1618 Caroline St. 6650 Words
Fredericksburg, VA 22401 Copyright 1995 by Steve Johnson
THE DOOM THAT CAME TO NECROPOLIS
It is with trembling hand and only after long debate with myself that I set down the events that culminated in the fall of Necropolis. There are many reasons, good and solid reasons, that the loathsome details should remain hidden, moldering in the unhallowed dark until the ages pass, and the slow parade of time erases all memory of Necropolis from the minds of men.
But though the telling requires me to remind the world of many dreadful facts which it would sooner forget, still my conscience at last compels me to admit that, without the true account of Necropolis' doom before them, it is all but inevitable that other communities will fall into the same shuddersome errors Necropolis made, and so meet in the end with the same horrific fate.
I remember that it was a particularly gray afternoon in the early part of the winter of 1928 that Daniel Dennison of the Geologic Survey Service came to Necropolis, Connecticut. His Dillinghast motorcycle puttered its two-stroke rhythm against the walls of the abandoned Howard quarry on Innsmouth Road, past the rows of white clapboard houses along Front Street, and up to the peeling, flaking, overgrown Georgian brownstone that served Necropolis as a combination of post office, Federal building and fire department. A droplet landing in the rain barrel beneath the gutter was the only sound when he killed the engine.
Dennison swung one booted, leather-sheathed leg off the cycle. He pulled off his helmet, revealing a shock of unruly black hair above piercing blue eyes. He unbuttoned his leather jacket, draping it casually over the Dillinghast's handlebars, and began unpacking his Service Special equipment from its panniers. He was young for a government man, doubly so for the string of degrees which trailed after his name. He was tall, wide and strong, hard and keen, his face and hands deeply tanned by years of hard work in the sun.
The last thing he removed from the cycle was a tie. He knotted it around his neck as he sauntered up the brownstone's steps.
I slipped the book I had been reading under my desk before he could catch the title. It might not have meant anything to him, but I was taking no chances.
"Yes?" I said, as if I had been waiting patiently for him all afternoon.
"I'm Dan Dennison," he said at once. He paused.
"Walter Miller," I replied. His grip was firm without crushing my hand.
"The Survey sent me to take care of a little problem," he said. "Okay if I use your telephone?"
"I -- that is, we weren't expecting you till tomorrow, Mr. Dennison."
He chuckled, running a big hand through his hair.
"Yeah, I bet. But this burg is so far off the beaten track, I thought it might take me all day to chase it down, so I came early."
He consulted a complicated-looking chronometer worn wristwatch-wise on a bracelet of sturdy metal.
"Five-oh-four, for the love of Pete!" he crowed. "Just as I figured -- if I'd started at dawn, I'd have wasted the whole day. Now, how about that phone, Ace?"
His bluff and hearty manner, so unlike the polite reserve of New England, had thrown me. But I was on familiar ground again.
"Telephone service cuts off at five," I said, spreading my hands.
"You don't say," he said. "Okay, if those are the ground rules, I can run with 'em. I'll be phoning in reports every morning, then," he decided. "If that's okay with you?"
"Oh, yes, certainly. I'm in by nine."
"Nine ... well, it can wait till then," he said. "OK."
He spread out a map of Klarkashton County, the same one that hung under glass on the wall. But Dennison's map had curved lines drawn on it in ink, forming a queer extrusion like a hungry pseudopod questing down the Belknap River in search of food.
"Lessee -- we're here," he said confidently, though the map showed no town. "That road I took would be right along in here ... uh-huh. Thought so. The center of the disturbance must be somewhere between Hill 1137," (his finger touched a triangular mark) "and Hill 893, over here. North of town, then, and probably smack in the Belknap-Derleth watershed. Wet country up there?"
It was the first scientific statement he had made with less than absolute certainty. I confess it took me a moment to realize it was a question.
"Oh, ah, no," I said. "Not that I am aware of. This hill 1137, would it be Ramsey Hill?"
"You're asking me? I just got here, Ace," he said good-naturedly. "It 'ud be west of here, just past the edge of that window."
"Ah? Yes, that would be Ramsey Hill. And Bloch Heights are over here -- they would be your Hill 893, although they're really more of a ridge."
"Yeah? These low spots been filled in?" he said, indicating the
"Oh, my, yes. Well before the houses were built, I should think."
Dennison snapped his fingers.
"If that don't beat all," he said. "Should have re-surveyed this valley ten years ago, at least. What's got into those boys in Boston?"
"We don't usually have visitors here in Necropolis," I said, trying to be helpful. By the determined look that came into his steely blue eyes, he might have taken it the wrong way.
"'Zat so? Well, Ace, the G-man has arrived. G for geology, that is."
He bent once again to examine the lines on his map.
"Excuse me, Mister Dennison?"
"Eh? Call me Dan, if you want," he said affably. "What's on your mind, Ace?"
"Well ... I just have to ask. What do those lines represent on your map? They look so ... sinister."
"Yes, so queerly repellent in aspect."
Dennison threw back his head and laughed. I felt a sudden chill.
"Sorry," he gasped. "I wasn't laughing at you. But I've been carrying this map around for weeks, looking at it every day, and suddenly it does look sort of like a big amoeba or something, doesn't it? Yep, an ameoba thirty miles long," he said, chuckling to himself.
"You're all right, Ace," he said when he finished. "No, it's not a chart of a huge protozoan taking over the valley. These are magnetic field strengths, recorded by a plane."
"Really?" I hadn't remarked on any aeroplanes passing over the town.
"Yep. We pile these readings up, a little at a time, and draw these lines to connect 'em. Helps when you're navigating a crate in the dark, and all you've got is your compass between you and a dead-reckoning landing."
"Dead reckoning," I echoed. "It sounds so sepulchral."
"Yep, they say if you don't reckon it right, you're dead," he said cheerfully. "Cept over dry land, there's usually someplace you can put down. Anyway, there's a new mail run that goes right over your county --"
"There is?" I yelped. "They're building a railroad through Klarkashton County?"
"An aeroplane route," he explained patiently. "From Boston to New York. And the Service is supposed to make sure the route's clear of any magnetic anomalies. Things that make you think north is east, west or upside-down."
"But what unfathomable mysteries could cause such an unnatural deceit? It's almost as if the hand of some shuddersome, nameless horror were intruding into the everyday world of 'planes and compasses. As if the laws of nature weren't laws at all, but mere customs to be overturned by the casual whim of some superior being," I said.
Dennison regarded me quizzically.
"Sometimes it's a vein of iron ore," he said slowly. "Sometimes power lines, if they're big enough."
"Oh," I said, disappointed.
"And there's a hum-dum-dinger of an anomaly here in this county," he continued. "So I'm here to find it and measure it, so we can correct for it on the charts. Lessee ... guess I'll start right up here where this contour starts to dip back in, right above Hill 1137. Any roads leading up there?"
"Yes," I said automatically. "But ... you don't want to go up there."
"Oh?" he said, interested. "You know something about geomagnetics? Makes sense, you're a native. Well, where should I start, then?"
"It's not that," I said. "But up there is the old Howard place."
He held up a hand.
"You've got to remember I'm from Milwaukee," he said. "The name doesn't
mean anything to me. Should it?"
"I suppose not ... everyone here knows it's haunted."
Dennison pursed his lips.
"Oh, my land, yes," I assured him.
"Scary at night?"
"No one goes near it?"
"And in the daytime?"
"Well, once in a while ... the road to Hartford goes by there, you know ... but never at night."
"Good," he said, rolling up the map. I was relieved he'd seen reason.
"I need a few hours to let the needle steady down, really get a good reading," he said. "A few hours with nobody around."
"Mr. Dennison, are you --"
"I am. Tonight it is!"
He was insane. That was it.
"Care to come along?"
* * *
I didn't want to. I had no clear idea what was waiting for us up there, but everyone in Necropolis agreed the Howard place was better shunned than considered. On the other hand, if Dennison went up there and didn't come back, I had no way of knowing whether the government would blame me or not, being the last one to talk to him. Perhaps they might think I should have stopped him?
Either way, I was facing the dread Unknown. And all Unknowns are equally bad. Infinity equals infinity.
However, to stay meant to disagree with Dennison, and although he didn't seem like the type to take that the wrong way, there was always that chance, wasn't there?
I mean, you never really know.
So I went, locking the door behind me. Shutters closed in the square as Dennison and I got into the Packard stake-bed we used as a fire truck. I could tell they were watching me -- the Peaslees, the Armitages, the Angells and their cousins -- but from behind slitted drapes, from darkened rooms.
"Lead on, MacDuff," Dennison said, slamming the door with a clank. We headed up into the hills, leaving Necropolis proper behind.
Soon we were up among the spectacular reds and yellows of the New England autumn, with a corporal's guard of pines keeping the green flame alive till spring returned. The Howard place sat within a house-width of a sheer cliff, dropping eighty feet or more to a bed of gravel. Some of the tombstones in back of the house were slanting, undermined by erosion till it seemed they must surely topple into the abyss, perhaps with their mephitic contents preceding them by years or more. I felt a sudden sick dread of looking over that cliff, for fear of what I might behold.
"Hold up, Ace," Dennison instructed. "Here's fine."
I stopped, and he got out, hoisting his equipment cases with ease.
"Are you going to set up here, in the open?" I quailed. For the wind was cold from the east now, and night was falling.
"If I have to," he answered equably. "But unless there are lightning rods all over the frame, that house'll do as well as anyplace." He grinned.
"And it'll keep the rain off our heads besides."
I looked about, but saw no clouds.
"Two hours, the way this blow's shaping up. You won't see the clouds till they're almost on top of us," he said offhandedly.
I helped him wrestle his equipment up the narrow, rickety steps. Dennison surveyed the porch with a critical eye.
"Too shaky," he decided, "and not wide enough to keep us dry. Think
anyone'll mind if we go on in?"
I paled, but managed to shake my head. The owners of record were long dead, and as for the masters -- who knew?
"Swell," he said, and pushed on the door. It gave with a creak and a groan of rusty hinges. Dennison strode into the parlor, stomping his motorcycle boots experimentally along its length. He nodded, apparently satisfied.
"QX, this'll do. Hand me that long case there, will you, Ace?" he said, and commenced to assembling his equipment. Of all the scientific arcana he produced, I confess to recognizing only a roll of lined paper, on which a needle would score marks as the paper unrolled.
"A seismograph?" I hazarded.
"Magnetometer," he said. "Measures strength of the earth's magnetic field, which varies some over time. We'll take our readings throughout an average day, then see if we can't edit out any interference from local phenomena."
"Lightning, for one," he said, pointing at the doorway.
The horizon was a solid mass of low, threatening clouds. The promised storm was coming.
Far below, in the valley, darkness lay on the land like a spreading stain.
* * *
Dennison wound the spring that powered the paper coil, watched it unravel and the pen jerk wildly across the page. He flicked a pencil at the edge of the paper, stealing a glance at his chronometer as he did. When enough paper had spilled on the floor, he wrote down the time next to his pencil mark.
"It's really going wild," I observed. Was that good or bad?
"That's just the gimbals," he said. "Ultra-sensitive. We have to give 'em a chance to settle down before the readings will mean anything."
"Which means," he added, turning to me, "that it's time to give 'em some room. Every time we take a step, we set 'em to jiggling again."
"Back to the truck?" I said, dismayed.
"Further into the house," he said. "Better stay on the ground floor, though. Let's see how many rooms we can put between us and the gizmo."
With that, he headed off into the depths of the Howard mansion, leaving me the choice of staying behind in darkness or following the electric torch he produced from his tool belt. It wasn't much of a choice at all.
We found ourselves in a pantry behind the kitchen, which in turn lay behind the dining room which in turn lay behind a parlor. There wasn't a back door.
Dennison sat down on his haunches and turned off the torch.
"Saves the batteries," he explained. "And since I located the commode on the way here, I can find it in the dark. Okay with you?"
As intimated before, I was reluctant to disagree with this forceful, possibly dangerous man. I made some noise of assent.
"Great. Now, since we have an hour or so to kill, suppose you tell me about this haunted house story."
I swallowed. That was one of the last things I wanted to discuss, swaddled as we were in Stygian gloom. However, as the alternative appeared to be silence, in which my fears would grow unchecked into what full abysmal blossom I could hardly name, I began at the beginning.
"Old man Howard, the great-grandson of the Howard who built this house, used to own the quarry out on Innsmouth Road. He owned a lot of the houses and employed a lot of the men of this town, as well. But he was never a wealthy man, Mr. Dennison. He loaned out much of what he'd inherited, and over time he never seemed to get back what he'd lent out, much less any interest.
"If you were behind in your payments (and many were) he'd write a letter, perhaps send you a telegram. Telegrams were impressive in those days, oh, my, yes.
"But presently it became known that he'd never take the final step of calling in the law. And after the third or fourth notice, he just forgot about you, or so it seemed at the time."
Dennison shifted his weight.
"I'll bite," he said. "Why didn't he call the sheriff?"
"Because he would have had to come to the courthouse in person. And old Howard never went anywhere during the daylight hours."
"Huh! So he was a vampire?"
"Not exactly. But he acted like one. And when he died ..."
"Yeah? You've got me, now reel me in."
"The people who wouldn't pay their debts just started to disappear. They'd turn up after a day or so, hungry and tired, remembering nothing of the night before," I said.
"Except now they craved the blood of the living?" Dennison said. "Check your sources, Ace. I think I've read this one before."
"No, no, Mr. Dennison! They were and are perfectly normal. Except once they came home, their relatives vanished for a night or so. Then their neighbors, then their neighbors' neighbors. And so on."
"And so one night everyone had disappeared for a day or so ..." Dennison said.
"A night," I corrected him.
"A night. And they were just the same, and that's the end of it?"
"I didn't expect you to believe me," I said, stung by the scorn in his voice.
He turned on his torch so I could see his face. He wasn't smiling.
"I haven't said I don't believe you," he assured me. "But what does all that have to do with this house being haunted? The way you tell it, the whole town's equally mixed up in spooky business. Isn't the whole town haunted?"
"Well, naturally we don't see it that way --" I began, knowing how pale it sounded.
A sudden crash made us both jump. Dennison crouched, fists balled, eyes alertly scanning the shadowed shelves on all sides of us.
"Lightning," I said to calm myself.
"Nope," he said, already dashing for the front hall. "Something falling against the house!"
I kept the light in sight as best I could. When I caught up with him, Dennison was bent over his instruments, a look of intense concentration on his face.
The pen on his paper spool jittered a crazed tarantella at the very top of its range. Sometimes it jerked off the paper entirely.
"Magnetic flux. High but very unstable," he said to himself. "Hell's bells! That pattern's familiar, for all the tea in China! But where have I seen it before? Think, you mug, think!"
I thought he was referring to me, till I saw him brush a hand over his own brow, urging his brain into action.
"Eureka! No, wait a minute. That doesn't make sense," he said. "Make sense, Hell. There it is. Start doubting the evidence of your senses, without clear and convincing proof of hallucination, and you're for the laughing academy, Dan my boy."
I heard the porch creak ominously, as though burdened by immense, ageless weight.
"Dennison?" I demanded. "What is it? What do you see?"
"Lines on a page, Miller," he shot back. "But they tell me plenty. See, this is like a reading of brain-wave electricity I took once in college. Somehow that pattern's been superimposed on a magnetic field. Queer -- it's not like any human brain-waves I ever saw. But it's similar, darn similar, for all the hells in China!"
"But what does it MEAN?" I gibbered.
At that, I heard the doorknob rattle like a serpent's warning. Dennison stood up, brushing dust from his palms.
"Don't know yet," he admitted. Before I could stop him, or utter an agonized cry of fearful warning, he opened the door.
We beheld a trio of manlike shapes, dark and sinister of aspect. They were almost completely black, heads cocked unnaturally to the side, while their posture reeked of unmentionable, unfathomable currents swimming darkly beneath the surface of their intentions. I had the intuition that they were not men at all, but mannikins, manipulated like marionnettes by some unseen, unhallowed, sheerly unbelievable horror from beyond the fields we knew.
"What d'you want?" barked Dennison in a challenging tone.
"You," gurgled one of the half-human wights.
They took a synchonized step forward, as though one single hip joint were swiveling three legs at once. Though it seemed impossible that they could all pass through the door at the same time, each turned in unison like three slats on a window blind, and then they were inside.
Dennison turned his torch full on the intruders. A gasp of startled terror fell from my lips, for they were infinitely more human than I had supposed. They appeared to be three weatherbeaten men, or rather two men and a boy, dressed in checkered wool shirts and tough cotton trousers that tucked into the tops of their thick-soled work boots. I recognized them as the Mallorys, father and sons, who worked the quarry and delivered firewood.
The only thing unusual in their appearance, apart from a certain uniformity of expression, was their eyes. In each of the six sockets a ball of black fur bristled, as though their orbs had been replaced by oversized, hirsute leeches.
I fear the sight of them unhinged my reason, but not so much that I cannot remember what happened next. Of my own part I can give no account, for I do not to this day connect the gabbling cries and whining screams that engulfed us with my own brain and voice.
But I know what I saw, and that was this:
One of the men held up a long forked stick like the type used by spiritualists to find underground water. It was as black as his eyes, and possessed of the same furry malignancy. Dennison dropped to one shoulder and rolled aside as the furry black coating of the stick gathered itself, amid a hellish buzzing and rasping, then leapt for his throat.
But fast as it was, Dennison was faster. He snared the magnetometer with one hand, springing to his feet, then with a titanic effort hurled the entire apparatus into the middle of the three men. They gave no sound as they were smashed aside by the machine's weight and bulk, merely dropped to the ground with hollow thuds.
Dennison seized my arm and guided me through the doorway. I do not believe I would have moved had he not.
But in my paralyzed state I could not cry out (unless I had been doing so all along, insensible), and so I was unable to give any sort of warning when I emerged from that loathsome house of horrors.
For I was facing backward as Dennison pulled me along. And I saw, as he did not, that the shadows of the pines were moving along the wall.
Despite the flicker of our electric torch as Dennison pumped his arms, the shadows held still. Then they advanced, extruding themselves in two separate directions, spreading over the front of the house exactly like a pseudopod of some colossal cellular aberration reaching down the valley to snare two small lives.
I heard the buzzing and rasping resume, much louder, coming from the shadow as it gathered itself on the wall.
At that moment, I stumbled over an unseen rock and fell. Dennison turned, saw the predicament we faced, and flashed his light directly into the shadow.
The shadow refused to yield. Impossibly, incredibly, it maintained its shape and nocturnal blackness in full blaze of the electric torch.
Dennison retreated with me in tow. After a long while that I cannot account for, I sputtered on the cup of hot rum-laden tea he was pouring into my mouth.
* * *
"We better not go back there tonight," he said as I swallowed gratefully. I nodded assent.
"No, better we wait till morning, when we can see better," he decided.
I nearly choked on my tea.
"You're going back? Are you mad?"
"We both are. I need you to corroborate my findings, check my data."
"But that house is the abode of powers from Beyond .." I began, confidently.
"Bunk," Dennison cut me off. "What did we see? Besides a lot of local spook-stories, that is. We saw some guys with black stuff in their eyes and some shadows that don't behave the way shadows should."
"Exactly. They do not do as they ought -- the taint of evil is upon the very shadows that lie in this town -- and somewhere behind them the Shadow Princes pull their strings, and men twitch to their urgings ..."
Dennison watched me with a bored expression. I stopped.
"You done? Any more spooks you want to call up?" he said.
I closed my mouth, abashed.
"Okay, then listen. We saw some shadows come after us. By all I know of optics, that shouldn't happen. Right?"
I nodded, afraid to speak.
"Right. So I don't know everything there is to know about optics. That's all it means, Miller. It's just the unknown. Time to shed some light on these shadows and see what makes 'em tick."
"JUST the unknown? But anything could lurk in the unknown," I rebutted firmly. "Don't you see that the deepest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown, and well it should be so! For who can prepare against what lurks in the dark, of whose powers we know nothing?"
To my surprise, Dennison nodded.
"Mm. Well, that's true enough. You can't fight something you know nothing about. And so far as fear goes, yep, I was scared. Scared white as a sheet with a streak of purest gold down my back, I should hope to shout!"
"Then you see! We mere mortals should admit our helplessness --"
"Hold the phone, Miller!" Dennison barked. "Since when does the universe give two hoots about my emotions? Fear affects my perceptions and nothing else. Sure, I was scared. But whatever it was in the dark, it was just the same before I got scared, and the same after. And if we'd never seen it, it woulda still been the same!"
He gripped me by the shoulders, swinging me around so his face was in the light.
"You know that, don't you? Whatever chased us, it's either real or it isn't. If it isn't, we're in the clear. But if it is real --"
"It is, it is!" I insisted.
"-- then it's got length, width and height. It's got mass and weight. It takes up volume and occupies a definite interval of time. It has shape, color, temperature, electric charge, chemical properties like anything else. If it's alive, it's got instincts, unless it's intelligent, in which case it has motives. Whatever it is, we'll dope it out, and then we'll know how to lick it!"
"But we saw it! It was a mass without form, without substance! How can you draw conclusions from nothing?"
"Bunk, I said. Can you hear radio with your bare ears?"
I blinked. I said no.
"And you can't tell a black thread from a white in the dark, either."
"Unless you wait for dawn," I said, recalling the Moslem custom.
Dennison did not -- quite -- sneer. He did, however, favor me with a pitying look.
"Unless you light a candle, Miller," he said. "Unless you light a candle."
* * *
I cannot explain the dire forebodings that twitched through my thoughts all that next endless day. Dennison had called for additional equipment from Boston to replace what was lost at the Howard house, and when it arrived he spent the afternoon assembling one contrivance after another. The electricity was not sufficient for his machines, but one of them turned out to be an electrical generator fueled by kerosene, which of course we had in plenty.
It was not -- precisely -- fear of his experiments that gripped me in an agony of lassitude. Nor was it memory of what we had experienced the night before, sanity-blasting though that terrible night remained in my recollection. No, the slithering fear that gripped me was of a wholly different, even alien, complexion. It was as though I were being commanded to fear, compelled in the direction of dread by some influence I could not define, only detect.
I thought of broaching my fears to Dennison, but I thought he might discount them as the fancies of a badly-jarred imagination. Instead, I did what I always had when fear threatened: I sought out the thing in my surroundings which terrified me the most (in this case, the shadow of my phonograph) and stared at it relentlessly as if became more and more terrifying, till I was completely petrified, unable to speak or move lest I scream at the top of my voice.
As I said, this is what I do when frightened. It has served me all of my life.
The shadows waxed and lengthened as I writhed in terror's ophidian coils. Afternoon was waning and night was coming soon. The shadows were growing, in size and strength, soon to cover all the world as they did every night.
I broke away with an inarticulate cry. This was not the way to avoid fearing the dark!
All at once I was struck with a revelation that seemed perfectly lucid for an instant. The solution to my morbid fears was to strike down Daniel Dennison, with any implement near to hand. A length of pipe, left over from a repair on my leaky radiator, would do perfectly. Knowing me, he would not suspect until I was within striking reach, and then one swift blow would finish the job. Then the fear would ebb.
I had closed my palm about the pipe's unyielding brass before the absurdity of my plan struck me.
Kill Dennison? How would that lead to anything but madness?
Again I felt the dawn of sudden insight, but it was the same insight as before. Kill Dennison, and the fear would pass.
I had never before been struck with an idea that was an exact restatement of a previous idea. To the best of my layman's knowledge, such a repeat-inspiration did not happen in healthy, normal minds, only in the obsessive dream-world of the neurotic. I feared I might be going mad.
My hand tightened around the pipe as if of its own accord. My hand seemed to know what to do, even if I did not. And that prospect was the most worrisome of all, for what can a hand know?
I let go of the pipe with a spasm of revulsion. Or rather, I willed myself to let go. But the hand refused my orders.
I saw now that there was nothing I could do to resist the awful command. My very flesh would betray me, already in league with the usurper. Giving in at last to the dread song ringing through my blood, I eased open the door to my foyer.
Dennison was on his knees, his back turned to me, adjusting a bit of ironmongery with a screwdriver. I slipped out of my shoes and tiptoed across the thick pile carpet, my bludgeon poised over my head.
My shadow fell across his back. For a single instant, the veriest edge of shadow peeked over his shoulder and fell on the floor, in front of him.
I swung the pipe down with all of my strength.
Dennison turned, lightning quick, and caught it in his hand.
"Was it something I said?" he said without a trace of a smile.
"Help me, Dennison!" I screeched like a trumpet with a broken reed. "My mind is no longer my own!"
"Yep. You could say that." He seized my other wrist, then steered me into a chair. With a sudden twist, he had the pipe away from me.
"Dennison, what am I to do! I've become an agent of the Shadow Prince! My will, my very soul, dances to the tune of foreign pipes."
"Brass pipes," he observed. "Still want to give me the conk?"
"No, no," I assured him hastily. "My land, no. I'm no match for you barehanded, I know that."
"Barehanded?" He looked at the pipe in his hand.
"Not if I don't have to," he said. "So you're getting some hoodoo from the spook that roams the hills, huh? Any idea when they plan to break in?"
"Break in?" I wailed.
"Sure," he said coolly. "They know I'm on to them now. They know you didn't bash my skull in. In their place, I'd break in."
"Who are 'they,' Dennison?"
He grinned, cocking an eyebrow at me.
"The Shadow Princes, of course. Just like you said."
I felt the planet sway beneath me. Dennison helped me to a chair.
"Steady, Miller! Sorry to put the skids under you like that," he said.
"But y'know, that purple pulp-magazine mouth of yours was right on the money,
this time. Shadow Princes is as good a name as any for what we're up
I waited, breathless to hear and terrified to know all at the same time. Dennison sat back in my armchair, lighting his pipe. He put out the match on an ashtray on my coffee table, beside an assortment of twigs, leaves, bark and soil he'd collected over the course of the morning.
"That thing on the wall last night, whatever it was, wasn't no shadow," he began. "But it looked like one; leastways, it was dark and reasonably flat. And it wasn't paint, because it moved sideways in response to light."
"Or our presence," I put in. He nodded.
"Could be. So I asked myself what known phenomena act like that? First place to look, I figure, is mold."
"Some molds can move, though not very fast. They call 'em slime molds; sort of a weird cross-breed of cat, not really plant nor animal. No known slime mold moves fast enough to see, but like I said, we don't know it all. Bet you'd agree with me there, huh, Ace?"
Now it was my turn to nod, fast and hard.
"Thought so. But you also ought to realize that the part we do know is true. Maybe not universal, maybe not complete, but the truths Galileo and Einstein discovered don't disappear just because we're up against something new."
"So I thought: if this black stuff is a slime mold, or something similar, what properties would it have? Slime molds live on decaying vegetation; no problem finding that in these woods. 'Cept the groundwater around here is brackish, tainted with rust. But you all knew that; you drink rainwater or nothing, right?"
"Yes -- the well water tastes metallic, unwholesome."
"I'll say! You don't want heavy metals concentrating in your bloodstream. In fact, this whole area's laced with iron oxides, in the trees, in the rocks. No wonder a compass gets confused around here.
"A slime mold, living off the leaves and bark of trees nourished by groundwater, would pick up a lot of iron along with it. It's not inconcievable that, at least close up, they could affect a compass, too."
I had it, a piece of it.
"And thus distort your instruments, if it was clinging to the wall of the house."
"Kee-rect!" Dennison said. "And don't forget, it was pulsing with an almost human wave-form. Its intelligence might be equal to ours. Which brings me to the question: what was it that was filling up those fellows' eyes? More mold? But mold doesn't grow well on human flesh."
"You said this might be a new sort of mold."
"Could be. If it is, it's learned to inhabit human bodies. That might not
kill you, if the mold didn't attack vital organs. But it would make you look
pretty darn different inside, I'm betting. That's what this fluoroscope here is
for. Would you mind?"
He motioned me over to a camera-like apparatus, connected by rigid members to a dark, thick glass plate. The camera was suspended in such a way as to face the plate. He started his kerosene generator, and the plate warmed to a deep green illuminated color. Pale fumes fogged my parlor.
"Just pass your hand in front of the scope ... hold it ... good," he said. He slipped a prepared photographic film into a slot behind the plate.
"Now step in front of it. Turn around ... let the rays play over every part of your body. Good."
He pulled the plate aside and slid in a fresh.
"Everything looks normal," he decided after a moment. "I'm not an M.D., so I won't try to slice you open --"
"Me?" I gasped.
"Why not? You said the whole town was affected by whatever got old man Howard. You live here, you're part of the town. Whatever it is that makes people act funny in Necropolis, I'd bet money you've got it, too. Q.E.D."
Could that be where my mysterious urge had come? From a slime mold? I felt vastly disappointed, deflated somehow, to know the thing which had nearly caused me to lose my reason was not some cosmic horror with world-girdling occult powers, but the lowest of the lowly inhabitants of the bogs and hollows. I felt low myself, not the abject lowliness of the slave beaten down by almighty masters, but low like an insignificant creature crawling about in the mud, worth no one's attention but its own.
"But see here, Dennison," I said, forgetting courtesy in my despond. "This mold or whatever-it-is -- do you truly think it's living inside us, inside me, right at this very moment?"
"Can't say for sure yet, Ace. I'd have to do some more tests. One thing I did think of, though -- if it is, I bet it didn't like the fluoroscope much."
"But it didn't hurt when I put my hand in it."
"If you've got a cold, does it hurt when you take aspirin? Unless the stuff's laced into your nervous system, what hurts it won't hurt you. And unless I miss my guess, the reason those guys at the Howard place had gunk over their eyes was the same reason Howard didn't go out in daylight. The mold might be susceptible to light; lots of slime molds like dark places. Remember, they're not really plants; they're more saprophytic, like fungi. Get their energy from decaying matter, not sunlight. And the fluoroscope puts out ionizing radiation that can penetrate opaque surfaces. Like sunshine on your bones."
"So you mean to expose the townspeople to your fluoroscopic light, then," I stated.
"Can't imagine it'll do 'em any harm," he said. "You seem to be all right."
"And if they resist? If they try to expose us to the black mold, as they did last night?" I said.
I heard a clank around the back of the house, where my father's old chain gate hung. Someone was climbing it. At almost the same moment, many feet climbed the steps to my porch, crossed the creaking wood to my front door.
"Any other ways out?" said Dennison, indicating the front and back.
I shook my head, frozen to my seat.
"Better get up, then," he said. "We may have to move fast."
The first blow struck the front door, splintering its panels. Dennison hefted the fluoroscope and aimed it at the door.
A panel jounced from its frame, smashed in. Those outside saw Dennison, but did not stop at his warning. I saw Joe Buell, Charles Pabodie, and the three Carter brothers wielding axes and prybars. They kept on attacking the door, their eyes abristle with black mold.
Dennison set up the fluoroscope so that the camera was pointed directly at the door, and tugged the glass shield free.
My crystal doorknob, a memento from my father's visit to a predominantly Czech county in upper New York state, sprang loose and shattered on the kitchen floor. I felt a surge of righteous anger.
Seizing a fireplace poker, I stood beside Dennison as the tortured door yielded and my possessed townsmen swarmed inside.
The penetrating rays caught them squarely in their weird phosphorescence. Skin and the whites of socks and shirts glowed an eerie blue in the fluoroscope's ray.
As one, they convulsed, clapping hands to their eyes and contorting their limbs in apparent agony. And yet, they did not cry out, except in wonderment to find themselves thus arrayed on my kitchen floor, like sleepwalkers awaking from a passionate dream.
The back door quaked under a sudden assault.
"Dennison!" I cried, but it was too late.
Sheriff Pitts kicked the flimsy kitchen door aside with his massive size-thirteen boot. A double-barreled shotgun swung to bear on us.
Dennison tackled me as I stood paralyzed with mortal fear. The gunblasts echoed as one, blasting the fluoroscope to ruin.
Pitts stepped in, reloading jerkily, like an automaton. A fair number of Necropolitans followed him, advancing on us.
Dennison reached under the table and picked up a green duffel bag.
"Is that another fluoroscope?" I gibbered.
"Nope." He slid out an automatic rifle and a Colt pistol, black, heavy and deadly.
"We'll just have to let light into 'em the old-fashioned way."
I clutched my hands to my ears just in time.
Dennison's rifle sprayed a continuous stabbing flame, dropping the possessed men like tenpins in my foyer. Only when the rifle clicked empty did the last man advance over the threshold; Dennison clubbed him with the rifle butt and slid in a fresh magazine. Throwing a bag of filled magazines over his left shoulder, he avoided the bodies and stepped out on the porch.
"Any man in his right mind, that doesn't want to die, better stay in his house!" he bellowed, his voice carrying to every corner of the small mountain town.
Doors opened on every street. People gathered like iron filings, drawn to the magnet of Dennison's voice.
"This is your last chance! You have two seconds to turn around and go back!"
But it was closer to ten seconds before his weapons exploded in chattering thunder, sweeping the street in steady, metronomic bursts of gunfire.
At his feet, the men who had been bathed in the fluoroscope's rays moaned like lost children.
Those few souls were all that survived of the town of Necropolis, Connecticut that evening. All others were hurled by their inhuman masters into the maw of Dennison's chattering guns, and all of those who opposed him died. Their bodies, when examined, were filled through and through with powdery black motes, like mold infusing a loaf of bread.
The Belknap Valley was sealed off, pending extensive study. Humanity's confrontation, or problematic accomodation, with the slime molds will consume the remainder of this century's energies, if not the history of our race on Earth.
But for the town of Necropolis, Connecticut, the coming of Daniel Dennison was and shall remain