Neo-Gothic Horror + Florida Swamps = Creepy Fun!
This is a contemporary Neo-Gothic horror story set deep in the heart of Florida’s dark, foreboding Everglades. At its core, it’s a modern day morality tale wrapped in the Neo-Gothic genre.
This is a contemporary Neo-Gothic horror story set deep in the heart of Florida’s dark, foreboding Everglades. At its core, it’s a modern day morality tale wrapped in the Neo-Gothic genre.
The story takes place near Lost Man’s River. Yes, there really is a Lost Man’s River. Want to speculate how it got its name?
The story involves the ongoing clash between modern, agnostic view of reality and the native superstitions of past. One of those schools of thought loses. Big time.
It has been compared to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King.
It’s a quick, fun read, but you may want to leave the lights on when you go to bed.
|Publication Date||July 13, 2012|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
The writers currently at the top of his reading list include Brad Thor, Alex Berenson, Lee Child, Elmore Leonard, and David Baldacci. His latest novel, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, known as the Sleeping Dogs. He also wrote The Quixotics, .
A native Floridian and former transactional attorney, Falbey is a real estate investor and developer in Southwest Florida. He invites you to visit him at www.sleepingdogs.biz.
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He Who Drinks From Lethe…
A short story by
John Wayne Falbey
Copyright © 2012 John Wayne Falbey
The cloudless August sky shimmered like molten aluminum. The four men had been fishing in the Everglades for the past three days. The brutal combination of heat, humidity and exertion affected all of them, but in particular it had begun to defeat Sir Edward’s meager reserves of stamina. In spite of the old man’s increasing torpor, he refused to return to the fishing camp. As a means of compromise, the party anchored their two small fishing skiffs in a shady cove formed by one of the countless bends in Lost Man’s River. Huge cypress trees, some of them over 700 years old, shielded them from the direct glare of the sun. Still, a hot and soggy breeze occasionally gusted over them from the sawgrass savanna across the river. Here, in a desolate part of the dark and sluggish river, they found sanctuary from the hottest part of the day.
The leathery-skinned and grizzled fishing guide, Taggart, announced lunch in his taciturn fashion. He simply passed around sandwiches and cold beer from the ice chest in the skiff he shared with Sir Edward. The nobleman’s son-in-law, Major Cedric SmytheThomas, late of the Queen’s Royal Hussars, shook his head in disapproval and glanced at Larrigan, with whom he shared the second skiff. Taggart only had one hand, and without a matching one to assist, it never seemed to be washed. Thick-knuckled and scarred, its fingers were permanently stained by nicotine from his ever-present cigarettes.
Larrigan always noticed little things, such as the fact that Taggart invariably passed the beer around first. In fact, it was rare that Taggart didn’t have a can of beer in his lone right hand, setting it aside only to light another cigarette or perform some guide duty. Although Larrigan occasionally wondered how the man had lost his left arm, he had never cared enough to ask. A few days earlier, however, in a conversation with his sonin-law and Larrigan, Sir Edward mentioned how Taggart had lost the appendage. It seemed he had become careless one day while chumming alligators at a local tourist attraction. At the time, Larrigan had wondered amusedly whether the ‘gator ever sought more of the guide. Like Captain Hook’s nemesis in Peter Pan.
Larrigan’s ego was outsized and further fueled by the knowledge that he was the best investigative journalist employed by Sir Edward Durville’s international chain of tabloids. At the old man’s invitation, he had come down from his office in Washington, D.C. earlier in the week to do some fishing. Larrigan had not anticipated that Sir Edward would be accompanied by his son-in-law. He had met Smythe-Thomas on a previous occasion, and had instantly disliked the man. Where Sir Edward was soft-spoken and reserved, Smythe-Thomas was boisterous and loud. From Larrigan’s cynical perspective, the Major seemed the epitome of a retired British army officer. He detested the man’s ceaselessly boring accounts of alleged military exploits.
With a florid face and bushy, red handlebar moustache, Larrigan thought the Major was best suited for a clown’s costume. Whereas Lord Durville was a man of refinement and taste, even in the wilds of the Everglades, Smythe-Thomas seemed crass, bigoted and quite overbearing. Larrigan contemplated the vast distinction between the two Englishmen, and wondered how Sir Edward ever had allowed Smythe-Thomas to marry into his family.
The Major suddenly tossed his empty beer can toward the middle of the river. The quick, jerky motion almost capsized the small fishing skiff. It snapped the journalist out of his momentary reflections.
“Goddammit, Major, I warned you not to make sudden, careless motions in the skiff,” Larrigan said with a distinct snarl. “I don’t want to take a bath in this muddy snake pit.”
“Yes, yes, quite so, old stick. I shouldn’t care to either. Sorry.” The feeling of dislike between the two men was mutual. Smythe-Thomas saw in the brash, impetuous, domineering Larrigan all of the traits he despised in Americans. He did concede, however, that the journalist was physically imposing. Where the Major’s pricy and carefully tailored fishing outfits could not conceal his expansive girth, the younger man’s faded denim cutoffs and sleeveless work shirt converged on a hard, flat abdomen. Larrigan was a large man with broad shoulders. Each of his arms was a series of large, knotted muscles from shoulder to wrist. He held the remains of his sandwich in a curiously delicate fashion that seemed incongruous with the power of those arms.
“Now, looka’ here, Major,” Taggart said with his distinct drawl, “I’d ’preciate it if you’d keep them cans in the bottom of the boat, and don’t be tossin’ ’em in the river. Next thing you know, this damn place’ll start to look like civ’lization come along and took a big-assed crap on it.” He pronounced the word “civ’lization” as if it had been coated with a caustic substance.
Taggart was a native Floridian. He took pride in referring to himself as a Cracker. It was a term that referred back to the early days of Florida. Its cowboys used to herd cattle by cracking bullwhips. The nickname, Cracker, came to apply to all native-born
A battered straw hat shielded Taggart’s balding crown from the relentless attack of the sun. He removed it frequently and mopped his leathery brown pate with a stained and ragged bandana. His khaki work clothes were worn and faded, bound together at the waist by a wide leather belt. The ornate buckle was barely visible beneath the sag of his paunch. The empty left sleeve of the shirt was carefully pinned to the shoulder. A broad ring of sweat stained his right armpit. A lifetime in the subtropical sun had weathered his skin far beyond its years. Beneath two tiny eyes that were the same muddy brown color as his beloved river, his nose was veined and lumpy. It resembled a small pineapple. He was not a handsome man, but there was a certain dignity in his native simplicity.
Larrigan ordered the Major to raise the small anchor and began to motor slowly up the narrowing river in a vain effort to create a draft. The barrage of insects had become too intense for him to remain still any longer. If he could not escape them entirely, he at least could challenge them with a moving target. After a few minutes he came upon the mouth of a small creek. Its entrance was so hidden among the shadows cast by the towering cypress trees that Larrigan almost didn’t see it. Had he not been seeking shade close to the edge of the river, he would have missed it completely.
Strangely, the creek’s turbid waters seemed even darker than those of the river into which it flowed. At this confluence, the water of the much larger river appeared to shrink back from those of the smaller creek, as though purposely recoiling from something sinister and frightening. Although the measure of its flow indicated considerable depth, the stream was so narrow that the tall cypress trees lining its passage formed a canopy of such density that that the brilliance of the August sun barely penetrated. It created a somber and baleful effect. A chilling breeze that was curiously inconsistent with the heat of the season seemed to rise from the streamlet. It cooled Larrigan where his sweat-soaked garments clung to his flesh. He welcomed it in relief and turned the prow of the skiff toward the mouth of the creek.
“Whoa! Hey! Don’t be goin’ up thar’! Taggart yelled from the other skiff some
“Why not?” Larrigan said.
“’Cause ain’t nobody ever goes up thar’.”
“What the hell kind of answer is that?”
As his skiff pulled abreast of Larrigan’s, Taggart, with a sullen expression, said,
“What I’m tellin’ you is, this here’s The Devil’s Creek. It ain’t a good place.”
Larrigan pondered the guide’s laconic response for a moment or two. These nonexplanations might suffice for most of Taggart’s effete patrons, but they were not acceptable to the battle-seasoned journalist. Getting answers was his forte. He had built his reputation on that talent and the ability to notice things others might miss. One of those things was the way Taggart’s small, almost reptilian eyes, semi-closed in a permanent squint from years in the sun, stared fearfully into the murky tunnel from which the creek flowed. Larrigan saw genuine terror in those eyes.
“What’s the matter, Taggart?” he said. “Is there a boogeyman somewhere up there?”
“Ain’t sayin’ thar’s anythin’ back up thar’!” Taggart said. His voice sounded more hoarse than usual, as if the muscles in his throat had tightened considerably.
Perhaps in fear, Larrigan thought.
Smythe-Thomas, as though subconsciously sensing Taggart’s apprehension, suddenly said, “I say, there’s a bloody awful chill hereabouts. What say we move along, old stick?”
Larrigan threw his head back and laughed. So, now the Major was frightened too, was he? It was time for Larrigan to have a little fun at Smythe-Thomas’ expense, as well as indulge his innate curiosity as an investigative journalist. He shifted the gear lever forward, gunned the throttle, and churned up the narrow creek. The suddenness of the action caught the Major unprepared. He nearly tumbled into Larrigan’s lap.
“Wait! No, for God’s sake, man, don’t be goin’ up thar’,” Taggart said with a loud shout. He hesitated for a long moment then shaking his head with the resignation of a condemned man, took off after Larrigan and Smythe-Thomas.
The wide-eyed Major clung so tightly to the gunnels that his knuckles turned white. “I say, Larrigan, it’s cold here. Let’s go back.”
“The creek probably is spring fed,” Larrigan said in voice loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the straining gas engine. “That would account for the chill coming off the water.” He was a rational man, so much so that he refused to be intimidated by anyone or anything.
“Well, at least slow down, old man.” There was a pleading tone in the Major’s voice. “If we hit a submerged log or something at this speed, we might be injured, or worse.”
“You’re not afraid, are you, Major?” Larrigan was enjoying Smythe-Thomas’ discomfort. He continued full throttle up the narrow stream. The eerie strangeness of the area was not lost on the journalist’s well-honed powers of observation.
Although the cypress trees were lush at their tops, nearly blotting out all sunlight, there seemed to be no greenery at their lower levels. A mist from an unidentifiable source rose slowly from the watery environs and blended with the Spanish moss that clung to the trees. The moss was incongruous this far south.
Everything appeared stark and gray in the murky atmosphere. Unlike the river they had just left, there were no signs of wildlife here. The only sounds were the whining of the motors and the water flowing swiftly beneath the boats’ metal hulls. Even the pungent smell of the river, redolent with a variety of subtropical scents, was absent. In its place was a dank and acrid aroma with a barely perceptible and unpleasant undertone that stung the men’s nasal passages and burned their throats. Larrigan was puzzled by the fact that the creek seemed to maintain a stable width, as though it purposely had been dug, yet had all the twists and turns of a natural waterway.
After about a mile, the stream widened into a small lake. Although more open to the sunlight than the catacomb-like stream had been, its atmosphere was equally as bleak and dismal. Its shore was lined with the remains of a dead forest, the tree trunks strangely scorched and blackened. For a moment, Larrigan thought they might be the source of the mysterious, unpleasant odor; then decided it was not charcoal, but something else that he still could not identify. He cut the engine and the skiff drifted from the creek onto the calm surface of the lake. It was then that he saw the ruined house. An atmosphere of things long dead oozed from the remains of the decaying mansion. Even with the brilliant, cloudless summer sky, the ruins were shrouded in somber darkness. Despite his cynical nature, even Larrigan was arrested by the sight.
At one time, long ago, it must have been an antebellum showplace, he thought. Now, overgrown with long-dead vines, entombed within the shadows of decaying cypress trees, the ancient, rotting two-story mansion seemed to be collapsing upon itself. It was as though its spirit had forsaken it, leaving behind a vacuum that could not support the façade.
After an initial glance, Smythe-Thomas refused to look at the house again. His hands continued to tightly grip the gunnels of the now-still skiff. His usually florid complexion had paled to a bloodless pallor. His breathing seemed inordinately fast. His mouth hung open as if he were struggling for air. His eyes, wide with fear, were fixed on the mouth of the stream from which they had emerged, as if it represented the only path of salvation for his very soul.
For a moment or two, even Larrigan sensed a certain ominous quality about the place. A chill ran down his back despite the sweltering heat.
At that moment, Taggart and Sir Edward arrived in their small boat. The guide immediately spun his craft around so that his back was to the decomposing ruins. As he pulled alongside the other boat, he reached out with his one arm and grasped Larrigan’s left wrist. Despite the thickness of the journalist’s limb, Taggart’s scared, leathery hand closed around it with surprising force.
“Dammit, man,” the guide said, “I warned you not to come here. Now, start yore damn engine and let’s get goin’. Quick.”
“Why? This looks like a good spot to fish.”
“Ain’t no fish here. Ain’t nuthin’ here. Let’s go!”
“I’ll make you a deal, Taggart,” Larrigan said. “You tell me what it is about this place that has you so spooked, then we’ll leave.”
“Ain’t nuthin’ to tell. C’mon!”
“Not until you tell me the boogeyman story that has you locals scared shitless.”
Just then there was a flash of lightening so brilliant and blinding that it reminded Larrigan of phosphorus grenades he had encountered in a dozen war zones. It was followed almost immediately by a deafening explosion of thunder. The suddenness startled the party and all four men craned their necks to gaze at the swiftly gathering storm clouds.
“Oh dear, it does seem that we are in for a bit of nasty weather,” Sir Edward said.
“Perhaps it would be best if we went along now.”
Larrigan cast one more glance of curiosity at the old house, then reluctantly turned the bow of his skiff to follow Taggart back down the dark creek.
They arrived back at Taggart’s ramshackle fish camp near the confluence of the river and the Gulf of Mexico just ahead of the daily summer downpour. The camp was a vision from Florida’s pioneer past. Boards of sun-bleached Florida slash pine were capped by a rusting corrugated metal roof. The whole affair was perched on rotting palmetto log pilings above the sluggish, coffee colored waters. Access was by means of a short pier that listed badly to one side. A muddy path led from it to a rudimentary boathouse. It was large enough to shelter three or four small skiffs, and consisted of decaying sabal palm trunks that braced a few heavily corroded sheets of metal. The entire encampment appeared to be facing momentary collapse. In reality, the structures had survived hurricanes whose fury had flattened more substantial, modern buildings. The setting reminded Larrigan of scenes from the countless Jungle Jim Saturday matinees of his boyhood.
Taggart’s skiff roared up to the pier. He cut his engine with a practiced skill that brought the craft to a gentle halt against one of the pier’s wooden pilings. In a single, seemingly effortless motion he leaped from the skiff to the dock and tossed a mooring line to Eli, the ancient black man who worked for him. It was an amazing display of agility for a man of Taggart’s girth; a man who had the use of only one arm for balance.
Smythe-Thomas, still looking a bit wan, staggered onto the dock. “I say, Taggart, be a good chap and have your wog fetch me a bloody gin and tonic, directly.”
Taggart shouldered his way brusquely past the Englishman, nearly knocking him from the dock as he did so. With a singleness of purpose, the guide strode up the few steps from the pier to the fishing shack, yanked open the screen door and proceeded directly to the pantry. After rummaging through it for several moments with his one arm, he stepped back with a bottle of Jack Daniels clutched tightly in his hand. This was private stock. He kept it well hidden for just such crisis situations as the one this day had brought. A look of genuine relief immediately replaced the grimness that earlier had etched itself into his weathered features.
Still shaken from the unwilling foray up the sinister creek, his trembling hand poured four fingers of whiskey into an old jelly glass. He downed it in a single gulp. Larrigan, who had just entered the shack, nodded appreciatively. Even his hard-drinking Irish father would have admired the feat.
The guide exhaled a long, deep sigh and refilled the glass. This time he sipped the whiskey, accompanying it with a seemingly endless chain of Camels from the pack in his shirt pocket. Typical of people who live their entire lives in isolated rural areas, Taggart was both laconic and xenophobic. This night, however, he was more reticent than usual, almost to the point of hostility toward the others, particularly Larrigan.
A crude partition divided the cabin into two areas. A kitchen-living-dining room combination occupied the front portion. Sleeping quarters were in the rear. While Taggart chain-smoked his way silently through the bottle of Jack Daniels, Sir Edward took a preprandial nap. Larrigan sat at the dinner table drinking a cold beer and watched SmytheThomas match Taggart drink for drink with gin and tonic. Above the table, a small fan powered by an emphysematic generator feebly stirred the hot, damp air in the cabin. The table itself was a roughhewn, handmade affair harboring the dents and gouges of years of hard use. It doubled as the social center of the camp. The men ate at it, drank at it, and, as was their custom, played endless games of cards at it well into each night. This evening would prove to be no exception.
Eli prepared a dinner from their day’s meager catch, supplemented with coleslaw and his special hushpuppies. Afterward, while he washed and dried the dinner dishes, the four men settled into their nightly poker session. Larrigan, who was accustomed to being the best at almost everything he undertook, was more than a little galled that Taggart generally won these games. This in spite of having one arm and a mind dulled by alcohol.
After the first couple of hands had gone Taggart’s way, Larrigan impatiently leaned across the table and said, “Alright, Taggart, let’s hear it. What’s the story on that old house?”
The guide looked up slowly and focused his bloodshot eyes on the journalist. For several moments he said nothing. Droplets of sweat rolled down his seamed and leathery face. His tiny, red-rimmed eyes held both fear and anger in their dark depths. They remained fixed on Larrigan in a steady gaze. Except for the creaking of the fan above, the room suddenly had become almost silent.
Eventually, Larrigan broke off the stare-down by glancing at old Eli. The man was staring at the journalist, frozen in the act of drying the last dish. His eyes seemed enormously wide, their whiteness a perfect match for the snowy tufts that fringed his ears. He stared at Larrigan in unabridged fear. But fear of what? Larrigan was compelled to know.
“Well, Eli,” he said. “What about you? What do you know about the legend of
The Devil’s Creek?”
The old man moved at last. His ebony hands set the dish gently on the drain board. “Ah gots to be gwine home. Raht now!” He hurried to the door and disappeared into the night. A few moments later they heard the sound of his ancient outboard cough to life. Its steady puttering eventually vanished into the distance.
“Well, dammit, if no one is going to tell me, I suppose I’ll just have to go back up there and look around myself,” Larrigan said.
This provoked a response from Taggart. He sat back heavily in his chair and fumbled in his shirt pocket for another cigarette.
“No need to be doin’ that, Larrigan,” he said in weary resignation. “Ah’ll tell you what yore so all-fired anxious to know.”
A smug smile settled on Larrigan’s face. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Regale us with the ghost stories that frighten you superstitious yokels.”
Taggart fixed Larrigan with a sullen stare. “Look, friend, yore a guest here, and I want yore stay to be a good ’un; but you ain’t got to make fun of our local beliefs.”
“Sorry, Taggart. I’ll try to contain my skepticism,” Larrigan said dryly with the cynicism of too many years as an investigative reporter.
“I want y’all to unnerstand sumthin’,” Taggart said with a sweeping glance that included all three of the other men. “This here ain’t a good thing to be talkin’ ’bout. But ’cause this here fella won’t give it a rest,” he nodded at Larrigan, “and because y’all are payin’ customers, and good ’uns at that, I’ll tell ya’ what it is yore all damn fools enough to wanna hear.”
He took a deep drag on his cigarette and chased it with a pull directly from the bottle of whiskey. “That ol’ house” he said, “was built more than a hunnert years ago by some feller who come over here from Europe. He had been some kind’a count or earl or somethin’ fancy, and had him some money. He bought a coupla’ thousand acres for fitty cent apiece with the idea of drainin’ the swamp, harvestin’ the cypress trees, and farmin’ the land. A’fore he could get started, though, he come down with the Fever. He knowed he was passin’ on, so he called his twin sons to his bedside.
“Now the ol’ man, he loved both them boys. But according to their European ways, only one of ’em could inherit the property. Poor ol’ feller must have suffered a mite over that decision. Finally, though, he chose one of them boys over t’other.
“That other boy didn’t take kindly to that decision at all. He flew into a rage. While in that state, he kilt the ol’ man and his brother, and stole the inheritance. When he come to his senses again, and realized what it was he done, he suffered a torment as damnable as Hell itself.”
“My word! Ghastly tale, don’t you think, Larrigan?” Smythe-Thomas said, interrupting the guide.
Larrigan didn’t even bother to look at the Major. He was watching Taggart, who had begun to pale with apparent fear and was sweating even more profusely than previously. “Go on, Taggart, finish the story,” he said. His lifelong contempt for the occult had been stimulated, and he wanted more.
“Wahl,” the guide said in his heavy drawl, “at last the painful memory of what he done become too great for that thar’ young feller; and he resorted to black magic to find relief. In the library of that ol’ house there were lotsa’ ancient books, which his ol’ man done brung over with him from Europe. Some of ’em dated back to the Middle Ages and had been brung back from Asia by an ancestor who had been in the Crusades.
“The youngster pored through ’em ’til he become an expert in the black arts. Then, late one evenin’ when thar was a full moon ashinin’, he done performed the most evil ritual of ’em all… he conjured up Satan hisself.”
Smythe-Thomas, his face florid even in the dim light cast by the single, bare light bulb hanging over the table, sat bolt upright in his chair and loudly said, “What? Poppycock!” He was beginning to feel strangely uncomfortable. He was a man who didn’t like ghost stories.
Larrigan glanced at the aged Sir Edward. The old man was motionless, caught in the spell of Taggart’s story.
Sweat was flowing in rivulets down the guide’s face and neck, merging with the perspiration on his one good arm and running down to his wrist and hand, where it soaked the cigarette he was holding. He dropped it into the now-empty whiskey bottle.
His hand shook visibly as he lit another one.
“Please continue the story, my friend. We are all quite fascinated by it,” Sir Edward said in a voice barely above a whisper. He edged closer to the table.
Taggart inhaled deeply from his cigarette, and coughed a grayish cloud of smoke toward the slow-moving fan. “Satan demanded to know why he’d been summoned up from Hell. The boy told him, ‘All I have…my estate, my soul, everythin’, is yore’s if you’ll let me have one deep gulp from the waters of Lethe.” “Lethe?” Smythe-Thomas said.
“Yeah, Lethe,” Taggart said. “If y’all remember from yore schoolin’, in mythology it’s believed that four rivers flow through Hell. One of ‘em is Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness. It’s said that whoever drinks from Lethe forgets everything.
“In his torment, the young feller sought to drink from them waters so’s he could erase the painful memory of what he done. Satan agreed to the bargain, one drink from them strange, dark waters.” Taggart paused and took another deep drag on his cigarette then said, “But there was just one thing that boy didn’t know about.”
Leaning forward in his chair, Larrigan said, “And that was?”
“Turns out, he who drinks from Lethe not only forgets all, but is hisself forgot by all… as though he never was.
“Right after that, the boy done disappeared from these parts forever. It’s said that the Devil hisself done come and took his soul straight to Hell, as part of their bargain. That ol’ house ain’t known no mortals since that time. And it’s carefully avoided by all that’s got good sense.” He looked pointedly at Larrigan.
“I take it, then, that the place is supposed to be haunted?” the journalist said.
“Yeah, hell, it’s haunted,” Taggart said angrily. “The Devil hisself owns the place now. Any damn fool who enters it will be met by Satan and made to drink of Lethe’s waters, too. In forgettin’ all and bein’ forgotten by all, he then becomes the Devil’s property and his soul goes straight to Hell, too.”
He paused and looked around the table. “Maybe y’all find all this kinda’ hard to swallow, but us folks who were born and raised in these here parts have seen too many strange things to have any doubts.”
Taggart was visibly relieved to have finished the tale. He snuffed out his cigarette on the top of one of Larrigan’s empty beer cans, looked at Smythe-Thomas and said,
“Next game! Yore deal, Major.”
“Count me out, gentlemen,” Larrigan said, rising from his seat at the table. “It’s hot in here. And, as we have a full moon tonight, I think I’ll go for a little cruise up the river.”
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere near that ol’ house, are ya’?” Taggart said fearfully.
“You think?” There was sarcasm in Larrigan’s voice and a smirk on his face.
“Please! Stay away from that place, man. It’s evil.”
“No can do,” Larrigan said. “Debunking myths is part of my job.” “Ain’t no myth!” Taggart said, heatedly.
Larrigan favored the guide with a patronizing smile then turned to Sir Edward. “Isn’t that the way these things happen? Someone makes up ghost stories to entertain kids, and a generation or so later the rustics adopt it as gospel.”
“You know, Larrigan, perhaps our friend, Taggart, is right to a degree,” Sir Edward said. “I mean, it is nighttime and all. Don’t you think it would be more prudent to wait until morning?”
Larrigan snorted derisively and said, “Hell, if you’re going to meet Satan, what better time to do it than at midnight under a full moon.”
Taggart rose unsteadily to his feet and said, “Now, looka’ here, Larrigan, I’m orderin’ you not to go up thar. ‘Specially not in one of mah boats.”
Larrigan dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “You couldn’t stop me if you had two good arms, Taggart.” The screen door banged shut behind him.
As obscure as the creek’s entrance had been in the full light of day, Larrigan expected that he might not be able to find it at night. To his surprise, he had no difficulty at all. In fact, he located it with such ease that it almost seemed as though his finding it had been preordained.
As he cruised up the stream toward the old house, he almost could sense that the skiff was gathering speed, as though being irresistibly drawn toward some rendezvous. Earlier that day he had perceived an absence of life in the swamp. Now, lights glowed eerily among the trees, lending a macabre effect to the darkened slough. Too large to be fireflies, he thought uneasily, must be swamp gas or foxfire caused by certain fungi in the decaying vegetation.
As he penetrated deeper into the bowels of the swamp, Larrigan began to hear strange sounds. They were unlike anything he had ever heard. It was easy to imagine them as the cries of tormented souls. Ever the rational Western man, he dismissed them as the calls of foraging night creatures. He tried shining the powerful beam of his flashlight into the dark recesses beyond the banks of the narrow creek, but the light would not penetrate beyond the trees that lined its edges. It seemed as though the stygian blackness totally absorbed the rays at that point. Batteries probably are getting weak, Larrigan thought.
He experienced a certain measure of relief as he exited the gloomy tunnel through which the creek flowed. To his surprise and disappointment, however, the lake was nearly as dark. The full moon now was obscured by a thick layer of nearly opaque clouds. As he eased back on the throttle, he thought he could hear the sounds of things moving in the dark waters.
He was further surprised to see a light glowing in the old house. It was not an unpleasant sight. Rather, it seemed to Larrigan like a friendly beacon inviting the weary mariner to a safe port. Its warm emanation seemed to dispel the baleful effect of the gloomy atmosphere.
Nevertheless, Larrigan elected to approach the house with caution. He gently beached his craft, and, after wrapping the mooring line securely around a tree stump, slipped quietly up a path that he thought should have been more overgrown.
Three rotting steps elevated him to a porch with warped and broken planks that were littered with the detritus of the decaying mansion. Weeds grew in abundance through cracks in the boards. Cobwebs hung in profusion. The front door gave the appearance of not having been opened in many years. From darkened recesses came the sounds of things scurrying. The strange, acrid aroma he first had smelled earlier that day now was much stronger, burning his eyes, nasal passages and throat.
Larrigan edged carefully across the littered surface of the porch. He paused at the sill of a pane-less window. As he craned his neck to peek into the old house, the front door suddenly burst open. It so startled Larrigan that he nearly wrenched his neck as he spun to face it. The action frightened him almost to the point of panic. Instinct urged him to run, but reason prevailed. He held his ground.
After a moment, a kindly, reassuring voice called out, “Welcome, young fellow, welcome. It isn’t often that a lonely old man gets a visitor way out here.”
The fear began to ebb, replaced by a mixture of relief and curiosity. Larrigan approached the door and peered beyond it into the shadows. He could distinguish the outline of a stooped, aged man. Encouraged by the presence of another human, he boldly entered.
Once inside, Larrigan discovered a rather pleasant, comfortable atmosphere. It was permeated even more strongly, however, by that same strange odor that was so tantalizingly familiar, yet unidentifiable. He felt ashamed of his earlier burst of fear. His host’s appearance seemed benign enough. He was an elderly gentleman with a white goatee wearing a worn and faded smoking jacket that seemed to stretch nearly to the floor. He reminded Larrigan of an evanescent Southern aristocrat, an anachronism from a bygone era.
Small in stature and somewhat bent with age, the old man hobbled forward, briar pipe in hand, to greet his guest. “To what good fortune do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” he said with a warm smile.
“Curiosity, mostly. I saw this place earlier today and decided to have a closer look.”
“Well, you are most welcome here. Will you join me in a drink? You must be quite thirsty after traveling through such an oppressively hot evening.”
Suddenly a bit uneasy, Larrigan said, “A drink of what?”
“Why… a drink of… bourbon, of course. I always drink bourbon,” his host said graciously.
“Bourbon? Sure, that’ll be fine.”
The old man hobbled over to a small table. On it were two glasses, a decanter of bourbon, and a small bucket of ice cubes. It occurred to Larrigan that the ice was curiously out of place in this wilderness setting. He wondered where and how it had been obtained.
The old man poured a generous amount of bourbon into each glass and added a few ice cubes. He limped back toward Larrigan, gently swishing the ice around in the glasses. The warmth of the room caused the cubes to begin to melt rapidly, returning to its liquid state.
He handed a glass to the journalist and said, “A toast to you, my young friend, for ignoring silly superstitions to bring some moments of pleasure and companionship to a lonely old man.”
Larrigan acknowledged the toast and raised the glass to his lips. As he sipped its contents, he suddenly identified the strange odor. Brimstone.
As the old man raised his own glass, the action caused the hem of his long robe to rise. Larrigan shot a quick glance at the old man’s feet. His heart froze within his chest. Now he understood why his host seemed to hobble. In place of feet, he had cloven hooves.
The squall raged with unusual fury around the fishing camp. Inside, Taggart and the two Englishmen sat at the small table, playing cards.
“Dammit, Major, you’ve gone and done it again!” Taggart said above the din created by the raindrops pounding on the shack’s tin roof. “Why do you keep dealin’ four hands? There’s never been no more than jest the three of us here. What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Yes, terribly sorry, old man,” Smythe-Thomas said, his natural florid complexion reddening even more. “It is strange, but even you’ve done it a time or two.”
“It is most queer,” Sir Edward said quietly. “But I, too, have the strangest feeling that someone else ought to be present. I simply cannot imagine who it could be.”