believing he might re-adjust from the jetlag before duty called yet again. Although exhausted from their exploits across the Atlantic, Colonel Thaddeus de Curieux, military attaché to the pirate airship The Renegade, had immediately put them back to work. After all, he said, there was a black cloud hanging on the horizon.

A black and crimson-painted cloud. The rival airship Grafvitnir had vanished into the stormy sky above Vermont’s north country and not been seen since, although de Curieux warned that was bad rather than good news. With his rival Degory Blackwood, a polymath formerly of the mysterious Miskatonic University, at her helm, The Grafvitnir remained an imminent threat. Tracking her down, rescuing The Renegade’s chief of engineering--held hostage by Blackwood--and destroying her were de Curieux’s directives.

To do so, he reassembled his travel-weary team after just a few hours of sleep, handed them each a mug of tea and assigned them a selection of news outlets to monitor.

“Look for anything out of the ordinary,” he said, as Miller had rubbed his eyes. “Obviously, a sighting of a Konig-class Zeppelin would be preferential, but I doubt a man like Degory will be so helpful.”

“Out of the ordinary?” Miller asked.

“Strange sightings, inexplicable phenomena, peculiar weather patterns, that sort of thing,” de Curieux said. “Oddities of any sort, as well. Blackwood is beating the devil’s tattoo and all manner of vile creatures will heed his call.”

De Curieux pointed toward a thick stack of newspapers on the center table. Many of them, from Miller’s vantage, appeared to be small town weeklies from all corners of the globe.

“The silver lining in all of this may be that while Degory is a subtle man, many of his would-be adherents are not. They may leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” he said. “Report anything unusual to me, immediately. Miller, take the city editions of the major papers. Sergeant O’Leary, social media is your domain, so have at it.”

The colonel turned to Gustav Hanover, the prickly German pilot with a penchant for assassination.

“Lieutenant, how many languages do you speak again?”

“Six, not including the various dialects I am familiar with,” he answered succinctly.

“Good man,” de Curieux said. “You will read the international broadsheets.”

The last to receive an assignment was the New Zealander, Corporal Logan Winters, a broad-shouldered giant with a penchant for heavy arms. He got the tabloids.

They sat for days in the debriefing room in Wick, taking breaks only to go to the bathroom or return to their billets for sleep. On those few occasions Miller passed other members of the crew, they gave him a bewildered respect. Word of the incident in Vermont had not gone far in the traditional press, but it spread like wildfire in Wick and aboard The Renegade. Miller enjoyed the newfound respect where de Curieux was mildly annoyed. Still, the colonel held his protest when they all received free drinks at the Zeppel Inn.

In the end, it was de Curieux who found their next destination spot. Miller had been rubbing his eyes, wishing for once he could take a break from the computer and get back onto the engineering deck of The Renegade. O’Leary was amusing herself with cat photos on Twitter and Winters dozed, eyes open, in front of his computer. Even the straight-laced German struggled with the task, zealously drinking black coffee to ward off fatigue.

“Maine,” de Curieux said suddenly, sitting up with such haste he nearly knocked over his earl grey. “We go to Maine.”

He slammed down the thin newsprint in his hand, making a loud enough snap to awaken Winters. Miller nearly jumped out of his seat, earning him a raised eyebrow from O’Leary.

“Warum?” Hanover asked. “I mean, why? My apologies. I was reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine.”

De Curieux slid his newspaper across the long table. All four of them gathered around it as it came to a stop. It was, Miller thought, a pretty typical small town publication, The Rottsport Independent. The brightly colored advertisements were for mom-and-pop retailers and small operation service contractors--only the realty listings had the glitzy, professional feel. There were the usual photographs of a community events, but you couldn’t miss the double-decker headline: “Fourth body washes ashore, police release few details.”

Miller skimmed the article. It read like the author wasn’t used to writing about multiple fatalities. The few quotes came from a panicked-sounding town selectman, vowing to get to the bottom of it, and one or two of the locals theorizing that a fishing trawler might have gone down off the coast. Rogue waves and quick moving squalls weren’t unheard of, after all.

“The Atlantic doesn’t give up her dead lightly,” a fisherman was quoted as saying. “Could be days before the whole crew comes ashore. If they ever do at all.”

There as little to go on from the local authorities. Just that the bodies lacked identification. All of them suffered some form of mutilation, though whether it occured pre- or post-mortem remained unknown. The state police in Augusta were offering help in the investigation, but all the law enforcement officials played down the likelihood of a serial killer on the loose. The chief of police maintained there was a rational, if unfortunate, explanation.

“Grim stuff,” Hanover said.

“Just gross,” replied O’Leary.

“Awful,” Miller said.

Winters grunted.

“Indeed,” de Curieux said, an eyebrow raised. “I have not seen Maine in some time. The last time I was escorting a submarine.”

Miller sighed and rubbed his forehead. He looked around and saw that everyone was staring at him. His private objection had been noted.

“There’s not a lot to go on here,” he said. “A fishing boat going missing--hell, that stuff happens out there, every winter, especially. And I kinda figured Blackwood lit out for somewhere a long way away from New England. Plus, it’s not like they’re reporting seeing a zeppelin in the sky.”

“Reasonable objections, I will admit,” de Curieux said. “I, too, doubt it is Degory behind the appearance of these bodies. He is much more circumspect in disposing of incriminating evidence.”

“So what’s the tell?” O’Leary asked.

“A quote in the article,” de Curieux replied. “I recognize the name. Or the initials at least. We leave for Maine at once.”

“That’s still not a lot--” said Miller, who was seeing dreams of resting for a few more days falling apart. He stopped when he felt O’Leary’s elbow press against his side. He knew when to shut up.

“When does the Cessna leave?” she asked, releasing the pressure on Miller’s torso.

“Unfortunately, we must be even more discreet on this sojourn,” de Curieu said. “My understanding is that officials in the United States are not particularly pleased we attempted to ground The Grafvitnir alone. Apologies and extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, it is best if our presence is not known at all in America.”

He spread his hands and offered a thin smile.

“Fortunately, I have gathered quite the collection of noms de guerre in my time, all with the proper paperwork,” de Curieux said. “Unfortunately, we must remain circumspect. Lieutenant Hanover and Corporal Winters will not be accompanying us on this trip.”

It was O’Leary’s turn to start protesting, but de Curieux cut her off.

“We will not be going in cold, of course,” he said. “There is a subject matter expert I would very much like to have accompany us. Fortunately, he resides between Logan International Airport and Maine. We can pick him up on the way.”

“Wait, we’re flying commercial?” O’Leary asked.

“I’m sure we can arrange seat upgrades,” he replied. “I have a friend at Lufthansa.”

“Why me, though?” Miller asked.

De Curieux stared at him quizzically.

“I should think it obvious. You have ties to the region and likely the deepest well of local knowledge,” he said, and then clapped his hands. “Now, please pack accordingly. We will reprise our roles as tourists.”

He turned, precisely, and strode out of the room. Alone and in silence, they took turns staring at one another. Winters and Hanover seemed disappointed to have been grounded. O’Leary gave Miller a reproachful look.

“So what do you know about Maine?”

“I read a lot of Stephen King when I was a teenager,” he replied. “Ask me anything.”

Rottsport, Maine

Attempting desperately to look like a tourist, Miller cursed under his breathing. He was trying his best to make his sidearm disappear under his winter jacket and not succeeding. He was unaccustomed to carrying a firearm. Despite his lack of formal training, both O’Leary and de Curieux insisted he be prepared for all eventualities.

“Worst case, you just pass it over to me when I’m out of ammunition,” O’Leary had told him. Given his prowess with a gun, it sounded like a good idea, he thought.

On her, the snub-nosed Taurus PT111 vanished, disappearing into a waistband holster tucked under her fleece top. Miller had to marvel at her expertise: her lithe frame also concealed two knives of varying lengths and specialties, a burner phone, pack of cigarettes, multiple lighters, some sort of explosive and energy bars. To unwitting eyes, though, she looked like any other urbanite attempting to go rustic for the weekend, complete with a bottle of Poland Spring water poking out of her handbag.

Following her down the stair well, he briefly made eye contact with the sullen clerk at the desk, who just nodded at them before answering a ringing phone. His gaze rested on the pair until they departed into the cold afternoon.

“Slow down,” Miller called out, immediately stepping into a pile of half-frozen slush leftover from the town’s last snow. O’Leary ignored him, her feet clopping against the cobbled sidewalk of the downtown area. Like most remote New England fishing communities, the town was mostly a cluster of buildings along the short stretch of coast carved into a natural harbor by the beating ocean. In years past, a few farmers probably branched off inland and, in its heyday, two or more logging companies might have set up competing sawmills, shipping the finished wood by sea to Boston and New Bedford.

The cobblestone sidewalk was recent, though, machined too precisely to have been laid down by colonial forbearers. If Miller had to guess, the town probably paid for it and a few other refurbishments, like the green street clocks by way of a state or federal tourism grant. North of Bar Harbor, yet well south of the Canadian destination spots, Rottsport was well off the beaten path. Lobstermen and crabbers called a place like this home, no one else.

But O’Leary wasn’t having it. Nearly as soon as Miller caught up to her, she diverted down a side street toward the water. He nearly fell trying to make the cut.

“Better keep up, honey,” she called over her shoulder with a laugh. Miller rolled his eyes, but he sped up as she barreled into a weathered bar.

Stepping inside the Bait and Tackle, he paused a moment to let his eyes adjust. Even compared to the gray, fading light outside, the barroom was dark. A few worn pool tables sat beneath neon signs advertising various domestic beer brands. There was no television, just an old dial-operated radio propped up on the faded wooden bar. A few fishing trinkets adorned the walls out of respect to its name. There were the obligatory posters enjoining patrons to root for the Red Sox.

One other customer sat at the bar, a weathered-looking fellow in jeans and a worn leather jacket. A baseball cap rested beside him. He looked to have been in deep conversation with the barkeep, but the conversation had died as soon as the door swung open.

O’Leary pulled up a seat at the opposite end of the bar, sat and smiled coyly Miller. Refusing to engage, he grabbed the stool next to her. It was about as uncomfortable as he felt in the dingey watering hole.

His companion seemed more at home. O’Leary unabashedly waved at the bartender, calling him over. Despite his sullen response--the act of straightening up from his perch on the bar seemed belabored--she ordered for the both of them, asking for two beers from one of the popular microbreweries in Portland.

“I only keep that beer out back,” the barkeep answered, wording it to sound like fetching a pair of India pale ales involved traveling to the subcontinent for which they were named. “If you want something on tap, we have Bud, Bud Light and Coors.”

“The IPAs, please,” O’Leary said, twisting a lock of her roseate hair in her finger. Just like a tourist, Miller thought.

The bartender sighed, wiped his hands on his rag and disappeared into the rear of the building. Down at the far end of the bar, the only other patron took a swig out of a beer bottle.

Miller tried avoiding looking at him, but his eyes kept drifting back. The man was a curiosity, older than Miller, but muscular in the sinewy way men got from physical, outdoor work. His fingers, Miller saw, were cut and calloused. His skin was tanned, nearly enough to match the brown leather of his coat. But he did not seem a fisherman. Just a drifter with a lot of miles on the odometer.

The other man seemed to notice Miller’s gaze. A fine smile tugged at the corners of his lips as he took another sip from the bottle.

“You folks visiting for the weekend?” he asked in a scratchy voice, not looking their way. “Not a great time of year to tour the coast.”

“We’re looking at vacation homes,” O’Leary said, sounding a bit bored. “Thought we would check out the local culture.”

The handsome man chuckled softly.

“That’s a first in this town,” he said.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a faded, black leather wallet. He pulled a handful of crumpled dollars from it and tossed them haphazardly onto the bar.

“You might think about somewhere south of here, Camden or Rockport,” he said, standing up and grabbing his ball cap. “A little closer to civilization, you know? This place is a little rough around the edges.”

“Thank you for the advice,” O’Leary replied. “We’ll take our chances. We like rough around the edges.”

He stuck his ball cap on his head, nodded at them.

“It’s your life,” he said walking out. “Hope it works out for you.”

Alone again, O’Leary turned to Miller.

“Nice enough guy,” she said. “I’m starting to get a feel for New Englanders. They’re very caring.”

“Ayup,” Miller replied.

The bartender returned, ales in hand and looking slightly worse for wear. It was an act, of course, and in his effort to show how he was coddling the bottles, one slipped out and crashed onto the floor.

Swearing viciously, the barkeep glared at O’Leary and Miller as if it were their fault. He called out for a barback.

“Henries, get your ass out here,” he shouted, and presently a disgruntled-looking early twenty-something in a stained t-shirt and ragged pair of jeans appeared.

“Clean up this mess, would’ya,” the bartender said. “I got to run out back again and look for another beer.”

The kid sighed, but reached for a mop. But the bartender grabbed it.

“Find the damn dustpan first,” he snarled. “The glass. You’ll spread it everywhere with a mop. Pick up the goddamn glass.”