The Strange Case of Cradle Hills
by Adam Casalino
Sometime in the late 90’s:
“Do you believe in aliens?”
“You know, aliens. Creatures from another planet?”
Silas Black lowered his newspaper. He looked at the small blonde girl with pigtails who was counting out his change. She stared at him with bright, unblinking eyes. It was creepy.
“I know what aliens are,” the man said.
“I saw this TV show where a man was abducted by aliens,” she said. “They took him aboard their ship. They… did things to him.”
Silas folded his paper and tucked it under his arm. “You watch too much TV, kid.”
“So, you don’t believe in aliens?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man about a demon.”
Silas left the convenience store and looked up and down the street. He stood on the corner of a market square. Pulling out a notepad, he checked an address and time. Four o’clock. He checked his watch. Three forty-seven. He was going to be late.
Wandering down the street, Silas hoped to catch a bus or something. Outside of a large, distinguished-looking building marched a woman. Her a tank top, ripped jeans, and sandals screamed disillusioned hippie. She carried a protest sign that read “Wake Up or Die.”
“Isn’t it a little cold to be wearing sandals?” Silas asked, smiling.
“Are you a fascist?”
“Oh,” he said, “this was a mistake.”
“Are you one of them?” She pointed at the building behind them.
“That a library?” he said.
“That’s Town Hall,” she said. “The seat of power for Cradle Hill’s City Council.”
“Seems a bit grandiose for this town,” Silas said.
“Do you know what those frauds are up to?” she said.
“They’re poisoning the children.”
“Really?” Silas said. “You should tell the police.”
“The police won’t do anything,” she said.
“Poisoning children falls within their responsibilities,” he said.
“They’re all in on it, man.”
“The police, too?” Silas said.
“The mines, idiot. The iron mines.”
“Don’t call me an idiot,” Silas said. “Get to know me. Then you can call me an idiot.”
“Cradle Hills used to be a mining town,” she said. “When the mines closed, the auto companies moved in. They dumped their waste into the mines. It seeped into the groundwater. People are getting sick.”
“Oh,” Silas said. “So, nobody’s poisoning anyone.”
“Aren’t you listening?” she said.
“I have a lot on my plate,” he said.
“I’m a part of the Global Organization for Organic Positivity,” she said, handing him a bright orange flier.
“GOOP?” Silas said.
“We are demanding the city council clean up the iron mines,” she said.
“Shouldn’t this go to people at a higher pay grade?” Silas said.
The woman paused. “Well… environmental regulators are looking into the situation. They’re going to inspect the mines.”
“Then what are you complaining about?” he said.
“Who are you?”
Silas extended a hand. “Silas Black, private detective.”
She reluctantly shook his hand. “What are you doing here? Spying on a husband?”
“Not that kind of detective. I’m looking for this address. Do you know it?” He showed her his notepad.
“That’s a few miles north of here,” she said. “It’ll take you a while on foot. You should take a cab.”
“Do cabs run around here?” he said.
Silas eventually arrived at his appointment. He approached the large, colonial house. The front yard was lush. A cobblestone path led to the porch. As he reached the door, he noticed the new car in the driveway. A German import. Silas wondered what this family needed from the likes of him. It was probably going to be messy.
He ran the doorbell and was greeted by a tall, middle-aged man.
“Mr. Black?” he said, extending a hand.
“Silas is fine,” the detective said.
“Avery Jones,” the man said. “Thank you for coming.” The man was obviously distinguished. Probably a doctor. He smiled at Silas. The detective saw through it. Avery Jones had worry in his eyes. More than that. He was panicked.
Avery escorted Silas into his living room. Numerous family photos were on the wall. A large couch took up most of the space. Silas jumped back when he noticed the small woman sitting on it. She was old and almost entirely shriveled up. The look she gave Silas could wither corn. Across from her was a young girl, bouncing in her chair. The contrast between the two was dizzying.
“This is quite the home,” Silas said. “I thought Cradle Hills was a blue-collar town.”
“It was,” Avery said, “years ago. It’s changed a lot since then. But the town still retains its hardy character.”
The old woman snorted.
“So,” Silas began. “You were somewhat cryptic over the phone. But I’m guessing you have a problem that only I can solve.”
“The devil,” the old woman said.
Silas turned to her. “Excuse me?”
“The devil’s taken Amanda,” she said, wagging a finger at the detective. “The devil’s in this town. In the water, in the air. He’ll get you too if you’re not careful.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Silas said.
“Terry, hush,” Avery said to the woman. “You’ll have to forgive my mother-in-law. It’s been a difficult time.”
“I looked you up,” the girl said. “People talk about you on a message board. You’re weird.”
Avery gave his daughter a warning glance. “Jenny…”
“What?” she said, defensively. “I’m just curious.”
“I’m taking the computer out of your room.” He turned to Silas. “None of us are ourselves since Amanda went missing.”
“Tell me what happened,” Silas said.
Avery stood up and walked over to a table. He handed Silas a framed picture. “This is Amanda, my oldest.”
Silas examined the photo. The girl looked seventeen. She had bright eyes and a wicked smile. Her arms were wrapped around a huge dog which–judging by the house’s scent–was no longer around.
“Amanda went missing five days ago,” Avery said. “She’s a busy kid. College. Part-time job. But she was honest. Reliable. She always checked in. Last anyone saw her was on campus at the end of the day.”
“What have the police said?” Silas asked.
“They told me they were making it their top priority,” the father said. “But I just can’t sit around waiting for them. Besides, the chief seems to think she just ran away. But I know my daughter. She wouldn’t do that.
“I heard about you,” Avery continued. “That thing in Central Park. Apparently, you found a missing woman when the NYPD had given up.”
“Yeah,” Silas said, hesitating. “People weren’t supposed to know about Central Park.”
“I have connections, Silas,” Avery said. “A friend in New York floated me your name. Told me what you do.”
“Flattering,” Silas said. “I assume, then, you believe a demon’s behind Amanda’s disappearance. Why else would you call a paranormal specialist?”
“I don’t know about demons,” the father said. “But I discovered something.”
Slowly, he walked over to a cupboard. Avery took out a folder and gave it to the detective.
“After Amanda went missing, I found these in her trash can.”
“Dad, you looked through her stuff?” Jenny said. He gestured for the girl to be quiet.
“I showed them to the police, but they weren’t interested.”
Silas opened the folder. It contained crumpled pages from a diary. They were covered front and back with the bubbly, cursive handwriting of a teenage girl.
“She was having a reoccurring nightmare,” Avery said. “She was being chased by a creature.”
“Creature?” Silas said.
“The devil,” the old woman said.
Silas flipped through the pages. Amanda wrote about her nightmares. They were a confusing jumble of images, sounds, and rapidly-changing scenes. She kept mentioning a feeling of being watched. When she was asleep or awake.
A few of the pages had drawings. A black figure stood over Amanda’s bed or peered through a window. In one, the thing was inside her mirror, watching Amanda as she got dressed. It had an oblong skull with jagged teeth and dark, immense eyes.
“That’s one ugly fairy godmother,” Silas said.
“I was just going to throw these pages away,” Avery said. “But then something happened. I saw Amanda.”
Silas glanced up at him. “Did you now?”
“In a dream,” he said. “I was in bed when I heard a tapping on my window. Amanda was floating outside. I ripped open the window to pull her in, but as I touched her hand she was sucked away. For a brief moment, I saw it in the sky. I saw that face. I’m not a man that puts stock in dreams. But I know this was different. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Avery asked.
“From a few drawings?” Silas said. “No.”
The father sighed. “Detective McClelland told me you’re an expert in this.”
“Oh, it was McClelland who gave you my name?” Silas said with a smile. “I thought cops were more discreet.”
“Yes, he’s the one,” Avery said. “He told me you know about ghosts, black magic… stuff like this. I looked into your background. You went to Oxford. Studied ancient history, mythology, and folklore. If anybody can tell me what happened to my daughter, it’s you.”
“It is possible that an other-worldly creature is connected to Amanda’s disappearance,” Silas said. “A malevolent entity could have abducted your child.”
Silas paused. Avery waited expectantly.
“Or she ran away from home.”
“I know Amanda,” Avery said. “She wouldn’t run away.”
“You might not know your daughter as well as you think,” Silas said.
“No,” Avery said. “I refuse to accept that.”
“Mr. Jones,” the detective said, “I get a dozen calls a week from people who know they saw Elvis’ ghost. Or Bigfoot. Or Elvis’ ghost on a date with Bigfoot. I could spend all my time chasing dead ends. How can you convince me your case is any different?”
“I’ll pay you double your normal rate,” Avery said.
“Let’s get to work.”
“Thank you,” the father said. He pulled out one of Amanda’s pictures of the creature. “Then tell me, what is this thing?”
“I have no idea.”
“I thought you’d know,” the father said.
“Well,” he took the paper from Avery. “I’ve seen a lot in the few years I’ve been doing this. Banshees. Huldras. Redcaps, boglins, arch-vampires, and even a batboy. But this is new. And I can’t make a guess from a sketch. Heh, kind of reminds me of a Mesopotamian etching some think was of an alien.”
“Alien?” Jenny said.
“Hmm. Odd coincidence,” Silas said to himself.
“Then what about my dream?” Avery asked. “I don’t normally remember my dreams, let alone experience something that intense.”
“It’s possible Amanda was reaching out to you,” Silas said. “Families share a powerful bond. In times of crisis, impossible things can happen.”
“Amanda’s not a psychic,” Jenny said.
“These are extraordinary circumstances, kid,” Silas said. “For all we know, she is a psychic. But I need to learn more about Amanda.” Silas slapped his hands together. “Now, show me to her bedroom.”
Amanda’s bedroom was the first one at the top of the stairs. It was the typical teenager room. The walls were cover with the band posters, amateur art, and Polaroids. Clothes were strewn across her bed, dresser, and desk chair. Apparently, Avery hadn’t had the heart to tidy up. Silas scanned the room, stopping to linger on anything that caught his attention. He studied the photos for a while.
“Looks like she had a lot of friends. Was your daughter popular?”
“No, she was a nerd.”
Silas turned around. Jenny, Avery’s other daughter, was sitting on her sister’s bed.
“Were you in here the whole time?” he asked.
“Didn’t notice you,” Silas said.
“You’re not very observant for a detective,” Jen said.
“And you’re not very nice,” he said. “Now answer my question.”
“Amanda was a nerd,” Jen said. “All she did was go to school and study.”
“Nerds can have friends,” Silas said. “What about other nerds?”
“She never went to parties,” she said. “Never did anything outside of school.”
“Your dad said she had a job.”
“Yeah at the newspaper,” Jen said. “That’s worse than school.”
“Still,” Silas said, rifling through Amanda’s desk, “we all need to cut loose, from time to time.” He picked up the girl’s diary and skimmed it.
“Do you always read other people’s diaries?” Jen asked.
The detective snapped the book shut. “I do when they go missing. Nothing juicy in here, though. But I’m sure you already knew that.” He tossed the book to Jenny.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“The lock’s been tampered with,” Silas said. “Bobby pin. Something tells me Amanda didn’t need to break into her own diary.”
The girl’s reddening checks said it all.
“Did Amanda have a boyfriend?” Silas asked.
“No way,” Jen said. “Dad doesn’t let us date.”
“Dad doesn’t know everything,” he said. “Like the pierced ears you’re hiding under your hair.”
Jen reached up to cover her ears. “I was going to tell him, once they were healed.”
“Mhm and couldn’t close up?” Silas smirked as he knocked on the floor with his foot.
“What are you doing, now?” she asked.
“If my dad didn’t allow boyfriends—and I really wanted one—I’d hide the evidence. Since Avery and the police found nothing above ground…” He knelt down and rapped the floor under Amanda’s desk. Pulling back the rug, he stuck a pocket knife between the boards. One of them popped out. Silas drew a shoebox from the secret compartment.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he said. “I’d expect more from Cradle Hills Police Department.”
“No way.” Jenny jumped from the bed, reaching for the box. Silas held it away from her.
“I found it, I get to look first.”
Setting the box on the desk, he removed the lid. Inside was a stack of letters, hastily scrawled in clumsy handwriting. They were signed by ‘Bobby.’ There was a small red diary, a few photos, and a necklace.
“Look at this thing.” Silas held the necklace up to the light. It was ugly. The thick chain was made of square links of copper. The pendant was as large as a baby’s head, just as round. Carved on it was a circle with rays extending from the center. Silas counted sixteen.
“Weird,” Jenny said. “Is it a locket?”
Silas checked. “Doesn’t open. Not really the kind of thing a guy gives his girlfriend. Although I don’t know what teens are into these days. Do they still get matching tattoos?”
“Let me try it on,” Jenny said.
He pulled it out of her grasp. “Excuse me, but this is evidence.” Silas tucked it into a coat pocket. “Now, do you want to tell me who Bobby is?”
Jenny shrugged. She reached into the box and examined one of the photos. “This is Bobby Howells,” she said. “Wow, Amanda was dating him?”
“Appears like it,” Silas said. “Where can I find this Bobby?”
“He works at the Swanson Diner, I think,” she said.
“I should pay him a visit,” Silas said.
“Not a chance,” the detective said.
“At least I got this diary,” she said, reaching into the box.
Silas snatched it away from her. “Wrong on both counts.”
The detective quickly scanned the diary as he made his way from the Jones’ residence. It shed no light on her disappearance. The entries gushed over the boyfriend. Too much, really. There’s infatuation, then there’s obsession. For a grown man in his twenties, it was revolting to read.
Silas somehow reached the Swanson Diner. It was a greasy spoon kind of place, a carryover from Cradle Hills’ blue-collar days. The private detective shouldered his way to the counter, where a pear-shaped man in a stained apron asked him his order.
“How’s the tuna melt?” Silas said.
“Terrible,” the man said.
“I’ll take it,” Silas said. “Can you tell me where I can find Bobby Howells?”
The waiter looked Silas, up and down.
“He’s not in,” he said.
“It’s pretty important that I speak to him,” Silas said.
“What did he do?”
“Nothing,” Silas said. “I just need to ask him a few questions.”
The waiter snorted. “When he comes in I’ll be sure to let him know.”
Something told Silas he couldn’t count on that. The waiter turned to another customer, signaling that he was done with the private detective. Silas turned around to study the restaurant. He quickly got the feeling he was being watched. The kitchen door was swinging back and forth. As it parted to reveal the kitchen, he saw someone running out the back.
Silas left the diner. He ran around the back in time to see a man jump a fence. The detective followed him as he cut through backyards and alleys. The kid had never tried to lose a tail before. It showed. He eventually reached a backyard, shimmied up to a window, and disappeared inside.
“Odd way of getting home,” Silas said.
He cut through the backyard to reach the porch. A man in a trench coat was waiting for him.
“Robert Howells?” he said to Silas.
“Not even close.”
The man crossed his arms. Silas noticed the police badge poking out from his coat. The brash, display of authority that followed was not new to the private detective.
“I know this is Bobby Howells’s residence,” the cop said.
“It didn’t occur to you that other people live in this neighborhood?” Silas asked.
“You match Bobby’s description.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Can you tell me what you’re doing here?” the man asked.
“Same as you: I’m looking for Bobby,” Silas said.
“He’s not home,” the cop said. “I’ve been here for almost an hour. Nobody’s entered the house.”
“Good thing I’m better at this than you,” Silas said. “Bobby just got home. He climbed up a fire escape to get in.”
“Why would he do that?” the cop asked.
“Maybe he lost his key,” Silas said.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Silas Black.”
The cop shrugged. “Kid owe you money?”
“Private eye,” Silas said.
The man in the trench coat rolled his eyes. “What do you want with Howells?”
“I was hired by Avery Jones to find his daughter,” Silas said. “Apparently, he’s not confident the local police are up to the challenge.”
“We are,” the man said. “I’m Detective Dallas Nicolson, Cradle Hills Police Department.”
“Dallas?” Silas said.
“My dad’s from Texas,” he said.
“Okay, Tex. I didn’t know a town like this could afford detectives,” Silas said.
“There’s not a lot of us, but yeah,” Nicolson said. “And we do a good job.”
“So, where’s Amanda?”
“We’re spread thin,” the cop said. “And we don’t need outsiders interfering with cases.”
“I’m local,” Silas said. “New York.”
“Even worse,” Nicolson said. “Listen, I’ve made Amanda Jones a top priority. I spent the past few days following leads. Found out she was dating this Howells kid.”
“I figured that out in under an hour,” Silas said.
“Bully for you,” Nicolson said. He stepped toward the door and ran the top bell. “But now that you know the police are on the case, you might as well back off.”
“Too late for that,” Silas said.
“I’ll arrest you,” Nicolson said.
“For what, standing on a porch?”
“Obstructing a police investigation.”
“Big talk, Tex,” Silas said. “But that crisp, unwrinkled trench coat tells me you’re new at this. You need my help.”
Nicolson shoved a finger into Silas’ face. “You’re not stepping one foot into that apartment.”
“Is this your very first case?”
“Shut up, both of you.” Bobby Howells looked down at them from a second-floor window. “You can come up, if that will make you leave faster.”
Silas and the police detective elbowed their way to the top of the apartment stairs. Bobby Howells shut the window and led them into the living room. He lit a cigarette as he paced between a couch and entertainment center.
“Is that a Trinitron?” Silas said, pointing to the TV. “You can never find those anymore.”
“Mr. Howells,” the cop said. “I’m Detective Nicolson of the CHPD. I just want to ask you a few questions about Amanda Jones.”
Bobby looked at Silas. “Amanda’s dad sent you.”
Silas nodded. “He doesn’t know you’re dating Amanda. Not yet. I’m sure Jenny will spill the beans.”
“Great.” Bobby stubbed out the cigarette. He paced faster. “I didn’t have anything to do with her going missing. I love Amanda.”
“Why don’t you sit down so we can go over everything?” Nicolson sat down on the couch. Silas stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen.
“You’re not in any trouble, Bobby,” Nicolson said, trying to sound reassuring. “We just want to find her.”
“Why did you keep your relationship secret?” Silas asked.
“Her dad’s strict,” Bobby said. “Amanda said he was afraid of her growing up too fast.”
“When did you see her last?” Nicolson asked.
Bobby hesitated. “About five days ago.”
“On the day she went missing?” the police detective said.
“You gotta understand,” Bobby said, “we weren’t hurting anyone. We just wanted to have some fun. He wanted something different. We didn’t know that until it was too late.”
“Who are you talking about?” Silas asked.
“Horace,” Bobby said. “Horace Watkins.”
“Horace?” Silas repeated. “God, his parents didn’t like him, did they?”
Nicolson tapped a pencil against his notepad. “I know that name.”
“Of course, you do,” Bobby said. “He’s on the City Council. He teaches at the community college in Red Grove. Horace is one of the most important people in Cradle Hills.”
“So, he’s an overachiever,” Silas said. “Overcompensating. Probably because of the name.”
“Amanda knew him pretty well,” Bobby said. “They were almost like friends. She took one of his classes. He got her a job at the paper. Horace went to her first. Got us both into the stuff.”
“Stuff?” Nicolson said. “Are you talking about drugs?”
Bobby nodded. “At first, it was just once and a while. By the end, it was all she could think about. All we could both think about.”
“What kind of drugs are we talking about?” Nicolson asked.
“Does that even matter?” Silas said.
“It does in my line of work,” the police detective said. “We have a prominent member of the community dealing drugs to students. Was it cocaine, Bobby? Ecstasy?”
Bobby started to scratch his arm. He shook his head. “You can get that stuff anywhere. Horace was giving out something different. Something new. It made you feel limitless. Like you could leave your body and touch the stars. But coming down was hell.”
Nicolson sighed. “A member of City Council. This is going to get ugly.”
“Hang on a second,” Silas said. “He was giving you the drug? Not selling?”
“He never asked for money,” Bobby said. “But he was strict. Horace gave small doses and only to certain people.”
“Why would he do that?” Silas said.
“He was building a reputation,” Nicolson said. “Give it out at first, to generate interest. Then, when it got popular, he would start charging big time.”
“It wasn’t about money,” Bobby said. “Horace was grooming us. He called us his disciples.”
“Now that’s interesting,” Silas said. “How many were there?”
“Including me and Amanda? Thirteen.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Silas said.
“What did Horace mean by ‘disciples?’” Nicolson asked. “You were working for him, I assume.”
“No,” Bobby said. “We had to meet. Sometimes on campus. Sometimes in the woods. It was like a ceremony. He gave out Zygote like a priest at Communion. There was a table and everything.”
“An altar,” Silas said.
“What is ‘Zygote?’” Nicolson asked.
“That’s what he called the stuff,” Bobby said.
“Hmm,” Silas said. “Gross.”
“He had objects laid out beside a bowl of it. I don’t know what they were for. Horace never explained himself. I remember overhearing something about the necklace–it was for protection.”
“What happened to Amanda?” Nicolson said. “Did Horace do something to her?”
“She was able to hide it from everyone else, but I could see it,” Bobby said. “Zygote was killing her. The drug makes you sick. Not withdrawals, something different. I couldn’t watch Amanda get hurt. I knew that necklace would protect her, so I stole it. Horace must have found out and assumed it was her.”
Silas’ hand went to his coat pocket. He felt the necklace he took from Amanda’s box.
“She wasn’t wearing it that night. Horace brought us all together. He accused Amanda of betraying him. He, he…”
“Bobby,” Nicolson said, “what did he do to her?”
“Gorgon,” the boy said. “Gorgon etet yulumun.”
“What the hell?”
“Bobby,” Silas said. “What’s wrong with your arm?”
The police detective noticed Bobby’s arm. The skin he had been scratching was shriveled. It flaked off in large chunks. Bobby’s eyes clouded over. They glowed a green light. His face cracked like old leather. He opened his mouth. The sound that came out was a rumbling croak.
Nicolson stood up, his hand on his gun. The boy began to convulse. The cop took a step toward him.
“I wouldn’t,” Silas said. The cop turned to him.
“Don’t tell me what to–”
Bobby screamed. The cop was thrown back into the couch. Waving his arms, the boy sent furniture flinging into the air. They spun around him like wreckage caught in a cyclone. He shouted more unintelligible words, his voice echoing like thunder peals.
Silas dove beneath the kitchen table. The apartment was shaking. Taking out his notepad, he tried to transcribe what the boy was saying. The bedlam was growing. In a few minutes, the house itself would fall apart. Then he heard the gunshots. Everything got quiet. Someone collapsed to the floor.
The police detective was standing over the lifeless body of Bobby Howells. His gun hand was shaking.
“I–I can’t believe it,” he said. “I shot him. I shot a kid.”
“Yeah,” Silas said, stepping over rubble to reach him. “Not great, Tex. I’m no cop, but I don’t think you’re supposed to shoot a witness.”
“I didn’t have a choice, Black,” Nicolson said. “He was tearing the house apart. We were going to be next.”
“That was unusual.” Silas knelt over the body. He didn’t touch it.
“What’s going on?” the police detective said. “You seem pretty calm for what just happened.”
“I do?” Taking out a pencil, Silas peeled back a piece of Bobby’s torn shirt. Muscle and fat were burn away, skin clinging to bone. A blue-green slim collected around his lips and eyes.
“Ectoplasm,” Silas said. “Not a surprise. If I had a dollar for every time I saw ectoplasm shoot out of someone, I’d–well, I guess I do get paid for that.”
“I’ve never seen a drug do that to a person.” The police detective wiped his nose and mouth with the back of his hand. He looked around the room like a caged animal.
“Stay with me, Tex,” Silas said. “Ectoplasm is perfectly normal, considering the circumstances.”
“Something’s in the air, right?” he said. “He pumped the air with a hallucinogen. That’s what happened.”
“You think Bobby here had a hallucinogen ready in his air ducts?” Silas scoffed. “Why can’t people believe what’s right before their eyes?”
“Then you explain this,” Nicolson said. “Because drugs don’t do that people.”
“Obviously, Zygote is no ordinary drug,” Silas said. He stood up and pulled out his notepad. “I didn’t catch the last few words he said. Did it sound like ‘clumpkin’ to you? No, that’s ridiculous. The language could have been Sumerian. Could have been gibberish.”
“What kind of drug does this?” the police detective asked. “He was moving things without touching them. It’s like he had some kind of power.”
“It was an uncontained telepathic episode,” Silas said. “Sounds technical, right? I’ll try to come up with something catchier later.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It seems like psychic powers are a side effect of Zygote,” Silas said. “Amanda was able to communicate to her father through a dream, only briefly.”
The private detective groaned. “Remember how hippies said LSD opened their minds?”
“I think so.”
“Well, it didn’t,” Silas said. “But it is possible. You just need something much stronger than acid. Something so powerful, it opens your mind to an outside influence. We just discovered a drug that does that.”
“Opens your mind to what?” the cop said.
“Something pretty nasty,” Silas said. “Don’t have a name yet, but I think I saw a sketch of it. How does a nightmarish creature with long skull strike you?”
Nicolson shook his head like he was trying to knock water out of his ears. “You said something. During the interview. You weren’t surprised that Horace had thirteen users.”
“Disciples,” Silas said. “That’s a significant number for occultists. Horace is doing more than just dealing drugs. He’s a cult leader.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” the cop asked.
“Paranormal phenomenon is my decoupage,” Silas said.
“I know a lot about it,” Silas said.
“You mean your legerdemain.”
“Hey, I don’t have time for a grammar lesson.” Silas tucked his notebook into his coat and headed for the door. Nicolson jumped in front of him.
“Where are you going?”
“To find Horace,” Silas said. “Figure out what he’s up to and stop him.”
Nicolson shook his head. “No way. This is my case. Horace is responsible for two dead teens–”
“We don’t know if Amanda’s dead.”
“The man is dealing drugs,” Nicolson said. “I’m going to arrest him.”
“You don’t have evidence of that, Tex,” Silas said. “You shot your only witness.”
“I’m not letting you confront him on your own,” Nicolson said.
“You’re not really in a position to stop me,” Silas said. “You have to call this in. While you’re fussing with the M.E. and your superiors, I’ll be confronting Horace Watkins.”
“That’s a good point,” Nicolson said. “But also, there’s this.”
With a snap, he closed a handcuff to Silas’ wrist. The other he secured around the staircase banister.
“Hmm,” Silas said. “Should have seen that coming.”
“My boys stationed outside Horace’s house say the place is empty. There’s a good chance he’s working late.”
Detective Nicolson shifted his car into park. They sat in the parking lot of the Red Grove community college. He was calm. The predictability of police procedure soothed him, helped him push aside what he saw at Bobby’s house. For the moment. Silas was his normal self. He was leaning forward–looking through the windshield–as he scanned the building.
“Two lights still on,” he said. “Teacher’s office.”
“That’s the History Department,” the cop said.
“How do you know?”
“I went to school here,” he said.
“Really?” Silas said. “You didn’t know Horace by name, though.”
“Who remembers every name they hear?”
“Remind me what you do again?” Silas said.
“Shut up. When we go in there, you don’t speak. I’ll take the lead.”
“I don’t work for you,” Silas said.
“If things get dicey in there it’ll be on me,” the cop said. “So, please, do what I say.”
“If things get dicey in there, you’ll want me calling the shots,” Silas said. “I’m the expert.”
“Didn’t come in handy at Bobby’s house,” Nicolson said.
“Or you can just shoot everybody,” Silas said.
“Get out of the car.”
Walking past rows of empty classrooms, they found the only office with a light on. A portly woman with a severe hair bun sat behind a desk. Her eyes grew big when she saw a cop standing in front of her. She smiled graciously, nonetheless.
“Hello, gentlemen. What can I do for you?”
Nicolson nodded to his badge. “I’m Detective Dallas Nicolson. I’m here to see Horace Watkins.”
The woman’s eyes darted to Silas. The detective smiled. “I’m with him.”
“What is this regarding?” she asked.
“That’s between me and Mr. Watkins,” Nicolson said.
“Is that right?”
“Ma’am, time is a factor–do you know where he is?”
The woman was reluctant to answer. Nicolson took a step toward the desk. A door opened and a man entered the room. He was mid-fifty with gray hair at the temples. The thick glasses dangling from his nose were a decade out of style.
“Is something wrong, Jane?” he asked.
“Mr. Watkins, this is a police detective,” she said. “He was looking for you.”
“Hello gentlemen,” Horace Watkins said. “How may I help you?”
“We’re looking into the disappearance of Amanda Jones,” the cop said. “I understand she was one of your students.”
Horace paused, as if trying to remember. “Yes, I believe she is taking one of my classes.”
“I have a few questions about your relationship with her,” the cop said.
“Why don’t we discuss this in my office.” He nodded at Jane and told her she could go home. As the secretary left, Horace led the men into an adjoining classroom. He kept the lights dim as he sidled to his desk.
“This is your office?” Silas asked.
“I prefer it in here,” Watkins said. “Seeing the desks inspires me.”
“When was the last time you saw Amanda?” Nicolson asked.
“I can’t remember,” Watkins said.
“Really? The girl was one of your students,” Silas said.
“I have a hectic schedule, gentlemen,” Watkins said. “I can’t account for all my students.”
“This wasn’t any other student,” Nicolson said. “You knew Amanda pretty well. You got her a job. Some might say you were friends.”
“Some might say all sorts of things,” Watkins said. “I know Amanda. She is a bright girl. I’m sorry that she’s missing. But I can’t be held responsible for a runaway.”
Silas sighed. He was getting tired of the foreplay. “Horace, Bobby is dead,” Silas said.
Watkins looked at Silas.
“Bobby Howells,” Silas said. “Serpico over here shot him. And let me tell you, he didn’t go down quietly. I know you’re not surprised to hear that. After all, you gave him Zygote.”
Watkins carefully took off his glasses and placed them on his desk. He smiled.
“Bobby Howells apparently had a big mouth,” he said.
“What’s Zygote?” Nicolson asked.
“It’s not anything you ever heard of,” Watkins said.
“Zygote is extracted from the spinal cord of a special donor. When exposed to air, the fluid crystalizes. Ground into a powder, it can be consumed intravenously.”
“Oh,” Silas said, looking over at Nicolson. “Wasn’t expecting that.”
“You admit you were giving this drug to Bobby Howells?” Nicolson said.
“Bobby and several others,” Watkins said. “They took it willingly, mind you. Of course, they weren’t aware of the changes it would have on them. Young people are very naive.”
“That ‘drug’ did a number on Bobby,” Silas said. “Psychic energy would do that to you.”
Watkins looked at Silas with an expression almost like admiration. “You’re no police officer.”
“I can’t believe you can discuss this so casually,” Nicolson said. “You’re admitting to a serious crime, Mr. Watkins.”
“I’ve done no wrong,” Watkins said. “Everything I’ve done has been for the betterment of the world.”
“I doubt that,” the cop said.
“Do you know I’m a member of the City Council?” Watkins said.
“That’s not going to help you.”
“It’s not a prestigious office,” the teacher said. “Not in this town. But it was important to me, once. My family’s lived in Cradle Hills for five generations; serving on the council was a special honor.”
“Do you know the town’s history, detective?” Watkins said. “It was a mining town. The entire mountainside is littered with old mines. You probably don’t know the mines weren’t properly sealed. When the auto plants opened nearby, they actually dumped their waste into the mines. I don’t have to tell you what a disaster that’s caused.”
“Is there a point, Mr. Watkins?” Nicolson asked.
“Absolutely. Word about our situation reached state, then federal levels. They were going to send inspectors. As a councilman, I felt it was my duty to go ahead of them and investigate. I scouted out some of the abandoned mines myself.
“The mines run deep underground,” he continued. “Much deeper than anyone expects. I didn’t find waste. I found something much different.”
“What?” Silas said.
“A door,” Watkins said. “Or better put, a hole. The miners must have dug into it by accident. They sealed it up with bricks and plaster. Warnings still hung over it. Curiosity got the best of me, so I broke through and uncovered something amazing.”
Watkins stood up from his desk.
“It was a tomb,” the teacher said, gesturing with his hands. “An ancient tomb. Older than anything in America has the right to be. The walls were azure, like the sky. Bones wrapped in silk laid on slabs. I followed the passage as it wound deeper and deeper. I knew it was madness, but the voice was calling to me. I had to obey.”
“Whose voice?” Silas asked.
Watkins’ eyes glistened. “At the bottom was the heart of the tomb. In the center was a massive, black coffin. I laid my hands on it and His voice filled the room.
“His name is Yll’Sek, the Forgotten King. He ruled long ago–in the antediluvian age before man. His subjects were an ancient race of myth and legend.
“Yll’Sek ruled with might and wisdom. But as the world changed, his kingdom was lost. His tomb was buried beneath the weight of time. But I FOUND HIM.”
Nicolson let out an annoyed breath. “You expect us to believe that?”
“Do you doubt what your own eyes have seen?” Watkins said. “You witnessed the wrath of Yll’Sek on one of the disobedient.”
“You mean Bobby?” Silas said.
“He was one of my disciples,” Watkins said. “Yll’Sek ordered me to find them. Though alive, He is powerless. His consciousness lingers at the moment his death, eons ago. It reaches across time–to me. He needs us, if He is to enter the present.”
“What does that have to do with Zygote?” Nicolson asked.
“Yll’Sek showed me how to extract the essence from His body,” Horace said. “Zygote expands the mind, opening it to His power. With enough minds touched by Yll’Sek, we can open a path for Him to return.”
“Unless Zygote overwhelms a person, turning them into a psychic bomb,” Silas said.
“Only for the unworthy,” Watkins said.
“Is that what happened to Amanda Jones?” Nicolson said.
“Amanda…” Watkins said. “She was my finest disciple. I hoped Amanda would embrace the Forgotten King. That boyfriend of hers got in the way. I needed to punish the both of them. Nothing can get in the way of Yll’Sek’s return.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Nicolson said. “Horace Watkins, you’re under arrest for the murders of Amanda Jones and Bobby Howells.”
Watkins laughed. In a flash, the cop was around the desk. He pressed the teacher against the wall and slapped cuffs on his hands.
“Nicolson wait,” Silas said.
“I’ve heard enough, Black,” the police detective said. “Between this confession and what my officers will find at his house, we’ve got enough.”
“If you arrest him now, he’ll lawyer up,” Silas said. “We’ll never find out how to stop Yll’Sek.”
Nicolson cast Silas a sour glance. “You believe that nonsense?”
“Yes,” Silas said. “There is a malevolent entity trying to enter our world. If we don’t deal with it–things will get much worse.”
“The man’s insane, Black,” Nicolson said. “He’ll say anything to justify what he’s done.”
“It doesn’t matter, Mr. Black,” Watkins said, his face pressed against the wall. “Nothing you learn will stop Yll’Sek. Besides, I didn’t kill Amanda. Isn’t that right, dear?”
She was standing in the back of the room. Tall, pale, and desperately thin. Silas recognized the mousey hair and piercing eyes from her photo.
“Oh my God,” Nicolson said. “Amanda?”
Slowly, she crossed the room. The sleeves of her tattered shirt were rolled up, revealing her shriveled skin. Her steps were stiff and awkward.
“Amanda,” Silas said, “your dad is worried sick about you. Don’t you think it’s time to go home?”
Amanda’s eyes flashed green. She growled at them. Her jaw extended unnaturally low as a second set of teeth and fangs hung out.
“Holy–” Nicolson dropped Horace and he drew his gun. Silas shouted, jumping in his way. Amanda was a blur as she tackled them.
Silas woke up on the cold, dirty ground. He sat up, his head reeling. With hand pressing against his head, he tried to think.
He was in the hollowed-out carcass of a warehouse. The far wall and ceiling were caved in, giving a delightful view of the night sky. Silvery moonlight poured through, barely cutting the mist.
Silas found Detective Nicolson on the ground beside him.
“You look as good I feel, Tex,” Silas said.
Nicolson pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead. “Am I bleeding?” he said, looking at his hand. “It was bleeding.”
“Do you recognize this place?” Silas asked.
The police detective squinted. “One of the abandoned mining facilities outside of Cradle Hills. We’re in the mountains.”
Silas tried to stand up. “How did that old bastard drag us all the way up here?”
“He probably had help from Amanda–thanks to you.”
“Can’t shoot the person you’ve been hired to find,” Silas said. “Bad for business.”
“Well now we’re up a creek,” Nicolson said. “Why did he bring us here?”
“Why do you think?” Silas said, stretching his back. “To sacrifice us.”
“Be serious, please.”
“Of course, what was I thinking?” Silas said. “The man who’s been doping kids on orders from a monster would never want to sacrifice us. Especially when we’re the ones trying to stop him.”
“My boys will find us, trust me,” Nicolson said.
“Might not matter,” Silas said, “Look, we’re not even tied up. You’re gun’s in its holster.”
Nicolson pulled out his sidearm. “Why?”
“He’s not afraid of us,” Silas said. “Guns won’t stop what’s coming.”
Nicolson pointed at something behind Silas. He turned around. A flank of robed figures entered the warehouse. Hoods hid their faces. They lined up behind a slab, setting green torches around it. Laid out on the altar were crude-looking utensils: knives, spoons, and a large bowl filled with glittering powder.
“Wow they move quietly,” Silas said.
“I guess these are the disciples,” Nicolson said.
“More will come,” came a booming voice. “The whole world will bow before Yll’Sek.”
One of the robed figures stepped out from the group. He pulled back his hood. Horace Watkins smiled at the men, his eyes bulging. His expression was intense with pleasure, almost painful.
“This has gone on long enough, Horace,” Silas said. “You kidnapped a cop. People are going to notice.”
Horace laughed as he floated up into the air. His voice echoed like thunder.
“Let them come,” he said. “They will witness Yll’Sek in all his glory. The combined lifeforce of my disciples will summon him. He will be reborn, in ME.”
“How nice for you.” Silas looked over at Nicolson. “Might as well shoot him.”
“You said guns won’t work,” Nicholson said.
“Gonna listen to me now?”
The cop drew his gun and fired. The bullets passed through Horace’s flittering robe. He was unharmed. Nicolson emptied his clip.
“Now what?” he said to Silas.
“Just give me a minute,” the detective said. “I always come up with something.”
“Your time is up,” Horace shouted. “Disciples, give me your life.”
They pulled back their hoods, revealing mutated, crooked faces. Some of them were teens, like Amanda and Bobby. Others were middle-aged, even elderly. Their eyes glowed with the same green light.
Lifting their right hands, they injected needles into their arms. The air snapped with energy. The disciples convulsed. A slimy, blue-green substance gushed out of their mouths. It bubbled up into the air and enveloped their leader.
Watkins’ limbs stretched. His fingers become twig-like, connected with greasy webbing. The top of his head expanded. His hair fell out, as the skin became rubbery and blue. His nose shrunk into two nostril holes. Long, serrated teeth gaped from his wide jaws. His eyes swelled into black orbs.
“Witness the rebirth of a god!” thundered his alien voice.
“That might be the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” Silas said.
“What happens now?” Nicolson shouted.
“Oh, you know. Yll’Sek grows to full strength. Enslaves a large portion of the Eastern seaboard. Plunges the world into a new age of darkness,” Silas said.
“How do we stop it?”
“You cannot stop Us now,” the Horace-thing said. He pointed at the men. A gout of green fire hit Silas and Nicolson. The ground was scorched. Brickwork was reduced to ash. The air sizzled with intense heat.
Horace gloated as the fire subsided. He gazed down at the corpses. But Silas and Nicolson were unharmed.
Silas reached into his coat. He pulled out the clunky metal chain he took from Amanda’s secret box.
“That belongs to Us,” the Horace-thing cried.
“Come and get it,” Silas said.
The Horace-thing roared. Pointing both hands at Silas, he unleashed his fury. Silas put the necklace around his neck. Nicolson stood beside him, unwilling to budge. Molten fire crashed against a barrier that was now visible around them. Smoke wafted off a matrix of mystical energy generated by the talisman.
“What else you got?” Silas said.
“We will not be defeated.” The Horace-thing dropped to the altar. He grasped up a long, hooked dagger with one of his webbed hands.
“I don’t think that’s gonna work, Horace,” Silas said.
“We are Yll’Sek,” he said. “We are god-incarnate.”
The Horace-thing flew through the air. He bowled over his disciples, now lifeless dolls. He thrust at Silas with the ceremonial knife. Blinding light filled the warehouse, bursting through the open ceiling. Silas and Nicolson were thrown to the ground. A deafening roar shook the walls. Then silence.
It was a long minute before Silas lifted his head. He was aching worse than before. But he was, in fact, alive. Beside him was Detective Nicolson. He wasn’t moving. Silas kicked him in the ribs.
“Ow. What the hell?”
“Tex, you’re alive. At least the two of us made it.”
Getting to his feet, Silas cautiously approached what was left of Horace’s altar. It was cracked in half, the ceremonial utensils shattered. Silas reached up to feel the talisman that saved his life. He took it off and pocketed it.
The disciples were slowly waking up. The vacant looks in their eyes convinced Silas they were mostly back to normal. Among the disoriented group was Avery’s daughter.
“Amanda.” Silas ran over to the young woman. Helping her to her feet, he examined her face and skin. He stuck his fingers in her mouth. There was no sign of corruption.
“Ah, what are you doing?” she asked.
“Looks like you’re back to normal,” Silas said. “Your dad will be happy.”
“Good,” Amanda said. “Who are you?”
Silas turned away, drawn by the sound of the police detective. Nicolson was standing in the doorway of the warehouse, shouting. Across the mountain slopes bobbed beams of flashlights.
“My boys,” Nicolson said. “Surprised they got here so quickly.”
“I’m sure the massive light show got their attention,” Silas said.
“EMT’s will be close behind,” the police detective said. “They’ll check everyone out.”
“Whatever,” Silas said.
“Do you think Horace…”
“I don’t see his body,” Silas said. “Let’s call it a win.”
“And that… thing?” Nicolson asked.
“It’s still trapped deep underground,” Silas said. “I mean, you could go down there and check on it yourself.”
The cop shook his head. “No thanks.”
He scratched his head, letting out a breath he had seemingly been holding in for a while. “This is some crazy stuff.”
“Uh-huh,” Silas said.
“You deal with this kind of thing all the time?” he asked.
“Or a close proximity.”
“Don’t know how you do it,” Nicolson said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Silas said. “You’ll push this out of your mind in a week or two. Most people do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a check that needs collecting. I’m sure Avery won’t mind being woken up.”
The private detective turned to fetch Amanda. Nicolson grabbed him by the arm.
“Hey, do you think we’ll ever cross paths again?”
Silas looked the cop. He patted Nicolson on the shoulder and smiled.