by Derrick T. Perkins
The plan was maddeningly simple: Get abducted.
Then try not to end up a mutilated corpse floating in on the next tide.
Both Miller and O’Leary had swallowed their objections the evening before. O’Leary mounted a second unsuccessful offensive in the daylight hours when de Curieux told her not only could she not bring along a firearm, but certainly not explosives (“No matter how well hidden”). Miller, terrified by the previous evening’s events, stayed out of it.
“I don’t like this at all,” O’Leary said as the two of them strolled, much more evenly-paced this time, back toward the Bait and Tackle. They had spent the day holed up in the hotel room, not wishing to give Fife any early opportunities to abscond with a member of the party, and night had fallen once again on the Maine seacoast.
“I know,” Miller replied. He fought the urge to glance over his shoulder. Somewhere, out there, de Curieux and Winchester were watching. That much had been assured to them as they ventured out alone.
“Not at all,” O’Leary said. “There’s something--”
“--rotten in Rottsport,” Miller finished.
O’Leary glared at him.
“That’s not funny,” she said.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” Miller said.
The conversation died there, leaving the two of them alone in their thoughts. Miller’s mind turned increasingly toward the dreaded yet inescapable outcome. Back in the hotel room, de Curieux had discussed the plan with serene confidence. It calmed his nerves. Out here, though, as the wind howled off the north Atlantic, he felt his pulse quickening.
If all went well, they would be kidnapped soon enough. He would have laughed at the absurdity of the thought if it were not so grim.
O’Leary pulled him aside as they approached the bar and drew him close as if to kiss.
“What’s our plan?” she whispered into his ear instead. Miller looked and saw that a few toughs were smoking cigarettes outside the entrance and making no pretenses about staring at the young couple.
“Get kidnapped,” he said.
“I meant, in there. When it’s just the two of us,” she hissed.
“Act natural?” he asked hesitantly, not sure of the correct answer.
“Unless they’re really confident, they are going to do this quietly,” she said. “I doubt everyone in this hick town is in on it. They’re going to want to separate us. Let them separate us. Be friendly. Talk to everyone. Make a show of how drunk you’re getting. Whatever the method--a threatening weapon, a cold-cock to the head--go along with it.”
O’Leary slapped him on the ass and drew away.
“And remember, have fun out there,” she said, jovially.
“I’ll try,” Miller mumbled, turning to follow her past the muscle-bound men into the low slung building. He had not put too much thought into just how they would be abducted. He realized he had assumed some sort of polite suggestion that they follow along with their new captors. A cold-cocking sound much more likely and much less enjoyable.
The weekend was in full swing inside the Bait and Tackle. Whereas the barroom had all the liviliness of a crypt during the daylight hours, it was positively energetic now. Men and women in leather, denim and plaid crowded the bar, trading stories and swapping jokes. Overhead, an ancient speaker system belted out a mix of classic rock, country and blues.
O’Leary took the lead, threading a needle through the the crowd. Even without a gun, her presence impelled men and women out of her way. She cut a path toward the bar, which promptly closed up behind her. Miller followed, apologizing meekly as he bounced off elbows, shoulders and forearms.
The bartender was the same as the previous day, but he appeared in a much better mood and brightened when he saw the pair.
“Welcome back,” he shouted over the music.
O’Leary nodded and ordered two drinks. Miller, cut off by two particularly burly men discussing the intricacies of an Indian motorcycle, could not make out her words. The barkeep nodded in vigorous agreement and began pouring various liquors into a mixer.
Seeing a gap between the men, Miller leaned forward.
“What did you get?” he asked.
“Long Island iced teas,” she replied. “Bottoms up, honey.”
He took a long pull through one of those incredibly, uselessly thin straws. The mix of alcohols illuminated his taste buds and swirled down into a pleasantly warming mushroom cloud in his stomach. Miller had to give the barkeep credit. It was a headache in a glass, but it tasted amazing.
O’Leary remained several arm lengths away, already chatting up several of the burly men thronging the bar. She laughed loudly at their jokes and whispered gayly into their ears. Miller could not decide whether she was having fun or not.
He, meanwhile, was jostled about like a ship at sea. No one around him had taken notice of his presence, at he rebounded between flailing limbs and hoisted drinks. He studiously sipped at his drink. At least the plan called for getting good and buzzed.
Suddenly, Miller felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Rawson Fife standing beside him.
“Decided to take your chances on Rottsport, kid?” Rawson hollered into his ear. Like the bartender, he had undergone an enormous change: He was smiling.
“Giving the old college try,” Miller shouted back between sips. The iced tea was quite good. “We still have a day left on the hotel, anyway.”
Fife nodded knowingly, his faded ball cap bobbing up and down.
“They got an old joke about Rottsport. This town puts its hooks in you,” he said. “It’s hard to leave.”
Miller did not quite like the way Fife phrased it, but went along with him. The other man clapped him on the shoulder in a friendly manner.
“Let me buy you a drink, neighbor” Fife shouted. He pulled Miller along with him. The mechanic’s apprentice glanced back nervously at O’Leary. Surrounded by newfound friends, she winked at him and pantomimed smoking a cigarette outside. He nodded as the two separated.
Well, that was easy enough, he thought. Step one, accomplished. He finished his Long Island iced tea and handed the glass to Fife, who swapped it out for what looked like a gin and tonic. Remembering O’Leary’s advice, he sucked down the drink greedily.
And felt it immediately go to his head.
Fife leaned in, smiling. He whispered something, but it didn’t make much sense to Miller. He could hear the noise, but it came in garbled, like a fading radio transmission. Still, Miller smiled back, in a lazy fashion.
Fife kept talking, and Miller kept nodding along, not noticing how herky-jerky the motion had become. He found himself struggling to stand up right and reached out weakly for support.
A hand reached around Miller’s shoulders, buttressing him. The mechanic’s apprentice looked up to see who it was--a suddenly laborious task--and saw Fife and several burly men flanking him. Fife was speaking with some concern and motioning at Miller. The big men nodded and Fife leaned in to Miller. This time he could make out the words.
“Looks like you had too much, pal,” Fife said. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.”
Standing on the few feet of sand between the rocky shore and the cold Atlantic, de Curieux coolly surveyed the expanse of Eliat Bay. Here the ground rose briefly before vanishing before the might of the ocean, giving the shore the appearance of a raised lip. A hundred meters or so down, a fissure opened by eons of waves pounding against the coast led to a network of interlocking caves.
That was where de Curieux figured Miller and O’Leary ended up. It was a guess, but an intelligent guess, of course. He had stumbled across references to the cave system in one of the library’s more off-color histories of the region. Unlike the government-sanctioned accounts, this one included stories of pirates, witchcraft, fishing wars, and Prohibition-era bootleggers, who set up caches of Canadian rye all along the remote Maine coast.
As expected, the tracking devices installed on his compatriots’ mobile phones had been quickly rendered useless. He could tail the pair as far as the tavern without drawing suspicion, but dared not enter the Bait and Tackle without arousing unwanted attention. Instead, he had Winchester park around the corner and wait for him while he monitored the duo electronically. He smiled when the blips representing Miller and O’Leary split up before eventually reuniting at the rear of the bar.
About that time, he heard an engine valiantly struggle to come to life. The colonel ducked back into the shadows lining the street as an extended cab truck bedecked in fishing gear rumbled by him. It swung into the tavern parking lot and then around to the kitchen entrance.
By the time de Curieux returned to the car containing a very excited Winchester, a caravan of vehicles had swung out of the bar headed east toward the water.
“Drive,” de Curieux instructed him simply.
They followed the tracking device until it both blips faded off the screen somewhere along the coast.
“Have we been--what do they say in the movies--made?” Winchester asked.
“Most likely they tossed our friends’ phones into the ocean as a precaution,” de Curieux said, and instructed Winchester to continue driving until they reached an oceanside pull off not far from the bay. Though the abductors could have gone anywhere, he was betting heavily on the old smugglers’ den. He had hoped to head them off before they reached their destination, but the loss of a signal nixed the plan.
Now, wind roaring off the water, moon glinting on the waves, de Curieux girded himself for what was to come. He took a deep breath, tasting the salt in the air, and shifted the weight of the revolver on his hip.
“What next?” Winchester asked. He was positively aglow, handing gripping the pistol Miller had loaned him awkwardly.
“Now we do a bit of spelunking,” de Curieux said. He strode forward, hoping the small-town cabal had been sloppy enough to not post sentries at the cave’s entrance.
Twice de Curieux reminded comically unathletic Winchester that stealth was of the utmost importance. Only once did he have to tell him to stop waving the damn gun about in the air as if they were acting in an Old West show.
The going was easier than expected, despite the weather-worn rocks left slippery by ocean spray. De Curieux kept a hand on the cool cavern walls at all times, navigating only by the sliver of moonlight penetrating the gloom. Not for the first time did he thank the heavens for a clear, fogless night.
Finally, they spied the dull orange glow of firelight ahead. De Curieux motioned for Winchester to duck down, and slowly they crept forward. Together, they crouched behind a rock outcropping giving them an unobstructed view of the stalagmite and stalactite-filled central chamber.
About two dozen shapes filled the cavern, separated loosely by the uneven ground and fang-shaped calcium deposits. An alter-shaped slab of rock sat in the center, whether crafted by hand or erosion, de Curieux could not say, upon which Miller and O’Leary lay bound and gagged. Both were awake--Miller staring out in wide-eyed horror while O’Leary desperately worked her wrists, trying to free herself from the bonds.
“We begin again, my friends,” said a muffled voice. “Tonight, we consecrate two more souls to the deep in the ancient manner, in the hopes the hidden ones may repay our homage with bounty.”
De Curieux peered over the rock, obscured--he hoped--by the deep shadows cast by the powerful glare of several portable work lights. Many in the crowd donned hooded sweatshirts, others wore bandanas to obscure their faces. The robed leader at their center that de Curieux assumed to be Rawson Fife wore a gas mask.
“Winchester,” he hissed. “Your thoughts, if you please.”
Wet, tired and bruised from a fall at the cave’s entrance, the diminutive Winchester remained as eager as ever. He quickly scanned the scene and then ducked back down behind the outcropping.
“They are arrayed in manner reminiscent of descriptions of the Chesuncook Witch Coven,” Winchester reported breathlessly. “But the clothing is all off and, frankly, this cavern is a far cry from what is supposedly necessary for their rituals. I don’t see any unnatural beasts here that the coven was claimed to harbor.
“There’s also no reference to them ever bargaining with the supernatural in return for rewards. They merely sought the destruction of the world in its present form,” he continued.
“So it’s likely a sham,” de Curieux said.
“If the archives of Miskatonic University are to be believed, then yes. I could always be wrong, of course,” Winchester said. “It’s seemingly a mismatch of different influences, several from occult films, but I don’t know the reason behind the gas mask. That eludes me. It does have a rather shocking effect, though.”
De Curieux weighed the information. That it was a sham was a good thing. He had his revolver were it all to turn out more than that, although he did not relish testing its legendary abilities. But regardless of the purpose of this facade--if it was, indeed, such--he likely would need the threat of force to free his comrades in arms.
“I am sure we will find out soon enough why our friend is wearing protection,” de Curieux said, propping himself back up for a view. He did not make out any weapons on the figures surrounding the altar, but that meant little given their winter wear.
Meanwhile, the masked figure at the center reached below the makeshift altar and produced a long-stemmed oven match, struck it and raised the flame before his motley crew of adherents.
“We begin,” he said, and lowered the match back below the slab of rock. Almost immediately, a hazy yet greasy vapor rose up.
“That explains the gas mask, perhaps,” Winchester whispered. “But no one else is wearing one. It’s very curious.”
At the sight of it, O’Leary began to struggle more vigorously. Even Miller began to writhe in an attempt to escape the azure-colored smoke. De Curieux felt pangs of guilt and fear. Not much longer, he wanted to shout, but held his tongue.
“Do you smell it?” de Curieux asked. “It is vaguely familiar.”
Winchester clutched his chest, his first show of fear.
“Of course, I should have known,” he hissed. “Black henbane.”
“A nightshade?” de Curieux asked.
“A powerful sedative and hallucinogenic,” Winchester replied. “From here, we should be safe, given the loss of potency when dispersed as an aerosol. Your friends, though…”
He trailed off as chanting rose up from the chamber’s core. It started slow, but grew in fervor. The sound, echoing off of the rock walls, took on an ephemeral quality, de Curieux thought.
“Mutilated lips,” the gathered said in unison. “Mutilated lips give a kiss on the wrist of the wormlike tips of tentacles expanding in our minds. We offer only fresh brine.”
Before de Curieux’s eyes, the struggles of O’Leary and Miller slowed, and then stopped. Their expanding pupils flickered wildly before halting, fading behind a glaze. It was impossible to know if Fife was smiling behind the rubber of his mask, but de Curieux suspected it.
A long, curved knife rose into the air, the harsh light of the lamps glinting off of the wicked blade. It hovered for a moment over Miller before slashing downward.
De Curieux squinted to see better. A thin line of blood bubbled up from the mechanic’s face and trickled down his chin. Yet, Miller did not react in pain. He did not react at all.
Suddenly, it clicked together for de Curieux. He glanced at Winchester, who was watching in awe.
“How potent is henbane as a sedative?” he asked.
“It works for minor aches and pains,” Winchester said. “Not like this, though. It’s more of a topical anesthetic. In various forms it can be lethal. This is certainly augmented. For what purpose, though?”
De Curieux gave him a long stare.
“That should be quite evident,” he said. “Imagine unleashing a compound that creates mass immobilization. It could be quite useful.”
“Still, it appears limited in its range of effectiveness,” Winchester said. “But further observation may reveal more clues.”
Glancing back at the ritual, de Curieux saw the knife flashing again. He pulled the ancient revolver from its holster and cocked the hammer. The sound of its lethality was lost in the haunting chants.
“I am afraid we cannot afford to be so academic,” he said.
“What do we do?” Winchester asked eagerly. His weapon was suddenly out and waving wildly in de Curieux’s face.
“First, please refrain from accidently shooting me,” he instructed. “Second, make a scene and scatter them. I would rather not kill anyone, but it if weapons are drawn, then defend us to the last.”
Winchester nodded, but de Curieux still had to reach out, grab his hand and point his firearm in the right direction. Then the colonel stood and leveled out his revolver.
“Kindly let my companions go,” he called out, cutting the chanting voices short. His appearance broke the spell cast by the masked man and the others looked around in obvious confusion.
“Now, please,” de Curieux added after a beat.
The masked man’s head snapped up. Even through the opaque, dead eyes of the device, the hatred was evident. The figure cocked his head for a moment, as if weighing his options. Then he gestured at his adherents.