The Darkness Beneath the Hill Part 2 - A Missing Man
CoC 1-6e Jazz Age
* * *
At 8 p.m., Fontaine found himself on Federal Street in the Federal Hill neighborhood. The small two-story house with the small porch was his destination. Looking around carefully and fairly certain he was not being followed, he went up to the door and knocked.
Zippy answered the door and let the man in.
“Let me perform my … first aid,” Fontaine said.
“Sweet!” Zippy said.
Fontaine concentrated and laid his hands on Zippy’s twisted, shriveled arm. At first, Zippy felt nothing and thought the whole thing was probably stupid. Then, a strange tingling went through his arm. Pain followed the tingling, an intense and terrible pain that seemed to run down to the bone and filled his entire arm with a throbbing ache almost impossible to bear. He couldn’t help but scream for the nearly half hour that Fontaine held onto his arm and refused to let go. The screaming and the pain seemed to go on forever.
When the pain finally abated, Zippy looked around and then glanced down at his arm. It was whole again.
Fontaine had let loose of Zippy’s left arm and, to his horror, found his own left arm hanging limply. He could not feel anything from it and couldn’t move it. He was unsure why but felt uneasy about it.
Zippy held up his own arm, which appeared to be completely healed.
“Yes!” he cried out.
He danced, clicking his heels together, and punched into the air, ecstatic at the return of his arm after several months. He flexed his left arm, reached out as far as he could, practicing the use of his fingers.
“Also, Zippy, you can’t tell anyone that I was the one that healed you,” Fontaine said to him.
“Oh, you got it!” Zippy replied.
There was a knock on his front door.
“Experimental stuff,” Fontaine said, looking uneasily at the front door. “I’m going to be in the kitchen for a minute.”
He retreated to the back of the house while Zippy went to the front door and opened it.
“Hello!” he said.
A police officer stood on the small porch.
“Greeetings officer!” Zippy said.
He recognized Officer Nico Romano, another of the Italian officers in his precinct. He had his hand on his holstered sidearm.
“Everything … everything okay in there, Zippy?” he asked.
He was trying to look over Zippy’s shoulder.
“We got reports that there was some screaming coming from your house,” he said. “I came personally. Are you in trouble, Zippy? Are you in trouble? Is he back there? Is there somebody in here? Is there somebody in here?”
“Hey,” Zippy said.
“Somebody’s in here.”
“Hey, you know sometimes when you got a woman over …”
Officer Romano drew his sidearm. Then he looked at the other man.
“What?” he said. “You got a woman, Zippy?”
“When don’t I?” Zippy said.
“Like all the time. I’ve never heard of you ever dating anyone.”
“No! You’re been hearing wrong. People spread rumors.”
“Let’s meet her! C’mon, let’s meet her!”
“No. No. She’s in bed. You stepped in on us.”
“You are fully dressed, including a tie.”
“She likes it weird.”
The officer looked at him.
“That is pretty weird,” he said. “Okay.”
“That’s what I told you,” Zippy said.
“Everything’s okay though, right?”
“Oh, it’s better than okay. It’s better than okay.”
“Okay, fine, whatever.”
He left and Zippy closed the front door. Fontaine eventually came out from the kitchen, having heard the whole conversation.
“So, again, Zippy, when you go back, you gotta tell them that … you had experimental treatment,” he said.
“Yes,” Zippy replied. “Out of town.”
“Out of town, yes.”
“Out of town.”
“So, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Do you need any kind of payment from me?”
“Remember, I’ll come for you when I need something.”
“Oh, like a favor?”
“Yeah, a couple of favors for an arm.”
“All right. Well, I owe you now, Mr. Fontaine. Thank you so very much.”
He shook the man hand with both of his own.
“Have a great day,” Fontaine said. “I’m going to go out the back.”
“Fine with me,” Zippy said.
Fontaine slipped out the back door, looking around nervously, hoping he would not be caught by his employers: the Providence mob. He didn’t see anyone following him as he made his way back home to his flophouse apartment in the West End neighborhood.
After Fontaine left, Zippy remembered he had wanted to ask the man if he thought he should bring his Thompson sub-machinegun. In the end, he decided not to take it. It was just a cave exploration and he felt on top of the world. He didn’t think he’d need it.
He was mistaken.
* * *
Saturday, October 20, 1928, proved to be a lovely day with a hint of clouds on the horizon.
Several of them had purchased supplies for the exploration including flashlights. Miss Whitaker had purchased 20 feet of rope and others were armed with pistols. DeLuve had brought a kerosene lantern and carried a camera. He had brought a sawed-off shotgun that he hid under his coat and made sure he had some fabric to clean the lenses. Fontaine actually had a bottle of gasoline hidden on his person. They were all dressed appropriately and several of them had purchased tall, waterproof boots.
Fontaine had woken up that morning to find his left arm still completely numb and unresponsive. He had never had such a thing happen to him before and it made him nervous. He had tried to heal himself but nothing happened.
They all arrived around 8 a.m. that morning but their knock at the front door was unanswered.
“I was afraid of this,” Fontaine said.
“Josh?” Miss Whitaker called.
“Josh!” James called.
“Josh!” DeLuve called.
“Hey, Joshie!” Zippy called.
James grabbed the doorknob and found the door unlocked. He pushed the door open and walked in, followed closely by Miss Whitaker. The foyer looked the same as it did the day before. Miss Whitaker headed upstairs followed by Zippy while DeLuve made his way to the kitchen.
“Josh!” James called.
Fontaine lit a cigarette and waited in the foyer. He was certain they wouldn’t find the man.
Yeah, he’s dead, he thought.
* * *
Winscott’s bedroom was obviously lived-in and clean. No one was in the room though the bed had been hastily made. A few dirty clothes were piled in the corner and Miss Whitaker and Zippy recognized Winscott’s clothing from the day before. They proceeded to the bathroom and found it under renovation but empty. Then they heard someone call from the basement.
* * *
DeLuve made his way down to the basement immediately. He spotted a cup of coffee on a box nearby and saw tools scattered near the brick wall Winscott had shown them the day before. The hole was larger as if Winscott had gone back to work on it the night before or early that morning. The light from the basement more clearly illuminated part of the brick-lined tunnel beyond.
“Josh?” he called.
* * *
Milo had gone to the kitchen and found a coffee pot on the stove. He carefully touched it and found it still hot. He noted some rope and a pair of good boots in the kitchen. A pair of pickaxes and a pair of shovels, in addition to two flashlights and a kerosene lantern were all on one of the counters.
He heard DeLuve calling for Josh below and headed down the steps. He went to the coffee cup there, noting about a quarter of the cup had been drunk. He took a sip and found it still warm. He guessed it hadn’t been sitting for more than an hour or so. He continued drinking the coffee, which was excellent and lightly flavored with cream and sugar.
* * *
Fontaine made his way to the basement, followed shortly after by Miss Whitaker and Zippy.
As Fontaine went down the steps, he was certain someone was standing underneath them. He smelled something strange, unlike anything he’d ever smelled before. Then it was gone. As he went down the steps, he thought sure he saw the glitter of eyes underneath. The rough, wooden staircase had no risers.
“Huh,” he said.
He looked behind the steps and realized it was not even that dark under there though it had appeared pitch black as he’d some down. No one was there.
The others all clustered around the hole in the wall.
“So, uh, I believe Josh either started the expedition without us or, more likely, he got taken down there against his will,” Fontaine said.
“By what?” DeLuve said.
“What!?!” Zippy said.
“I think it’s most likely he just went down there,” DeLuve said.
“What makes you say that?” James said.
“I … got a suspicion,” Fontaine said.
“Suspicion?” James said.
He didn’t believe anything Fontaine said.
Miss Whitaker drew the revolver from her purse.
“Probably best to be on guard, Miss … Samantha, right?” Fontaine said.
“Just in case,” she replied.
James put his hand in his pocket where his own pistol was tucked away. Fontaine stubbed out his cigarette on the floor and lit another one.
“Fontaine, are you trying to … when you said you have a suspicion … should I have come more prepared for this?” Zippy said.
“Possibly,” Fontaine said. “Tell you what, it’s eight in the morning. We got plenty of time. We could wait and … get bigger equipment if you want.”
Both Zippy and Whitaker realized if something was wrong, Whitaker’s life could be in danger.
“It’s a bit too late for that,” Zippy said. “Samantha and I are both smart police officers and we need to go in.”
“So, let’s investigate the tunnel,” DeLuve said.
James headed into the tunnel, lighting his flashlight.
“I’m going in,” Miss Whitaker said, heading in.
“But … ah … do little pistols work against the supernatural?” Fontaine asked.
“If he was taken down there, whatever took him is gonna have him,” Zippy said. “If we wait, it’s going to come around.”
“That’s fine then let’s go,” Fontaine said.
DeLuve looked around for any signs of a struggle. There were none.
They headed into the tunnel.
The hole in the wall was on the south side of the basement and the brick-lined tunnel went east and west. Miss Whitaker knelt and looked for tracks, as did Zippy, who found some going to the west.
“Hey, hold up!” Zippy said. “I see something on the ground!”
He pointed it out to Samantha and the two police officers led the way through the tunnel. The brick-lined tunnel soon ended in a natural cave that continued to the west for several hundred feet. Water dripped down from the ceiling and coated the walls in slime. Only a few of them had their flashlights on in order to save the short-lived batteries. They slowed when they spotted something on the floor ahead.
Ten feet from another opening to the left, they spotted the remains of several bodies. Little was left but skeletons and the ragged remains of clothing upon them. The rusted remains of iron manacles were on the limbs of three of them. The air was a little stale.
Miss Whitaker examined the ancient human remains. She was unsure how long the men had been dead but it was a long time. Fontaine noted the rotting clothing on the skeletons without manacles was indicative of the Colonial era. Many of the bones seemed to have become separated, possibly due to violence or vermin. They all noticed tears and bloodstains on all the clothing.
“Oh Christ,” James said.
“Zippy, I’m going to keep going but if you want to go notify someone to get these bodies, you can,” Miss Whitaker said.
“As I said, something supernatural,” Fontaine said. “Whoa. Whoa. Police. Police. Remember, we are discovering something for our friend Josh. He didn’t want anybody else to know about it until …”
“There are skeletons with blood on their clothes,” Miss Whitaker said.
“I would agree with you,” James said to Fontaine. “But these are corpses!”
“From the Colonial era!” Fontaine said. “This is …”
He struggled to remember the dates of the colonies.
“Two hundred years old,” he finally guessed incorrectly.
Zippy who had been looking around, noticed the stub of a cigarette butt near the opening to the south.
“So, once Josh has lain claim to his discovery …” Fontaine said.
“I don’t know if he wants people knowing he discovered six skeletons in his basement,” Miss Whitaker said.
“Again, they’re two hundred years old. These are artifacts of history.”
“That’s fine! I’m looking for Josh.”
“We should call the museum once Josh decides to call the museum. Again, we are on Josh’s property.”
“Hey!” Zippy said. “There’s a cigarette butt over here.”
“Is it the fancy kind that Josh smokes?” Fontaine said.
“Looks like it,” Zippy said.
“Oh,” James said. “Oh no.”
“Is there any more?” Fontaine said.
“It’s stamped out,” Zippy said. “Either he put it out or somebody did.”
“I’m going,” Miss Whitaker said.
“Let’s try to find him before whatever killed these guys does,” Fontaine said.
“No no no no no no no,” James muttered.
Unwilling to be shown up by a woman, Zippy followed her uneasily. The rest followed behind, DeLuve taking a sawed-off shotgun out of his camera case.
“I’m going to have to ask you some questions when we get out of here,” Miss Whitaker said to him.
DeLuve noticed Fontaine was not using his left hand or arm at all. It seemed to be just hanging there.
The opening led to a downward sloping passage.
“Josh!” Miss Whitaker called.
“Hey!” Zippy whispered to her. “If there’s someone else in there, we might not want them to know we’re coming.”
“We’ve got guns.”
“But we don’t want them to have the jump on us.”
“I’m not going to sneak up on them if they have Josh. Who the hell else is going to be down here?”
“Ah, whatever killed those colonists that’s supernatural,” Fontaine said.
“Two hundred years ago?” she said.
“Yes,” he replied.
She turned away from him and kept walking. Zippy caught up with her again.
“Maybe … maybe he told someone … else,” he said. “Who wasn’t too happy about it. They came here early.”
“Wouldn’t he have been with the whole group yesterday with us?” she said.
“Maybe he skipped out on that, trying to get him this morning,” he said.
“I would feel very insulted if that was the case,” Fontaine said.
“He was very vague with us until we got there,” Miss Whitaker said. “Nobody else should have known.”
“Hey, he got us to go here,” Zippy said. “Maybe somebody else knew something.”
“Then let’s find out who it is!”
DeLuve had lagged to the back of the group.
They continued on, twisting and turning, for what felt like a half mile or more. They were unsure how deep they were being led but it seemed very steep and never rose. Eventually, they came around a bend to a see steady, dim light. The passage straightened out and the light ahead grew brighter, though the light source was impossible to determine. Soon, the passage opened up into an enormous chamber lit by phosphorescent lichen.
James touched the lichens, almost expecting the glow to rub off onto his hands. They were soft and had an odd smell. DeLuve snapped a photograph though he didn’t think he would make a very good picture due to how dim it was in the place. Miss Whitaker found footprints in the debris, still heading the way they were going.
“Seems that he might have invited us here to see it after him,” Fontaine said. “Because he did go last night.”
“What was all that about being tired?” Zippy said. “Was he up here at six? Five in the morning? Digging all this out, going down here?”
“Did anybody else see the coffee up there?” James asked.
“Yeah, me,” DeLuve said.
“No,” Zippy said.
“Yeah, and it was fresh,” James said.
“You mean the coffee you drank?” DeLuve said.
“Yes,” James said. “It was still warm.”
“Hey, I respect that,” Zippy said, completely missing the point. “Ain’t letting it go to waste.”
“He probably isn’t too far ahead,” DeLuve said.
“Really?” Fontaine said.
“I don’t pass up a good cup of joe,” Miss Whitaker said.
“He had to come down here fairly recently,” James said. “I don’t think he would have gotten too far.”
“Apparently he must’ve,” Fontaine said.
“I mean, maybe he’s down here now and we just start trailing him,” Zippy said.
“We could pick up the pace.”
“There’s only one set of footprints, right. Maybe. Maybe nobody took him. Maybe he’s just wandering down here.”
“Eh. I’d still be on guard.”
“Let’s keep going,” Miss Whitaker said.
“Let’s pick up the pace,” James said.
That cavern opened into a hall filed with ambient light emitted by the lichens. As they entered, they could see the walls had been decorated with intricate carvings, including natural columns that towered to the ceiling high above. The carvings were very old and covered with lichen. Serpent motifs predominated, some of them quite enormous. Certain designs were repeated, possibly having some sort of symbolic meaning. A white crescent appeared on the forehead of many of the more elaborate serpent carvings. Abstract and geometric designs, zigzags, and spirals accompanied the carvings. Some of them could have been some sort of curvilinear script consisting of curves, curls, and loops.
Much of the fine work appeared to be damaged and a good section of the wall to the left had collapsed. There was a small opening to the right but the footsteps continue on.
The caverns were damp and there were stalactites and stalagmites and other cave formations. Besides the glowing lichen, other forms of fungi were growing on the walls, ceiling, and floor. The floor was slippery in certain places and there were pools of water in spots. There was some evidence of worked stone as well.
The way led them to a long and twisted chamber decorated with more elaborate carvings. While the snake motifs and geometric designs were present, there was also a series of murals. First the carvings showed landscapes studded with towers and other structures. Robed serpentine figures were depicted engaging in various pursuits. Some images showed them worshipping an enormous serpent with the crescent symbol on its forehead. Others depicted the serpent-like people and their cities being attacked by gigantic reptiles, some of them flying.
Everyone but Zippy recognized the reptiles as being ancient dinosaurs, including pterodactyls carrying some of the serpent people away, and the mighty tyrannosaurus rex attacking the cities and the people. It made all of them uneasy as the caves must have been millions of years old.
“Those are dinosaurs,” DeLuve said.
“What!?!” Zippy said.
“It looks like Josh found the discovery of the millennium with this!” Fontaine said. “New hypothesis: Josh is going to sacrifice us to some strange … thing.”
“I don’t like your hypothesis,” DeLuve said.
“No,” Miss Whitaker said.
“Oh, come on!” James said.
“That doesn’t sound too sound,” Miss Whitaker said.
“How could you say such a thing?” James said to Fontaine. “He would never do this!”
“Josh gave me a weird feeling when I shook his hand the other day,” Fontaine said.
“What do you mean?” Miss Whitaker said.
“These are just silly cave art!” James said.
“What, he was sweaty?” Zippy said. “He looked sweaty. Was it sweat?”
“Why don’t you shake my hand?” DeLuve said, offering Fontaine his left hand.
“Why would I shake a left hand?” Fontaine said.
“Because I’m left handed.”
“What sense does that make?”
“I’m offering my hand.”
Fontaine slapped DeLuve’s hand away, the cigarette still in his right hand scattering lit ash all over the floor.
“What about you, Mr. and Mrs. Cop?” Fontaine said.
“No,” Miss Whitaker said bluntly. “We’re not doing that. We’re not phrasing it that way.”
“Hey, is there any more tracks?” Zippy said.
He went down to one knee and found more signs of a single person meandering through the place.
“Does it look like he explored without us?” Fontaine said.
“He was very excited about it,” Miss Whitaker said.
“I wouldn’t doubt it for his enthusiasm,” James said.
“He was very excited about it. He might have gotten a little carried away. Probably found all this! I would have kept going, to be honest.”
“He’ll do anything for a story.”
“He wouldn’t wait on his good friends?” Fontaine said.
“These are neat markings,” Miss Whitaker said.
“I know, but the bodies.”
“Yeah. That got me.”
“Well, anyway …”
They continued walking. The last few scenes showed the serpent people abandoning their cities above ground to the reptiles and migrating underground, creating a new homeland under the earth.
“Hey!” Zippy said. “If these snake men. ‘Smen,’ as they’re called. ‘Sneople?’”
“Zippy, is it?” James said.
“Yeah, it’s Zippy.”
“You’re being ridiculous!”
“Okay, but then why have we seen bones and cities and stuff?”
“When people die …” DeLuve said.
“You don’t seem very superstitious to me,” Miss Whitaker said.
“I’m not superstitious,” Zippy said. “I’m just ‘stitious.”
They all looked at him.
“What?” Fontaine finally said.
“I’m not superstitious,” Zippy reiterated. “I believe in what I see. I’ve seen … something weird.”
“So, you’ve seen ‘sneople?’” DeLuve said.
“Like what?” Miss Whitaker said.
“Like trees that move around,” Zippy said. “That step on people.”
“All right,” she said, turning and abruptly walking away.
“I tell you, for months I couldn’t step into a forest again!” he said.
Zippy was gesturing somewhat violently with both arms and it was only then the rest of them noticed his left arm, before having been pulled up tightly against his body, a crippled and useless appendage, was now functioning perfectly. Miss Whitaker’s eyes narrowed.
“Your arm’s looking better,” she said.
“What happened to your little …” DeLuve said.
He assumed he’d remembered wrong. He’d only met the man once.
“Not quite a chicken wing anymore,” Miss Whitaker said.
“Oh!” Zippy said. “Oh! Right!”
He looked at his left arm.
“I had an appointment that I met with last night and … it worked fine!” he said. “It was something new! I couldn’t get it at any of the hospitals or anything.”
Miss Whitaker and James looked carefully at the man. DeLuve realized the man was not telling everything.
“Well, good for you,” Miss Whitaker said.
She turned and continued on.
“Hey, if we find something weird down here … don’t be surprised!” Zippy said.
“I think I’m going to be surprised to see something weird,” Miss Whitaker said, walking away.
“Were they anti-necrotic mushrooms?” DeLuve said to Zippy with a smirk.
“What?” Zippy said as they followed Miss Whitaker. “What do you want to know? You want my story?”
“I don’t want anybody’s story,” DeLuve said.
“Don’t get left behind!” Miss Whitaker called.
The others hastened to catch up, reaching the woman as she came to a narrow, obviously artificially-built corridor. They saw that it didn’t go far to the left so they followed to the right and reached a spot where there was a vertical shaft. The floor was 20 feet below.
“I really hope somebody brought rope,” Fontaine said.
“I brought some rope,” DeLuve said.
“Did you bring this much rope?” Fontaine said.
Miss Whitaker tied off her rope nearby and tossed it down. It fell to within about three feet of the bottom. DeLuve was the first one down, climbing carefully and expertly as if he had done it before. He was followed by Zippy and then James. They all made it safely to the bottom.
Fontaine looked down the shaft and laughed nervously.
“Fear of heights,” Miss Whitaker said.
“Climbing’s not my specialty,” he said.
“I can always bring the rope back up and tie it in little knots.”
“I was thinking about that. I got a better idea. How about we bring the rope back up, I tie myself to the end, and you lower me down gently.”
“How much do you weigh?”
She was pretty sure she couldn’t lower him down. He looked over the edge at the three men standing at the bottom.
“You kind gentlemen down there, if you don’t mind keeping an eye out,” he said. “I might be coming down faster than I planned.”
“All right,” Miss Whitaker said.
“You got a stiff leg?” Zippy called up.
Fontaine grabbed the rope, using the sleeve of his trench coat to cover his hand. His left arm hung lifeless.
“I see,” Miss Whitaker said. “You hurt your left arm.”
“I got in a fight,” Fontaine lied. “Someone hit me real group in the nerve group in my deltoid.”
He started to repel down the side, his left arm just hanging there, dead. The men at the bottom braced themselves for the worst.
“What a character that Fontaine is,” Zippy said.
The man clumsily made it safely down.
“Did you hurt yourself?” James asked when he reached the bottom.
“Yeah,” Fontaine said. “As I was mentioning to Samantha, I got in a fight the other night. Guy got a really good hit in on my deltoid.”
“If that continues, you might have permanent nerve damage,” James said. “I suggest you go to the hospital.”
“I plan on going to the doctor but I really wanted to see what was happening here today,” Fontaine said.
“I can’t blame you,” James said.
They all looked up at Samantha as she started to climb down. She slipped near the top, cursed, and fell. Only Fontaine stepped back. The other men managed to catch the falling woman, breaking her fall without harm to her or themselves.
“Beautiful teamwork, people!” Fontaine said.
“It’s not the fall, it’s the landing,” James said.
Fontaine continued chain smoking as they followed the narrow tunnel to another, perpendicular and wider corridor. To the right, the corridor had caved in but to the left it continued on. They saw that, further down, there was an entrance to the right and, beyond that, another entrance to the left. Both appeared to be natural caves. The main tunnel probably went at least 100 yards.
“I say we should go right first,” Fontaine said. “Just look there.”
“Sounds good to me,” Zippy said.
“Josh!” James called again.
“Real quick, too,” Fontaine said. “When we’re heading back … I’m assuming, Samantha, the not-as-gifted climber should go first so we can catch her if she falls. But, can I be the last one up so you can just hike me up there? Again, my left arm’s not doing me any favors.”
“So, you hold onto the rope and then we pull you up?” DeLuve said.
“Exactly!” Fontaine said.
James shushed them.
“I think I heard something from the left,” he said.
“From the left?” Fontaine said.
“Yes,” James replied.
“If it took us a rope to get down here, how did Josh get down?” Miss Whitaker said. “He must be a good climber.”
“Is this Josh an athlete?” Zippy asked.
“He even had rope and he didn’t take it,” Miss Whitaker said.
“I’m not sure about climbing,” James said.
They noticed the opening to the right was very dark and DeLuve lit his kerosene lantern once again.
James headed down the corridor towards the left hand tunnel. The others followed behind him. They reached the cave as Miss Whitaker reached him and asked for Zippy and herself to go first. James suggested she stay beside him and the cave mouth proved fairly narrow. Miss Whitaker got in front of the man.
There was a musky, earthy smell in the cave and they soon noticed the tunnel was filthy, strewn with bones and refuse, and stank of waste. They thought they heard some kind of movement in the natural caves ahead and soon came to a place where the tunnel split, bearing to the left and right as well as straight ahead.
“Josh!” James called out again.
Zippy and Fontaine thought they heard something in the tunnel to the right. Zippy patted Miss Whitaker’s shoulder.
“Hey hey hey hey!” he whispered.
“Right over here to the right,” Fontaine said quietly.
“There was something over there,” Zippy whispered.
It had sounded to them like the slapping of feet on the ground.
Miss Whitaker headed into the tunnel to the right. James hung back a little to look around as the rest of them followed her. Miss Whitaker stopped when she saw what was in a stinking chamber beyond.
Several pathetic creatures were huddled in the small chamber with two other entrances. They eyed the intruders carefully. They were stunted and hairy, resembling some unknown breed of pallid ape. Their skulls had sloping foreheads, large eyes, and pronounced, snout-like jaws. Their arms were longer than those of the average man. Three of them were in the room: two females and a male. There were also some babies.
Fontaine pulled a bottle out of his coat and the male creatures started to hoot like a gorilla.
“Are these Neanderthals?” Fontaine asked.
“What’s that sound?” James said from the back.
He had not seen the things yet. He peeked over someone’s shoulder.
“Oh,” he muttered. “Oh my. Oh my.”
“I vote we not disturb them,” Fontaine said.
“I don’t think they’re a threat,” Miss Whitaker said.
“I think this really is the discovery of the century,” DeLuve said.
Miss Whitaker moved out of the room, going back the way they’d come. DeLuve started to follow and then stopped, watching the things. He was convinced the things were docile and cowed. He guessed he could go over and feed them out of his hand.
James, on the other hand, recognized the creature’s aggressive posturing and behavior, as if they were ready to attack. He lowered himself to the ground to appear less aggressive himself and put his pistol down. Fontaine, seeing that, moved over and picked up the weapon.
“So, why are you leaving this?” he said. “They don’t know what this is.”
“I … I don’t want to seem like …” James said.
“We’re just going to back out,” Fontaine said.
They backed carefully out of the room. As they left, the male came forward and slapped his chest. James realized the creature was posturing and threatening. DeLuve thought it was obviously submissive. They backed to the place where the corridors met once again and Fontaine gave James back his pistol.
“So, that was our adventure to the right,” Fontaine said.
They headed through the tunnel that went straight ahead.
“Hey, whoever’s in the back, keep an eye out for those monkeys,” Zippy said.
“Were they monkeys?” Miss Whitaker said.
“That’s the best word I have for it in my lexicon,” Zippy said.
“Did you just say lexicon?” Fontaine said.
“I own a dictionary, thank you,” Zippy said.
They came out of a wider cave area that bore both to the left and right. They could hear noises from both directions and saw more of the things to the right. The little ones fled in terror.
“Josh!” James called again.
“That knocks out the right,” Fontaine said. “I guess we go left.”
“Or we can go back and go the other way,” Zippy said.
“True, but don’t we want to knock all of this out first?”
“I don’t wanna die either!”
“True. I’d guess they were scared by gunfire.”
“I also think that Josh isn’t over here,” DeLuve said.
“Let’s go check the other one then,” Fontaine said.
“I don’t think he’s down here anymore,” Miss Whitaker said.
They backtracked to the long, wide, straight hallway once again. They returned to the tunnel entrance to the dark room from there, DeLuve lighting his lantern once again.
The dark passage opened into a wide grotto where no phosphorescent lichens grew. Crystal deposits on the walls glittered in the light of DeLuve’s lantern and their quickly dimming flashlights. The ceiling’s apex was lost in the darkness above. Spreading across the far wall was a bizarre, twisted structure fashioned from interlaced bronze pipes and studded with crystals of various sizes and colors. The pipes pierced the wall in numerous places while the other ends ultimately ended in spikes. A rock formation sat in front of the structure, carved into a sort of chair though its curving seat and back didn’t look like it’d be comfortable in the least. Small, round objects were perched atop several of the spikes.
As they drew closer, they saw there were a score of human heads upon the spikes. As they reached the strange chair, they heard what, at first, sounded like a low wind. They soon realized the sound was coming from the heads, moaning softly in an ululating chorus. Each of the heads had been carved with a sinuous rune carved into its leathery flesh. Their eyelids were closed and their mouths open. Some of them belonged to men of obvious European descent while others were men and women of African descent. The strange, whispering song issued from them had a sort of terrifying beauty.
“It looks like a pipe organ made of people!” Zippy said.
Miss Whitaker headed out of the room the way she’d come. Fontaine looked for keys on the horrible organ but there were none. DeLuve had seen another entrance to the grotto and pointed it out to the rest of them. They headed out of the terrible room and found the caves beyond were filled again with the phosphorescent lichens. DeLuve and Fontaine had been left behind as Fontaine asked DeLuve to hold up his lantern so he could try to note the glyphs on the horrible heads. Zippy waited with them. They soon joined the others.
They followed the wider corridor beyond the room and it soon split again. The left seemed to be back the way they had come so they followed the right tunnel, which widened and then narrowed again before another branch led off to the left from the main corridor.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” Miss Whitaker said, stopping.
“So, this place is a lot bigger than I thought,” Fontaine said. “I vote we just follow the unnaturally-made caves.”
“Are you suggesting we go back?” James said.
They turned about and went back through the terrible organ room to the wide corridor they had initially entered the place at. They proceeded down that tunnel once again, passing the cave on the left where one of the terrible half-man, half-apes were. One of them peeked out at them and then scurried away.
“So docile,” DeLuve said.
At the far end of the tunnel was a sinkhole in the middle of the floor nearly the width of the corridor. The ground lay some 10 feet below and appeared to have been another chamber. The corridor continued after the sinkhole and then split into more natural caves going both left and right. Fontaine cursed. A ledge about three feet wide skirted around the edge of the sinkhole.
Zippy went to the ledge and moved onto it, inching forward as he tried the way ahead with his foot to determine its stability. It seemed solid enough and he made it all the way around to the other side of the sinkhole safely.
“Oh, it’s great!” he called back to the others.
The others followed, Miss Whitaker, James, DeLuve and Fontaine followed. On the other side, they followed the caves to the right, which widened out, especially after DeLuve noted the way to the left probably led back to the monkeys.
The caves split again in that direction and they stopped once again, DeLuve listening, one hand behind his ear. He didn’t hear anything.
“Josh!” James called. “Josh! Please!”
They all heard a very heavy footfall coming from the tunnel to the left. It was much too loud to be a person and was growing quickly louder. Zippy pointed his gun that direction and then they retreated back to the sinkhole, Fontaine carefully making his way across. The noise continued to get closer. Fontaine stopped halfway across when he saw a large, green snake on the ground. It had a crescent on its forehead. The strange, heavy footsteps continued to approach and Miss Whitaker headed across the other side of the sinkhole.
“Fontaine! Go!” James shouted.
“Hey, do you see a snake here?” Fontaine said.
“What snake?” James said.
When Fontaine looked again, it was gone.
“Never mind,” he said.
James was behind him, moving along the ledge as well. Zippy followed behind Miss Whitaker and was almost across when the thing came around the corner.
It was horrible to behold. It was a repulsive thing that stood on long, hind legs and had a pair of terrible yellowish-red eyes. It was about the size of a small horse and had a terrible aspect that was scabrous and unwholesome. It’s face was curiously human despite the absence of a nose, a forehead, and other particulars. It had long claws on its paws and sharp teeth in its mouth. It stood about eight feet tall.
Miss Whitaker shot the thing with her service revolver, striking it in the chest. There was blood and the terrible thing shrieked. Zippy also opened fire, hitting the thing as well. It crashed back against the wall and stumbled around the corner, disappearing from view. Fontaine thought he heard it crash to the ground out of sight.
“I think we might have gotten it,” Fontaine said.
They could hear hooting and huffing as if the ape-things in the place were upset.
“We probably better make our way out before the ape-people take offense and try to get rid of us,” Fontaine said.
“If there’s anything more big like that in here, I need to get more equipment,” Zippy said.
“Ah … yes,” Fontaine said.
“I suggest we go another route,” James said.
“Josh is either safe and will stay safe or he’s dead,” Fontaine said matter-of-factly.
Zippy thought it the most selfish and ludicrous thing he’d ever heard.
“Well, where we’ve been going hasn’t been leading to much so … I think we should head back,” James said nervously.
“If we’re worried about that creature … it looks like we did a lot of damage to it with the firearms,” Fontaine said.
“I’m not willing to go back for it,” Miss Whitaker said.
James wanted to go back to the spot where they had turned back the last time.
“I’m going to put in my vote,” Zippy said. “I think … that we need to go back to that room with the organ and the heads, because─”
James moaned quietly in disgust.
“─because it looks like to me,” Zippy went on, “if Josh is in any danger down here, that’s probably where danger to people happens. He could be with the monkeys, but I dunno. I think we should go down there because that looks like where they’re carving up people and sticking them on pipes.”
James moaned again.
“And if he’s in that danger, we need to keep him from that,” Zippy said.
“Okay, fine!” James said. “Let’s just go somewhere.”
Miss Whitaker just nodded.
They returned to the organ room, passing through that horrible place once again, and made their way back into the tunnels beyond. They continued right, as they had gone last time and, when they reached the place where there was another tunnel to the where they’d turned back last time, they went to the left. That tunnel split again but the tunnel to the right almost immediately opened into a large cavern. DeLuve and Fontaine thought the way to the left looked somewhat familiar and wondered if it was the place they had reached when the thing had come for them.
Strange fungi and lichens flourished in the great chamber, tended to by two of the ape-men. Some of the fungi stalks towered over them all. A warm, moist mist sprayed from apertures in the ceiling every so often. Other, smaller fungi grew all about the chamber and they could not make out the far walls for the amount of growth.
DeLuve took out one of the little cloths he carried and wrapped it over his mouth and nose. Miss Whitaker asked for one and he gave her one. She likewise wrapped her face in it.
“I don’t think he’s in there,” Fontaine said from the entrance.
Zippy moved further into the room, trying to gauge how big it was. He guessed it was at least a couple of hundred feet across. The others followed him, all of them trying to stay away from the ape-men. They continued to ignore them.
On the other side of the room, they found another cave mouth. A stench of animals came from the cave entrance, reminiscent of the caves they had first met the ape-men. Miss Whitaker was hesitant to enter, noting every time they smelled that smell there were ape-men.
James, Miss Whitaker, and DeLuve headed back across the mushroom-filled cave while Fontaine and Zippy peeked into the caves beyond. They found the tunnel there led into a nasty area that was filled with debris as the ape-men area they had already visited had been. When they reached a place where the corridor branched once again, they thought they recognized the wider corridor to their left as one they’d been in before, albeit on the other end. They remembered there were places in the ape-men warrens they hadn’t been in.
They headed back. They had just reached the room of mushrooms when they heard heavy footsteps ahead of them again.
* * *