The Piper's Dues
(Cemetery Dance continues . . .)

 

Chapter One:
Union Station


I was working a kidnapping for a wealthy financier. His daughter was snatched on her way to a play at the University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre. She never made it from her father's Bentley to the doors of Hart House.

The ransom demand was what made me realize there was no real danger to the girl, her kidnapper was asking for fifteen thousand dollars. I was contacted to act as go between for the family and the people holding the girl. I made arrangements with the kidnapper through a series of negotiated letter drops in and around the University. We were to meet inside Union Station, in person for the exchange. I was supposed to wear a yellow handkerchief in my breast pocket and he'd spot me by that.

I arrived long ahead of the scheduled time, with a blue handkerchief to match my tie, and began a methodical surveillance of every young man between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three. I was looking only for well-heeled snappy dressers with that collegiate air about them. Argyle socks and a crewneck sweater would be too much to ask, so I kept my criteria broad.

An hour before the meeting time, a young man came into the train station through the Front Street double doors closest to Bay Street, walked around the main mezzanine twice and settled into a telephone booth across from the bank of ticket sellers and made a call to someone. I ambled over to a newsstand not far from the kid and bought a Daily Racing Form. I thumbed through the lineup for Woodbine that day and smiled to myself at the kid's panache. He would have been good at this kind of work if he'd been a little more observant. The telephone booth he chose had a sign on its right side just beneath the top glass panel. The sign read "Out of Order."

I put my paper back on the newsie's counter and strode quickly over to the kid in the booth, slid my Browning out of it's holster and stiff armed the booth door open, while giving him a close look at the pistol. His grip loosened on the telephone receiver and I snatched it out of his hand and put it to my ear. Nothing. Like the sign said, out of order. I closed my fist on the lapel of the kid's grey blazer and hauled him up and out of the booth, hiding the Browning in the small of his back as I escorted him out of the station at a very fast clip.

"Stay calm, son," I told him, "I read 'The Dane Curse,' too. Let's hope her old man has a sense of humor. I wouldn't blame him if he had you arrested, ya jamoke."

Romeo and Juliet in the spring of 1950, I guess love never really dies. The same old story just repeats itself with different players like a needle stuck in a groove. I got the young man to take me to his girlfriend, the 'kidnap victim.' She was playing house in a second story flat on Dundas and Bay Streets, a ten-minute walk from the University where the boy was a third year engineering student. Daddy wouldn't let her marry a struggling nobody. She was in love. The kid was head over heels with the girl and too stupid to nix her scheme to get the money to start a new life by staging a kidnapping.

The details don't matter. It's a familiar story. I took the girl back to her father and explained the situation. He thanked me and paid me what he promised. I handed over the fifteen thousand I'd been carrying for the exchange and started for the front door. That's when I heard the little girl start to cry and beg. Her father was a heavyweight on the Bay Street Market, so his skin was as thick as his vision narrow and when I heard the sound of a palm smacking on a cheek I spun on my heel and reached him before he could hit her again.

"Let me tell you how this one ends up," I began, holding his upraised arm in a vise grip. "You keep your daughter from marrying the man she loves. Time passes. She finally does marry somebody you choose in a ceremony you plan. They have two or three children and live together for years and years, because that's what husbands and wives do.

"And all that time your daughter hates the very sight of you and her husband has a mistress he visits three times a week and your grandchildren are poisoned against you by the daughter you ignored and belittled when she was young and in love.

"You die a bitter old man with no family at your bedside and your money is divvied up and dealt out to people who are glad you're dead and you're buried and forgotten. You might as well not have lived at all."

He glared into my eyes with a rage I've seen all too often in my life. I let go of his arm, squared my shoulders and stepped back to give him room to do what he needed to do. The girl was softly sobbing, holding her swollen face, and her father turned from me to her and the glare left his face like a ghost at dawn. When I noticed a welling in his eyes, I turned and left. Hard hearts haven't got a damn chance against love.

The engineering student moved out of his dormitory room at the University and into an apartment with an office and an elegant living room for entertaining his fiancée·s family and friends.

I wish it could always be as smooth and uncomplicated as that, don't you?


Chapter Two:
After the Dance

I spent the rest of the autumn and winter of 1949/50 wondering about Lucy Stoneham. No, that's a lie. I spent the time missing her and wanting her. I hadn't had a drink since I left Cobston, left Lucy and her father and Doc.

I dreamed about Cobston that whole time. The unreal images of corpses coming to life on hospital gurneys, shuffling figures in the dark, rain soaked night, misshapen creatures that had died thirty years ago, transfigured and heralding a separate form of life. It was all nightmare and no promise of drunkenness could top the terrors it recalled to my eyes whenever they closed. I took the pledge. I didn't need any meetings to keep it.

But back in the reality of everyday Toronto, the great Grey Dog, with its bustle and noise, Yonge street rumbling under the steel wheels of streetcars sparking electricity from their pole wires and clanging incessantly to chase pedestrians off the brick and cobbled track lines, it all filtered back to me like ranting from the Snake Pit. Against my familiar reality, the reality of Cobston was fading into distant, twisted memory. I had to get back. I had to know.

Following my last job, I had enough saved to retire in comfort, so I sold the business that July, closed those cases I could on my own, included the rest with the sale of the office and closed up my bungalow on Sackville Street. I was going back and I couldn't be sure how long I would be away. I left my keys with a reporter I could trust; young fellow named Thayer who worked the crime beat for the Telegram and asked him to check in on my belongings once in a while.

Next I drove my 1946 Ford Coupe down to Bay and Bloor and traded it in on a brand new 1950 Buick Super Convertible. The Ford was a good, solid car and I didn't like to get rid of it, but the Buick was a much larger, heavier automobile, and it had the front end of a tank, the grille could plow through a brick wall without breaking a sweat. If I needed to roll over anything in my way, this was the monster that would do it, with a toothy grin. I know a convertible poses some obvious problems in keeping intruders out, but I knew what kind of intruders I'd likely face in a confrontation and the battering ram bumper and grille would be equal to anything I might meet.

I packed two summer weight suits, shirts, ties and shoes, a few pairs of dungarees, work shirts and boots, a canvass jacket, long bladed hunting knife, my Luger and Browning and a double barreled sawed off shotgun with one hundred double ought shells. I filled my wallet with bills and my duffel bag with some of the things I'd brought back from the war as keepsakes, the files I'd written so far and enough blank pages to fill as I went and I started out on a hot, July morning. Nevertheless, a shiver ran down my spine as I followed Yonge Street north out of the city and I could swear the Big Grey Dog raised a tarry paw at my back in farewell. I shivered again.

I stopped in the town of Aurora to get the tank filled and decided to put the top down for the rest of the drive. The sun was beating down on the leather seats and I took my suit jacket off and loosened my tie. It was a nice day · the last I'd have for a long time. I nosed the maroon monster out of the gas station after I'd paid the old man at the pumps and the kid cleaned my windows. I coaxed the four thousand pounds of metal up to fifty then sixty; I stopped there. In spite of my anxiousness, a part of me wasn't in any hurry to get back.

I pulled onto the main street of Cobston at eight o'clock that evening and made a left on Kingston Avenue. I drove past the newspaper and slowed to glance in the large plate glass window of the editorial office. There were two men hunched over new Underwood typewriters; neither was Frank Stoneham. I continued past and turned again onto the 10th line and followed it to Chestnut Street and stopped in front of the poplar-lined drive of the Stoneham house. The house looked old and tired in the lowering sunlight. I got out and walked up to the front porch. The windows were streaked with dirt and the floor and railing were coated in dust and dead leaves accumulated since the past autumn, I felt a sinking in my chest. I reached and tried the doorknob. Locked. I peered in one of the windows off the porch and saw that the house was dark and apparently empty. Nobody home. Nobody home for a long time. Then something made a noise and I jumped like a rabbit.

"Help you, young man?"

I spun with the Browning in my fist and my heart jack-hammering in my chest. Standing behind me on the steps of the porch was a tall, heavily built man in a black suit and a white clerical collar. His eyes were cool and calm in spite of the big bore of the pistol pointed at his head and a slow smile pulled at the edges of his freckled cheeks. He talked to me again; "Can I help you, young man?"

I'm thirty-five and this character couldn't have been any older than me, but his calling me young man seemed as natural as if he were saying it to a teen aged boy. I suddenly didn't like him one bit. But I lowered the Browning and reholstered it, anyway.

"I'm a friend of the Stoneham's," I said, "I'm here to . . . "

He didn't let me finish. He cut in, "You're that detective fella from Toronto, aren't you? I heard about you.

Weren't you courting Lucy for a little while?"

"That's right," I said. "Who might you be?"

"Name's Peeler, Reverend Peeler, you might have guessed from the collar. I'm the pastor over to St. Mark's."

"What brings you here, Reverend?"

"Well, I saw a suspicious looking character drive up to the house and thought I'd better investigate. Now there's irony for you, eh? Me a pastor investigating what turns out to be an investigator?" He actually chuckled the last few words.

"Yeah," I said, "a riot. Who'd a thought? Listen, where can I find Frank and Lucy, I'm only in town for a while and I have some business with them that can't wait?"

"Well I'm afraid it will have to wait, young man, they're not here. I believe they're visiting relatives in the United States. Frank has a young son living in New Mexico and they've gone down for his birthday celebration. Probably be gone the whole summer." He smiled his big freckled smile again as though he'd come up with the answer to why the sky is blue.

Lucy had mentioned something about a little brother, but I didn't believe Reverend Peeler about anything else. I could see I'd get nothing out of him. What he had to say he would dole out like manna from his own peculiar heaven, and then only to the anointed.

"Well thanks, anyway, Reverend. It's too late to drive back now, can you recommend anyplace to stay the night?" I knew exactly what was available in Cobston from my previous visits, but I was keen to hear what Peeler's suggestion would be.

"There's a nice little Inn down the road in Barclay. I understand the rates are reasonable and they serve a substantial breakfast to see you on your way," he beamed.

"Isn't Barclay about eight miles down the road?"

"I believe you're correct," he said.

"Nothing in town? Nothing closer to Cobston?"

"I'm sorry young man, you'll have to drive along Main Street and see what you can find. After all, I'm only a pastor, not a hotel keeper."

"Do you ever get kidded about your name, pastor," I asked, feeling a devil rising in me?

"I don't follow, young man."

"Well Peeler. In burlesque a peeler is a stripper. I just thought some of your friends might have kidded you about the coincidence."

"I'm afraid I don't see either the connection or the humor in your observation. I'll bid you good night."

"I didn't think you would, Reverend. Good night and thanks for all your help." He stalked down the drive and spun on his heels off toward the setting sun.

I drove over to King Street and got a room in the Stroud Inn. It was less than half full and I had my choice of rooms. I gave the downstairs taproom a miss and took my case and duffel directly to the two room, bath combination I got at off-season rates. I thought of Peeler's lying smile and wondered what he was afraid of. It was obvious to me that the Stoneham's and Doctor Mather hadn't returned from Aldwych Wood. Something was preventing them and someone had to go in and get them out. I had no illusions about who that someone would be.


Chapter Three:
Looking for Aldwych

The next morning I packed what I'd need and loaded it all back in the trunk of the Buick. I ate a big breakfast at the Stroud Inn and asked where I could buy a few items. Later, I drove around town talking to as many people as I could get to answer my questions. I hit the newspaper offices and spent two hours pulling teeth from the reluctant heads of employees who were very busy hiding information from me. I scanned the back files of the paper for the past six months and found quite a few issues with items cut from the pages. Nobody seemed to remember what those items dealt with, nor could they remember why they'd been excised from the newspapers.

I located Doctor Mather's office. There was another doctor in the back dealing with his patients. I spent fifteen minutes trying to convince the nurse I was a close friend. She didn't believe me. Or she did and it didn't matter. She asked me to leave. She raised the telephone receiver and asked for the local Constable. I left before she had to explain her call. That told me what I already knew. They were all missing and nobody was talking about it.

I went to the hardware store and bought the things I wanted and asked a few more questions. Everybody I talked with had a foolish look on his face as he lied to me. It was almost like they were all in an amateur stage play and they were trying hard to keep their lines straight, like they were remembering what they said as they said it.

Next I drove over to St. Mark's and peered over the stone fence that enclosed the cemetery proper. Far in the distance I saw the ancient vault. I looked all around, but it was getting dark and nobody was out on the street, so I hopped up on the fender of my new Buick then over the stone fence and ambled off toward the vault way down the slope. It was a considerable distance through the wet spring runoff of the fields and the occasional new grave site and the air was growing steadily cooler. I zipped and buttoned my canvas hunting jacket and gave myself a little self satisfied wink at finally wearing the waterproof hunting boots I'd bought a few years ago for a hunting trip I never got around to in Algonquin Park. But they kept my feet warm and dry now.

A quarter of an hour later I was standing before the original vault of the old Cobston cemetery. One of the archived stories I found that day in the office of the newspaper mentioned that the vault has been standing since the town was incorporated in 1726, one of the oldest settlements in Ontario. From the look of the architecture and the size of the stones, I easily believed it was true. But I wouldn't be paying a visit today, the door and the two windows were bricked up solid. I'd need the front end of my new car to break through that fortress. I turned around and made back for the fence.

When I got to my car, Peeler was sitting on the hood with his booted feet on the bumper. "Nice vehicle," he said as I climbed the stone barricade.

"Thanks. What can I do for you, young man?"

"Oh, I see you go in for irony, too." He gave me his big brother smile, lifting a litter of freckles up another notch on his round face. "I like a man with a sense of humor," he continued, "which is why I'm beginning to dislike you, Mr. Delaney. You're trespassing on church property and you're stirring up quite a storm in our little town."

"I'm just looking for my missing friends," I said looking pointedly at his muddy boots resting on my new chromium bumper. He moved his feet and stood up facing me.

"I told you once that the Stoneham's are visiting relatives in New Mexico and . . ."

"Is Doctor Mather down visiting with them," I asked looking up from under my brow, the way you do when you want to let a man see you're settling yourself for a long bruiser.

"The doctor left town last winter. He sold his practice and moved away. You sold your practice, too, didn't you Mr. Delaney?"

"So?"

"So, whatever you're doing here has nothing to do with an official investigation and you have no ties with any police body at the present time, have you?" That smugness was back in his voice and in that cherubic smile. Look at me, aren't I just the cleverest?

"Like I said, Reverend, I'm just looking for my friends. I don't need an investigator's license to do that. I just need time."

"You also need to stop trespassing on my property, Mr. Delaney. If you want a guided tour of the church and its grounds, make an appointment with my sextant tomorrow and I'll see when I'm free, Until then, you won't find anything without my help. Good night, Mr. Delaney."

"Good night, Mister Peeler."

He did that little heel turning thing again and I swear he huffed as he spun and trundled away toward the back of the church. In the fading light I saw that he climbed a set of stone steps just to the right of a heavy storm door sloping slightly at the ground level of the church. He was right, I didn't need his help.

I went back to my rooms at the Stroud and started laying plans. I opened my journal and went over all the information I had gathered over the past year. Everything Frank told me came back to me, in his voice, as I read my entries. Everything I wrote concerning what happened and what I'd witnessed was there on the pages, including our final morning together. The day I left to return to Toronto was the day they left to find Aldwych Wood. It was obvious they had found it and were still there. But why was Cobston trying to keep that from me? I updated the journal with everything up until that evening and I went to bed.

I had a nightmare that woke me, screaming, at three in the morning. I knew where to find Aldwych Wood. It was always there, right in front of me.

The sun was nowhere in sight as I crept into the graveyard of St. Mark's, my Buick hidden among the trees a few hundred feet beyond the iron gate and my duffel bag slung heavily across my back. It was only four-thirty and sunrise wasn't for another hour at least. I poked and prodded at each grave dated from 1919, but all were tightly sealed over with concrete or granite slabs. I moved on to the back of the church and found the door to the coal cellar by the back entrance and pried the padlock open with the crowbar I'd bought at the hardware store the day before. I went inside and used a big flashlight (again the hardware store) to light my way deeper into the basement compartments of the old church. I was looking for the subterranean entrance to the vault.

I walked from room to room in the cellar, taking whatever turns presented themselves until I noticed a low, iron bound, oak door in the far wall of a wide, square room deep inside the honeycomb of smaller rooms. I advanced in slow strides keeping the flashlight high, the duffel balanced across my shoulders and my free hand free. As I approached the door, the beam of my heavy light sliced through the blackness and illuminated a rough inscription just above the door jamb. "The Grave Will Not Hold Them That Chooseth Life." It was carved into the supporting wall above the door in a Roman typeface with slightly Germanic serifs. It had been there a very long time.

If I hadn't been aware of the history of this place, I would have cracked wise about the obvious nature of the citation. Of course if you choose life you aren't dead, so you aren't buried and the grave can't hold you. But I knew that quote was aimed at only a select few. I felt the heavy paw of the Big, Wet, Grey Dog tracing ice up my spine to the base of my skull. I shivered as I reached for the iron bolt that held the door closed, jacked it up and pulled it across with a low screech of rusted disuse. I pulled the door toward me and it opened with a deep grinding of old hinged metal. I peered inside and let my free hand drift to the gun under my canvas hunting jacket.

I saw a long, dark, narrow, low ceilinged corridor that stretched farther than the beam could penetrate. The walls were dried clay, slightly concave and reinforced with timber struts buried into the sides at regular intervals for support. It smelled of earth and loam and musty years. Here and there was a vertical line of moisture that stained the dry clay to blackness and must have been the seepage from the soil above. The old cemetery carried beyond the edge of town down the sloping acres into the unused farmland I'd walked earlier, only the acres bounded by the stone walls were actually on church property, above me, apparently. This was an underground transfer corridor from the vault that housed the dead before Jonathan Dell's Funeral Home took over responsibility from St. Mark's. In winter it's too cold to dig graves, so the bodies were stored until the spring thaw, then carried from the vault to the church for services. I was facing east.

I stepped through the door and started walking, the ceiling brushing my hair if I stood too straight. It was hell on my back with the added fifty or sixty pounds of the duffel bag pushing me down, but it had to be done. I walked what seemed like a long mile or more on a downward path until I came to another doorway, this one fitted with an old pine door that was pretty much rotted to pulp, I pushed it open far enough to poke the lens of the flashlight through. It was the old church vault, exactly as Frank had described it to me last fall.

The vault was shelved along three walls, the fourth held the exterior door and two windows, one on each side of the door. Panes and door both bricked over as I'd seen from the outside. The floor was earthen and the structure built of field stones gathered more than three hundred years ago and fashioned into the present form. The stones were fire blackened now and the mortar powdered in places from the conflagration of the last generation.

The vault was only about twenty feet on a side, but seemed vast because the ceiling rose nearly twelve feet and the walls were shelved from floor to ceiling. Each shelf was formed by a single piece of dark grey shale and supported by stone brackets recessed into the vault walls. The door through which I looked, from the low corridor, was cut into the rear wall of the vault, opposite the windowed wall and beneath the third shelf. There were two worn steps to climb from the corridor to get into the vault. But it felt like the distance between now and forever to me, those two steps took me a long time to complete.

When I stood on the solid floor of the vault I shone the flashlight beam in a grid across the floor looking for telltale signs of excavation. I remembered that Frank said the dead within the vault were apparently consumed in the flames of the fire, but if Gresham escaped, he must have found a way to dig to freedom, if that's the word I should use in this case. It struck me during my nightmare of the previous night that the only way the dead of Cobston could have evaded the fire and corrosive acids heaped on them during Stoneham's wild purge, would be to dig away from it. And after meeting Gresham · what he'd become · it made sense that they'd stumbled from the labyrinth beneath the cemetery and into the heart of Aldwych Wood. All I had to do was find one of the tunnels and follow it to Aldwych, myself. Another long distance that I didn't look forward to covering.

There, I noticed a dip in the floor by the left wall covered by a steel plate three feet by six and held to the floor by rivets driven into the hardened clay. I unslung my duffel and let it thud to the hardscrabble floor, opened the cord fastener and reached in and felt around until I found the collapsible spade and the crowbar, pulled them free and set them down beside the flashlight. Then I shook out of my jacket, took off my shoulder holster and began to dig under the steel plate, looking for leverage to pry it away from the floor. It must have been full daylight by the time I got the corroding plate free and looked down nearly six feet into a collapsed hole.

I stood sweating and breathing deep breaths to still the pounding in my chest. It was hard, heavy work and I hadn't needed to do it since the war. One of the things I fought to preserve was my right never to need a shovel again, ever. But since everybody in Cobston was intent on keeping me in the dark about how to find Aldwych Wood I had to take a page from history. As I caught my breath, there in front of me was another dirt barrier I had to dig through. I knew it led to the tunnels that connected to Aldwych Wood because scattered in the fallen walls of the burrow beyond were the remains of the charred dead who didn't make it all the way through.

A nightmare I will carry for the rest of my life is the vision of those charred corpses, working skeletal jaws, gnashing brown teeth as if in the act of chewing, fingerless hands reaching out from the confining clay to grasp any passing nourishment.

I broke them into pieces with the spade as I dug through to the clearing of the tunnel. The pieces still reached and grasped and gnashed and I remembered what Doc Mather had told me about his dismembering the reanimated dead only to see the parts continue to struggle for life. That's when embalming the corpses or blowing out the brain stems and cerebra were adopted to quiet the dead. More sure and focused than Stoneham's earlier acid baths. Surer than fire, it appeared.

When I'd broken through the blockage of tumbled earth I wiped away my sweat with the canvas jacket, strapped on my holster, wadded the jacket and put it in the duffel bag along with the spade and the crowbar, reached up to the lip of the vault floor for the flashlight and started down the musty, dank tunnel, carrying the heavy bag across my aching back. I was in a foul mood. Every once in a while I encountered one of the still moving, corrupted corpses trapped in the solid wet walls of the tunnel and kicked my thick boot through its skull to stop the foolishness of its existence. I was in a very foul mood.

I walked a long time in that semi darkness, sinuses clogged with the smells of death, dirt and decay, face and hair brushed by occasional roots or other hanging objects that I didn't bother to shine the light on, stepping now and then into deep depressions in the tunnel floor flooded by seepage of one sort or another. For a very long stretch I had to duck-walk with the duffel cradled in my arms because the roof of the tunnel was so low. This hurt like few things can hurt, and I had to stop every few minutes and sit in the mud and stretch my back muscles and stop from screaming my anger and frustration into the blackness. At one time during that morning I thought about giving up and turning around, I really didn't care. But that was my body talking, not me. I looked for the first time at the luminous dial of my Timex and saw that it was nearly noon. I turned off the flashlight, sat in a puddle and dozed for an hour.

A sound startled me awake. It was a scrabbling, skittering noise not far ahead of me. I snapped on the flashlight and pointed it toward the sound. The tunnel ahead of me was grey, not black. Light, not total darkness. Could it be sunlight from the open end of the tunnel? I got to my knees, hoisted the bag under my left arm and crawled toward the greyness, the light's beam doing crazy, crisscross patterns over walls floor and roof as the heel of my right hand supported part of my weight while the fingers held the light. The farther I got to the scrabbling digging noise, the lighter the tunnel became, until I didn't need the flashlight at all. When I reached a rise in the tunnel floor and crested it, I saw that a yellow grey light washed across the mouth of the underground passage where it met the erosion of a hillside. The opening into Aldwych Wood.

I stopped and looked for a while, like a man will who sees something he expected to see but is startled and confused just the same that it's really there. Then a large shape darkened the hillside entrance to the burrow and I made out, dimly, an eyeless creature with the body of a monstrous toad and the clawed wings of a huge bat. It lifted its face in my direction and I could see it was taking in my scent, its nostrils flared and quivered. The yellow grey light silhouetting the creature made it difficult to recognize greater detail, but I didn't need to see any more. I stood still and waited. It raised up on stumpy, tubular legs and swayed from side to side, making chuffing sounds with its face and scrabbling sounds on the side of the opening with its clawed wings. It didn't come any closer. Nevertheless, I slowly untied the duffel bag and rummaged inside for the comfort of the cold wooden stock of the sawed off shotgun, drew it quietly from its oilcloth and pointed it toward the tunnel entrance. I waited.

The shape stopped its swaying and dropped once more to what it was doing before it noticed my presence. I broke the shotgun and made sure there were shells in the breach, closed it again and sat the bag between my feet, tucked the shotgun under my arm until I could stow the flashlight and retrieve a box of shells, then reseated the shotgun in the crook of my right arm, slinging the bag over my shoulder once more. I softly sidled toward the entrance, skirting the creature as far as was possible. As I came parallel I saw that the scrabbling sounds were from its digging free a decaying, animated corpse and prying it far enough from the clay to take advantage of easier access while it ate.

The blind thing had a large underslung jaw and a mouth full of small, furred teeth it used to tear gobbets of material from the corpse and transfer them to back molars and ground, almost contentedly, making the chuffing noises as it chewed. I stood frozen and watched as the corpse battered weakly at the creature while parts of it were separated and consumed. The dull sound of dry bone cracking spurred me, I shook myself and slid out into the atonal yellow grey light. Only then did I realize how badly I was shaking.

The first thing I noticed on leaving the closeness of the tunnel was the almost liquid quality of the atmosphere. The air around me was thick with cool moisture and again the color of the light and the sky beyond the massive overhanging branches of the twisted trees was the underwater shade you see when you look at a room through a dirty aquarium. At once dull and greenish yellow against a grey filtered effect that added a clamminess to the heavy, wet air. It was physically heavy. It weighed me down as much as the bag across my shoulders and my foul mood turned to a curious depression and I lowered the shotgun and stood heaving great breaths into my lungs and looking around at the crazy, Hollywood horror movie landscape pushing down on me from all sides.

Then I heard them. Frogs. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions of frogs croaking and chirruping and trilling and singing and droning and droning and crushing my ears with a thick and growing cacophony that increased in volume and enveloped me and rolled around me and groaned through me until my eardrums ached from the solid, terrible vibration. And then it stopped. And my head was cradled in thick cotton batting and I heard nothing. There was no sound. No wind, no birdsong, no croaking, no rustling of leaves or swish of branches or buzz of insect or scree of cicada. No noises. I looked around me at the unreal colors of the place. The contorted trees were various hues of green and bright purple and magenta and cyan and yellow and dun brown and heavy ochre, with each color seeming to battle in electric contrast with the one beside it giving a strangely homogeneous symmetry that both hurt the eyes and made a sort of natural sense here.

Animals began to appear from the depths of the forest on all sides. Like the eyeless creature at the mouth of the tunnel, these made no claim on zoology other than a child's fanciful drawing of what animals could look like if they relied only on imagination and not on physical laws. There were wildly colored birds of all sizes with the heads and forefeet of mice, foxes or rather canine hybrids with no heads but quick eyes and sharp mouths on their backs, between shoulder blades, reptilian monstrosities with fur and resemblance to the creatures of nightmare. A chilling thought crossed my mind; that the visions of Hell painted by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel were not painted from imagination, but from memory.

Then I saw what should have been a man, legless and armless, rolling from beneath the drooping branches of a deformed willow, rolling like a misshapen barrel into the clearing before me, and righting itself on vestigial flippers to stare, smiling, at its achievement. It had a handsome face, intelligent eyes and when it opened its gently curving lips to speak to me, the deep thrum of a bullfrog boomed from its mouth and rolled me backwards. Then it started to laugh, but it was nowhere near a human laugh, and it threw itself back to the ground and began rolling toward me again. Before I understood what I was doing, I raised the shotgun and pulled both triggers. There was a soft double thud and the creature came apart in a red spray. My hand and arm stung from the one handed discharge and when the echoes of the quiet thud faded I heard that all sounds were absent from the landscape. Gunsmoke hung in the atmosphere in front of me for an instant and then slowly seeped in a lazy spiral to the wet soil at my feet. Then a soft mummer arose from the creatures surrounding me, a murmur that had the flavor of lament. I swear I heard tiny voices crying.

Then the creatures melted back into the surrounding woods and I was alone.


Chapter Four:
Into the Heart of The Beast

I stood looking down at the creature I'd destroyed. I stood forever. Time wasn't a concern, time had no moment inside the stagnation of that place. It seemed to me that seasons came and went while I remained rooted to the same spot. It also seemed that no time passed at all, or that all time passed and was gone and endlessly returning. My arms hung heavily at my sides and I couldn't feel my legs, my back no longer hurt, but I saw that the trigger guard of the shotgun had carved a gouge into the knuckle of my index finger and the blood flowed like warm crystal. I had no idea why that image crept up on me, but I could almost believe I saw the blood crystallize and melt and reform and push at its own cohesion, bulge outward and crystallize again as it walked down my finger to the trigger of the shotgun still held loosely in my hand. I watched as the small tentacle of thick, slow blood stretched down from my hand and strained to touch the shotgun, watched it quiver and retreat slightly and stretch again. The process was engrossing and I stood staring for ages at the blink of an eye.

"Better not stay still for too long, Gumshoe."

The sound of his familiar voice shattered my daze and I heaved a huge lung full of heavy air and breathed for what seemed like the first time. Then other noises crowded my ears, all of them fretful, tentative, unfamiliar, except for the sound of the frogs which heaved solidly back, in a deafening, unflinching whomp, to surround me once again. The din pushed in on me as a massive wall. I blinked and shook my head and felt the pain in my back return and saw the blood from my gashed knuckle splatter onto the black forest floor and disappear as though swallowed by the hungry soil, the world around me hurried back to normal speed, and I noticed Doctor Mather standing just behind my right shoulder.

"Couldn't stand the curiosity, could ya, son? Just had to come back and get your hands dirty, again."

His face was worn and tired and older than it used to be, but the smile was all I needed to feel connected again to a part of my own reality. He reached to take the shotgun from my hand, tore the cuff from my shirtsleeve and wrapped it around the bleeding knuckle. "You don't want to be too liberal where you let that blood fall. Things don't work the same way here as they do in our world."

He nodded his chin to a spot near my feet and I followed his gaze to a disturbance in the black loam where the blood soaked beneath the surface. A number of sickly white maggots forced their way up from the dirt and rolled and squirmed and grew fatter as I watched. "That's one of the ways it begins here, John."

"What begins?"

"Life. Or at least what passes for life in this place," he said. Then he stepped in front of me and ground his heel into the glistening white bodies until they burst and splattered. "Watch," he said.

I felt the bile rise in my throat as corpulent shreds of the crushed animals writhed and twisted and each piece formed a smaller, complete version of the original from which it was severed. And they doubled in size as I stood transfixed, their translucent bodies swelling and pulsing with the organic activity within.

"Come on, John, we'd better be going." Doc Mather started away into the deep foliage opposite from the tunnel entrance, stopped when I didn't follow directly and noticed how I winced when I hefted the heavy duffel bag. He came back and traded me the bag for the shotgun. As he lifted it to his shoulder he grinned again and said, "Brought along a few knick knacks, did you? I hope some of them go boom."

I followed him as he set the pace. The yellow, grey sky shimmered above us and the alien nature of the woods still had me disoriented, but Mather walked with determination and a solid purpose that lent me confidence even in the face of the myriad eyes and voices surging from the surrounding cover. Tiny questions batted from one end of the forest to the next, hurried arguments in small, soft, sibilant voices chased one another from the mildew covered forest floor to the sagging, groping treetops and back down. Flashes of impossible color poked sporadically from every niche and nearly familiar faces peeked out from the cover of the oppressive woods. Always gone before my vision could register who or what they were.

"They're just curious, John, don't worry. We must seem familiar to them, too. They're not dangerous to us; just their way of saying hello, is my guess," he tossed it back to me over his shoulder like a man throwing a warm towel to cold, wet kid.

I felt a sudden, wave of guilt over the creature I'd killed. But the Doc knew that too and caught my look and said, "Life doesn't stop here, Johnny boy, it just takes a different shape. Try to keep up, we've got a ways to go."

We walked through the landscape in what seemed a perfectly straight line, with the trees and rocks and hummocks and obstacles appearing to melt away from our approach then reforming intact behind us. We came to a number of stagnant pools and mucky rills, but these turned us easily aside, opening paths around themselves as we walked, as though guiding us. I didn't find this at all strange or unnatural, but there was a tugging at the back on my mind, a whining, a whimpering, a remembered sound that stood just beyond the scope of my understanding.

I grew more and more clouded as I followed Doctor Mather; his shape shimmering and wavering before me and once or twice winking out to be replaced by a huge, hulking mass hunkered close to the loamy floor and pooling as it continued before me, like a viscose wall vacillating in its own advance.

The shogun grew too heavy to carry again, and the familiar whimpering behind my brain increased and amplified until it became a brash, growling howl of alarm. The Grey Dog screamed its warning at me and knocked me backward with its piercing wail. I came back to full wakefulness and saw that I was sinking into a mire of clinging, stinging, corrosive corruption. Mather had me by both arms and was screaming into my face something I couldn't hear. The oppressive woods crushed his words from my ears, but I fought against the pull of the slick muck tugging me down into the stagnant pool I thought we'd skirted minutes ago. I was held fast by the sludge up to my chest and breathing was becoming a fond topic of forgotten conversation as my ribs pressed sharply into my lungs.

"Don't listen! John, DON'T LISTEN TO THE VOICES!"

I glared up into Mather's reddening face, first with bare comprehension and then in blossoming terror. I was going to die! Sweet Jesus Christ, I was on my way out!

Hear what the Doc has to say! Listen to the Doc!

I repeated that refrain over and over while looking up wildly into his terrified eyes. I pulled myself up into his arms a little further each time I heaved in a short breath of the grey green air crushing everything from my mind, and eventually, sip by thick sip, I began to gain strength and I sloughed, squelching, up out of that filthy trap to flop wetly beside the grinning, panting, muddy wet dog.

"Here, John, look at me. Look at me!" I focused on the doctor's face and as I coughed and heaved and sputtered he insisted, "You have to listen to my voice and nothing else. Stare at me and listen to my voice. Your name is John Delaney. Your name is John Delaney. Your name is John. Your name is John. Your name is John."

Something moaned, sighed and receded, and my ears cleared and I was back into myself. But the moaning something was hovering at my edges. And its friends were becoming interested in the game. And gathering closer for a better look. The big grey dog curled its lip in anticipation.

As I got to my feet, with Doc's help, I was reassured that the shotgun was still gripped tightly in my hand, but I was afraid of Aldwych Wood for the first time. Nothing had ever stolen my control and left me so vulnerable in my life. Not even combat; not my fear of death. I was drained and naked; and I was weak.

"I'm sorry, John. That was my oversight. This place is alive. I should have warned you, but how do you explain a thing nobody can believe. How do you begin to explain a legend - a nightmare?" He took my arm and guided me in a direction he chose. Wiping the muck from my back and keeping his shoulder under my right arm to support me. Dragging the duffel behind him by its strap.

"I've been here nearly twelve hours and I'm lucky to still be alive. The creatures that aren't dangerous are scheming to funnel you into the gaping maws of the ones that are. Those things in Aldwych that want to eat us don't seem to have a choice, but they aren't anxious for a meal or for a confrontation, either. They lie contentedly assured that you'll stumble into one of the traps or one of the pools and be slowly absorbed. Then you belong to the whole Wood - divided and meted out equally as far as you last. That's the nature of the place." Mather smiled at me and winked.

"You just have to know when to close your ears and when to listen to the warning signs. After a few hours it becomes second nature. Those big lumbering things are too slow to catch you and the little ones are too disorganized to mount any kind of attack. And if they do fall on you from the trees, they're too weak and unformed to do any harm, so the thing is . . . "

I pulled him around by his arm, hard, while he walked and talked as if he were on a Church Picnic. His face registered sudden alarm and a tinge of anger, but I stopped him before he could say anything.

"What the hell do you mean you've been here nearly twelve hours? God damn it, Doc, you've been in these woods for nearly ten months! You came in here the day I left for Toronto. You've been in here since September, 1949."

"What day is it now?" His face visibly drained and his chest seemed to cave into itself.

"I came in through the tunnel from the Church to the Vault early this morning. When I left Reverend Peeler last night it was June 2, 1950. Today's June 3rd."

"God Almighty." He sagged and lowered himself to the wet black ground. Where has . . . ?"

"Where's Lucy?"

"She's inside, John. She's part of the place, it can't be helped."

"And Frank Stoneham? Where's Frank, Doc," I asked.

"Did you see the Reverend Gresham on your way in," he asked?

" Gresham, no. Where was he?"

"Guarding the exit so none of them could get out."

"No, Doc, can't be. If that's Gresham, he's changed since I saw him last."

"I imagine he has," grumbled Mather. "Time may be vertical here. Like shuffling a deck of cards, every event comes as it will, not as you'd wish. I showed up yesterday and you show up tomorrow - the day before me - when you're late, and I forget you're expected. Impossible."

"Where's Lucy, Doc?"

"She's here, John. She's all around us."

"Don't play with me. I'm tired and I'm scared and I'll punch you on your craggy nose until I break it, you old bastard. Where's my girlfriend?"

Doc Mather lifted his eyes to mine and I saw the answer before he spoke it. Lucy was what Gresham was.

There was a thump and a heavy drop in my heart and then I knew it didn't matter any more what happened. It takes years to fix that hurt in your heart, you decide whether you have those years to waste. Bullshit.

"Bullshit, Doc, where's Lucy?"

Chapter Five:
Lost Love

He didn't answer, just turned his back and continued walking deeper into the Wood. Then, suddenly, he spun on his heels and faced me with a look of dawning horror, "Thank God. Sorry John, I forgot again. I have to remember I'm not alone, I have to remember to keep talking to you or you'll drift into the Woods and that'll be the end of you."

That made me shiver. How easy to disappear in this place, how easy to simply end.

"I'll keep talking," he said, "you get up here beside me so I can see you. Even though I'm used to this place, I can still be fooled too. If I forget why I'm talking I can look at you and jog my memory." He smiled as a small doubt clouded his eyes. "Well, let's not think about that.

"Time may be vertical in this place or this place may just steal our awareness of how long we've been here. Tell you the truth, I don't really know.

"Frank never came in with Lucy and I, John. He stayed at the cabin when we came through. The morning you left for the city, we drove out to the cabin with the two new ones and retraced the tracks of Gresham's clan.

"We knew, of course, from old maps and survey assessments, where to find Aldwych Wood, but nothing about this place seems to be as it should. It's boundaries are constantly changing, expanding, dissolving and reforming in different directions and contracting again whenever it feels a threat to itself. We wandered for hours. This place seems to float across the landscape.

"Frank stayed with the two others in case Gresham circled around and backtracked to the cabin. But I think he just couldn't stand the idea of Carol becoming like Gresham and the others. Can't really blame him." The Doc kept up a constant chatter as we pushed on through the thick, oppressive woods. Every now and again he reached out and touched my arm or poked me in the chest, checking my eyes with his and coming to little decisions. Then continuing with his monologue.

"We're heading for a shack beside a small lake-or maybe it's a large pond, now, or hell, maybe it's a dry hole, but the shack's always there. At least it was this morning. Appears to have been used by trappers at one time, or maybe it will be in the future. Anyway, we can rest there for a while and sort things out." He smiled his bad boy grin and clicked his tongue. By now he was dragging the duffel bag behind him, so I took it and gave him the shotgun. Let him catch his breath.

We walked through a wall of constant noise, drifting and shifting and following and preceding at our every step. It became so that the Doc's words seemed all of a piece with the pattern painted by the background din. And the colors surrounding our progress melted and bled and swirled and defined the subtle shifting of the thick cacophony filling the Wood with aching insistence.

"The creatures here exist by different rules, as you've noticed already. What I believe is that those life forms indigenous to this place are in constant flux. Their physical presentments, physical embodiments, change as necessary in resonance with the requirements of Aldwych Wood.

"It's almost like a huge organism moving slowly across the ocean floor, extending a tendril of itself every now and then to make sure the coast is clear, then committing itself to another inch or two of forward velocity. Inside the organism, all its cells are forming what it needs to exist as a whole, and sometimes they're asked to do forward duty and become part of the extending tendril. If they get eaten in the process, what the hell, the organism just churns out some more and nobody sheds a tear. It's just that cold.

"The secret of Aldwych, as I see it, John, is that every living thing must be sacrificed to the whole, absorbed by the entity that is this place, and regurgitated as need be. You ever heard of Morphic Resonance? Morphic Memory? No, I didn't think so-not many have. It's the kind of theory certain physics professors argue over to explain the inconsistencies of mathematicians. Of course the mathematicians are only trying to prove the philosophers wrong, so it's not their fault.

"It explains that in an entity, a life form, might not come to fruition on the first occasion, it may not form easily, but on subsequent occasions formation should occur more and more easily as increasing numbers of past attempts contribute to its morphic field-"

His words, recognizable at first as words, gradually formed a solid plug in my ears so that what he said failed to penetrate, failed to register as distinct from the surrounding susurrations of the Wood. Instead a dull film painted with his voice coated my ears and I watched his animated mouth move in thudding, chopping motions that triggered dull pictures of faintly familiar things. I felt a warm comfort wash over me at the unfolding of the pictures he showed me with his blurring mouth. The urge came upon me to relax and lay back in the comfort of the warm lush greenery that pushed irresistibly against my back and I gave in to it.
For a closed moment I floated free.

SMACK! My cheek stung like I'd been slapped with a cow. "Pay attention to me, Sherlock, it may save us both!"

"What's happening to me, Doc? Why do I keep drifting in and out, I asked him"

"The place is playing with you. It's just something it does to test you, see how easy you are. Don't worry you're getting much stronger, John, you're building resistance to the place. That's when it gets more dangerous."

"What do you mean more dangerous?"

"You'll see soon enough. What else you got in there?" He pointed to the duffel bag with the sawed off shotgun.

"Some souvenirs from France and Italy. Some local items from the Canadian Tire store and the Cobston Hardware." He smiled his wicked smile and raised his eyebrows.

I opened the duffel and began withdrawing items and placing them on the black forest loam between him and myself. There was a wooden box with the Canadian Tire logo containing twelve sticks of dynamite, cord fuses in a separate foil bag inside the box - a .50 caliber Thompson machine gun with two fifty-round drums - a Savage, pump action shotgun with .22 caliber BB shells (2 boxes of 20) - two satchel charges, standard Royal Canadian Engineer's issue - my Luger and four one-pint tins of kerosene. The Browning snuggled under my left arm.

"Where's the matches, Boy Scout? Don't tell me you forgot matches?"

I pulled my canvas hunting jacket out of the duffel and put it on, reached into its right side pocket and pulled out a new Zippo, fumbled in the left pocket and pulled out a crushed package of Players and held it out to the Doc. "Thank Christ for bad habits," he smiled as he took a cigarette and let me light it. I lit one for myself and drew it deep into my soul. Some things you can count on.

"We'll each carry a satchel charge and a shotgun," he said, "you can put the dynamite back in the bag along with that huge goddam machine gun. What the hell were you thinking? The pistol you can throw in the bushes for all the good it is here. Let's pocket one can of the kerosene each, too, just in case." After we'd shared the weight, the duffel was as light as air, compared to what I'd been lugging around since early that morning.

"What do you mean dangerous," I asked again as we set out on the same wavering path toward the trapper's shack? We both swung shotguns as we stepped over the thick undergrowth and around the stumps, rocks and small, indistinct animals that nursed at the forest floor, and ducked under the many things hanging from the trees. I felt myself growing more comfortable with the thought of facing danger until I realized that before the slap in the face, I wasn't even aware of any danger, then a tiny, niggling insistence tugged at me for a second and I batted it away, knowing I'd just won a round with Aldwych Wood and feeling a little like my old self again.

"It all comes back to the Morphic Resonance thing I was telling you about," continued Doc Mather, making sure he had my attention. "Nobody knows how places like this come to exist, but the facts bear out that they do exist and they have throughout history. Fairyland myths, stories of Hell, separate realities, alternate dimensions, whatever they're called they all sound the same under close analysis. They sound like a place some are calling the Imaginal Realm.

"There are philosophers at odds with physicists who battle mystics who discuss the ramifications of something called quantum mechanics with wide eyed mathematicians and they all have things to say. But none of them make sense on our earth, so they invent a place where everything they can think up can be proven. The Imaginal Realm."

"I can think of a seven foot blonde with beautiful eyes, a perfect mouth and the best body a woman ever had," I said, "but that doesn't make her real."

"Maybe not, Valentino, but it makes it possible that she's real," he said. "What if you thought of this perfect woman, thought of her more than once, and she did start to form somewhere. Let's say in the Imaginal Realm. Maybe she didn't form the way you imagined her the first few times. Maybe she had no mouth or no face or no legs the first time around. But she tried again. And the next time she came a little closer to your picture of what she should be; maybe the body was wrong, or inside out, but the size was right and the eyes as beautiful as you imagined, just not on the face?

"Each time she tries to form to your Imaginal ideal she comes closer to the purpose of the ideal. The creatures here are working under the same principle. Only it's Aldwych Wood itself imagining them into existence. They can't exist in any other place. And the danger is, if they're needed to exist as giant toads with the heads of bears and the claws of lions, they will. Or as that thing over there . . ." He stopped in his tracks and raised the sawed off.

I followed his gaze and saw a monstrous, walrus body, galumphing in gelatinous, grey, waves and rolls of bulbous blubber toward us, supporting itself on thick, pink, muscular human legs, stretching tentacles before it as each time its forefront came to the ground, it balanced itself again and swiveled its head to focus on us. Its head was what froze me to the spot and raged disgust through me. On the massive, globular mound, swinging loosely from its shoulders was a tiny, perfect, face - the face of a little girl.

The face displayed nothing but innocent bewilderment, disarming me and making a lie of the monster beneath it. I lowered my weapon and turned my questioning face to the Doc who simply growled, "Shoot it, now."

I looked up in time to see the face of the sweet little girl stretch and distort into a gaping maw bristling with yellow-stained spikes and spewing the breath of rot. The face became nothing more than camouflage as it thinned to form the lips of the filthy, blubbery monster standing in our path. My shoulder kicked and bucked with each discharge from the Savage pump. I was vaguely aware that Doc Mather broke the sawed off shotgun many times to refill the breech as we fired into the splattering and disintegrating flesh before us. Each double ought from the little gun in Doc's grip tore vistas in the monster's body, while my scattered load of .22's erased whole segments of its surface. It didn't stand before us for very long.

And the explosions, although loud enough to deafen me, can never scour the pitiful sound the creature made in death. It screamed in pain and cried like a little girl. And when the woods stilled from the sounds of violence and my ears cleared enough, I heard the woods whispering around me and the doctor, crying beside me.

He sniffed once or twice and said, "Come on. We're almost there. The shack's only a few minutes away, whatever the hell that means here." He reloaded the smoking gun and mumbled a curse as he walked in front of me. "Fucking place. If it can't confuse you, it tries to eat you."

The trapper's shack appeared in a clearing just beyond the grip of the woods. It looked wet and rotting and trapped by the murky pond that washed up to it on two sides. And standing in the open doorway was Lucy Stoneham, looking as beautiful as she did ten months before.

Confused, I looked at Doc and began to ask what he meant, letting me believe that Aldwych had taken her from me, but he turned his eyes away from me. I looked back to the door of the shack in time to see Lucy turn and move into the darkness of the room. There was something alien and out of place about the way she shambled out of view.


Chapter Six:
Escape

I sat across a plank table staring at Lucy, I couldn't think of a single thing to say to her, I just stared into her pained eyes, wishing this was all only a nightmare and not real. When we'd walked into the cabin I saw that she wore a long woolen skirt that hid her lower body, but by the way she moved, I could tell she was in an advanced stage of malformation. Her hands were covered as well, wrapped in dirty rags to disguise whatever they were becoming. Doc moved to one wall of the room and stood quietly allowing me to discover what he already knew. I reached out to take one of Lucy's hands but she pulled back quickly, scraping the wooden chair across the rough, bare floor and the sound of the scraping must have hurt her ears, because she winced visibly. Then she settled back and began to speak to me in a soft, phlegm-filled voice.

"John we were wrong to come in here after Reverend Gresham, he was lost as soon as Aldwych took him. We were lured in. This place is hungry, John. It's used itself up and it's looking for nourishment from our world. It's spreading, reaching out for new life to sustain it." She shook her head in frustration and lowered her face to the table to hide her tears. " It's looking for nourishment from your world, John, I belong here now."

I wanted to say something, anything to take away her grief and pain, but words wouldn't come. I sat silently waiting.

"I began to change as soon as we crossed the threshold into this place, John, Gresham and the others have been in a state of constant metamorphosis for a generation. I can't go back. But you can, you must, you and Doctor Mather. It has no hold over you, it can't manipulate you, but it can kill you. It's already mustering an assault, I can feel it through the soil. God help me I can feel the pull of this place, the insane urge to help it kill you. Oh, John, don't you understand? You and the Doctor have to get away from here now and keep my father out, keep the world out. This place is hungry. It will absorb you and feed you to the soil and the water and the filth that gives it life." She was crying openly, her eyes drooping at the outer corners, giving her a melted appearance.

"Frank will want to come in for Carol, he'll want to come in for you," I said.

"There is no Carol, my father found that out from Reverend Peeler. St. Mark's keeps interesting records, records that date back three centuries. Carol's body perished in the fires my father started a generation ago, many of us perished. The ones that didn't were guided here."

"Guided?"

"Speak with my father when you get back to Cobston-make him tell you the truth. He'll have discovered the whole dirty history by now, but stay away from Reverend Peeler, don't trust him."

"How can you know any of this, Lucy? There's no proof, there's no way you can know what your father does or doesn't know. How can you know what he's found out from Peeler or anybody else?"

"This place is alive, John, it's a living breathing entity. What's more it's intelligent, it thinks, it plans. It has tendrils that radiate for miles in every direction stalking and collecting fear, doubt, dreams and dread from every person in Innisfil. That knowledge belongs to me now, because I belong to Aldwych Wood."

I started to say something else when the Doc cut me off, "Come on Gumshoe, we got a job to do. Say good bye."

"What the hell do you mean, 'say good bye?' Lucy's coming with us."

"You're wrong, Sherlock, I only brought you here to say good bye because Lucy wanted it. Now say it and let's get going."

"Go to hell."

"It's what I want, John, please. I love you but you must leave now, hurry. There's something very big on its way here, something monstrous I've never suspected until now, and it won't rest until you're both dead." There was a ripple in the ground beneath the shack and the dilapidated structure shuddered and resettled in a haze of moldy dust and a split second afterward a deep echoing thunder washed over us resonating in the liquids of my body igniting an adrenaline rush that electrified me. I bent forward to kiss Lucy's cheek and she allowed it. Her skin was coated in a cold sheen of scum that nearly caused me to gag. God, she caught my reaction and it reflected in the devastation in her eyes. I jumped away from the table and bolted out the door, fighting back my own pain.

Doc came out and said, "She'll be al right, John, I'm staying with her for a while. I'll need a few things." He dug in the bag and removed the dynamite and the Luger, chuckled a little as he tucked the little pistol in his belt, then he took the Thompson and the four magazines. "I'm going to try to hold off whatever's coming, If I can't do it with this, I deserve to die. You keep going straight ahead, keep the lake on your left and don't stop for anything, you hear. Anything. When you see Gresham you'll know you're at the tunnel mouth. Blow it up when you leave. Close the door on this place, John." He handed me the satchel charge he'd been carrying.

"Close it up tight."

"Don't be a jerk, Doc, I'm going to stand right beside you and fight."

"You're going to die right beside me if you stay. Get out of here and warn Frank. Tell him what you saw. Tell him what you know. Make him understand. And stay the hell away from Peeler. Now give me your kerosene and a cigarette." I did. He lit his smoke and gave me back the lighter. He grinned his devil's grin and winked at me as he pocketed the tin of kerosene and drew heavily of his cigarette, "Sometimes all we can trust are our bad habits, son, sometimes that's enough." He turned his back on me and trotted back to the cabin.

As I turned to make for the tunnel and my way back, the ground shuddered and flowed out from under my feet, knocking me to the forest floor and I was stunned by a deep resonant roar that shook me nearly senseless. The soil began to ripple and bubble as though it were becoming fluid and I saw boulders and trees begin to sink and disappear behind me as the earth opened and sucked them into itself. The deafening roar increased in volume and drove into me in waves causing me to tremble as I lay watching the landscape seep into the soil as the crest appeared to surge toward me. I jumped to my feet and began running, chased by the wall of noise at my back.

It was only a moment before I was struck by another wave, this one a wave of heat fired by the oily smell of kerosene and I knew Doc had said his good bye to Lucy, too, and set the crumbling shack ablaze. I sobbed once as I ran for my life, stumbling to catch my balance and my breath and the dull bark of the Thompson submachine gun thudded behind me. A huge shriek of anger and pain washed over me, propelling me forward, mingling with the stench of kerosene and flame and the cries of the thousands of creatures darting out of my path as I ran, and then all was silent.

I worked my jaws furiously and my ears popped. There was no sound whatsoever, for a moment, and then all was tumult. A colossal whomp ripped across the atmosphere, shaking the world loose, galvanizing the air and filling my lungs with the harsh taste of dynamite. Aldwych Wood howled in pain, screamed in anger and the sky bled flesh. I ran. I could do nothing else, so I ran.

I finally reached the tunnel mouth. The floor of Aldwych had long since ceased its undulations. The screams and the howls and the shrieks were only muffled whimpers when I came abreast of the Gresham thing. It had changed form once more, sporting tentacles, now, with hooked pincers at the end of each, but I could see no means of motion, no legs, so I let my guard down for a moment. As I sidled past the creature to reach the tunnel, a tentacle lashed out of its body and toward my throat. I threw my hand in front of my face in reflex and felt a searing pain. The two fingers of my left hand farthest from the thumb were gone and I was pumping blood once again into the dark soil of the Wood.

"Jesus Christ!" I swung the Savage up and fired the last three shells into the body of the thing, ejecting spend shells with my bleeding hand, and with each impact, I skirted toward the tunnel mouth and farther away from the reach of the tentacles. When I'd emptied the shotgun I threw it at the creature, telling it what it could do with the barrel. And then I waited inside the tunnel for the thing to follow me, and it did. I set a satchel charge and left it fifteen feet into the dimness, then crawled as far inside as I could. I was around a corner far from the tunnel mouth when I heard the muffled thud and felt the earth tremble. The tunnel fell immediately black as all light was cut off, and all access to the tunnel was closed.

It took me much longer to crawl out than it did to crawl in. With each step, my hand throbbed. Even through the makeshift bandage, my wadded and torn undershirt, I oozed blood in a thick streamer to the ground. And when I had to get on all fours to go under the low ceiling the agony knifed up my arm and once or twice, I whimpered with the electric pain.

I was weak and exhausted when I reached the vault, so I lay down on the cool vault floor and slept, with my head resting on the nearly empty duffel bag beside the open grave of the tunnel. I don't know how long I slept and it doesn't really matter, but when I finally woke up, the blood had crusted and scabbed on my bandaged hand and the throbbing was gone. And nothing had followed me from Aldwych Wood. Nothing so far.

I wanted to do one more thing before I made my way to the church down the long underground corridor. I wanted to make sure nobody could get in, either. So I muscled the heavy steel plate cover as nearly into place over the grave mouth as I could, disturbing my wound and starting the blood flowing again, and set the second satchel charge on a long timer and sealed it in the hole, banging two rivets through the steel plate with the crowbar from my bag. Then I tossed the crowbar and ran as far down the corridor as my legs would carry me.

The blast was a physical blow that knocked me sprawling on my face and felt like ham sized fists clocking me on both ears. Blood trickled down my cheeks. Muffled deafness.

The blast hurled me forward like a wet rag and I cracked my head on a curve in the tunnel wall. When I came to my senses, I saw a faint glow far down the dark corridor. I stood up unsteadily and hooked my right elbow in the duffel's strap and dragged it behind me as I made my way toward the light. It seemed like no time at all before I saw the open door to the church cellar, its warm yellow blush was the cleanest sight I'd seen since leaving the filthy aura of Aldwych Wood. I gripped the bag and hurried my steps, I believe I was smiling in spite of it all.

Within a minute I could make out shapes in the doorway and as I advanced, I recognized Frank's face peering deep into the darkness, a worried look clouding his eyes. I think I shouted hello, but the blast of the satchel charge had deafened me and all I heard was a dull vibration through the bones in my face. And I saw Reverend Peeler standing beside Stoneham; Peeler holding his varmint rifle, pointing it at me as I came close to them.

Frank looked over my shoulder trying to see if there was anyone with me. When he realized I was alone, a look of profound sadness came over him and he backed away from the door. Peeler stepped closer and spoke to me through the door. I couldn't hear what he said and I yelled for him to speak up. He said something else and shook his head and to my shock and complete bewilderment, he closed the door, locking me in the tunnel. They closed me in. They left me.

I don't know how long I stood there pounding on the thick oak door, screaming curses at them, damning them, it could have been minutes or it could have been hours. I know it hurt to use my voice after a time, so it must have been closer to hours. I know I fired a whole clip into the door, as well. Stupid thing to do. But at least I heard the last two shots, so my hearing was coming back. I don't know what kind of blessing that is, though, because now I can hear small noises all around me in the dark tunnel. I know it's nothing from Aldwych Wood, but there are other things digging their way through these tunnels.

When I calmed down enough to think, I ransacked the duffel bag looking for more magazines for the Browning and only came up with four loose bullets. But I found my silver flask -- forgot I still carried it with me. It's full, too, but it's Scotch, ha. Figured the best way to keep my sobriety pledge was to carry around a reminder of something I'd rather die before drinking. I guess I was wrong, though, it's not as bad as I remembered. A man could develop a taste for Scotch if he had enough time. Never thought anything could taste so good.

I've been sitting here writing off and on for about eight hours. Taking turns pounding on the oak door and shooting holes in it. I can't hear anything with any clarity because of the damage to my ears, but I'm betting Peeler can. I'm hoping Frank can. He must have his reasons for doing what he did, delicate flower. What the hell did Peeler say to him to make him turn against me like this? Abandon his daughter and Doc Mather. He must have been damn persuasive.

I find myself wishing I had my new Buick with me. Hell that'd make short work of this damn door. Nice car. I would have liked to drive it more. I hope Peeler doesn't get his filthy hands on it. Bastard.

My hand stopped hurting a couple of hours ago. Reminds me of the chest wound I got in Italy in the war. That didn't hurt after a while, either. I suppose when you get all the pain you can take, it just stops. Otherwise it's wasted.

The flashlight batteries are nearly dead, I'm saving what's left in case I hear any more scrabbling from the tunnel behind me; something's trying to get to me and I want to see what it is. I'm using my lighter to write by, but the fluid's almost gone in that too. Hell of a thing, eh? My pencil's only a stub now, nothing left to sharpen, and I'm nearly out of things to write on anyway, notebook's full, and Jesus I'm hungry! Haven't eaten since-I can't remember. Days, weeks, years? Hell of a thing. There's that noise behind me, again, something else is hungry. I'm really getting cold, now, toes numb. Gotta stop writing and rest for a while. Keep one bullet back in case. I guess things could be worse though, the Scotch could be gone.

You dance the dance, you pay the piper. Hell of a thing. God damn that bastard, Stoneham. God d...

 

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The End