Authors: Robert W. Walker
By Robert W. Walker
Copyright © 2010 by Robert W. Walker, www.robertwalkerbooks.com
Cover copyright © 2010 by Stephen Walker, www.srwalkerdesigns.com
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Robert W. Walker.
Since the dog had dug up those human bones in the open field an hour before, he had been acting like a wolf. He again loped away from little Timmy Meyers, luring the boy deeper and deeper into the night.
“Dish! You get back here, now! Dish!
Dark as it was, Timmy Meyers moved on through the wood, panting, pleading for the animal to return when he suddenly came to a clearing. Dish crouched on the other side at the edge of the woods, glaring at him, his eyes shining silver in the moonlight, his lips pulled back in a grotesque snarl, baring teeth and gums. He didn't even look like Dish anymore. And there again was that uncharacteristic wolf's growl that seemed to bubble up and curl out from his gut.
Timmy feared the worst, that his friend of so many years was ill with something awful--rabies or something. Why else would he snap and bark and snarl at Timmy and the others? It all had to do with the bones.
Earlier, the boys had followed Dish to a hole he had begun digging feverishly and when they had seen the unearthed treasure of bones, they had gone a little crazy, all of them. They had dug out, kicked around, and toyed with what the earth had coughed up for some time before Dish began growling, snarling, and biting.
Then the others had run home, leaving him alone to find Dish. That had been back at the weed patch where he had fought with the other boys. He wondered momentarily how far from that spot he had come; he wondered how far from home he was. He wondered how late it was and what his parents would do when he finally got home, way past dinner and curfew. But he couldn't just leave Dish, not like this, could he?
It was their fault. The other boys had taunted Timmy with the skull of some dead person that they'd dredged up when Dish had sniffed out the ugly find. They'd scared Timmy, made him back off and fall and look stupid and frightened. Dish was mad at them--not at Timmy--when he began to growl and snap like a wolf, just before running off.
“Dish, Dish, boy, come here.... Come on,” Timmy now said. “It's all right, boy.”
But it wasn't all right, because Dish began an ear-splitting, spleen-numbing wail that shook Timmy to his core, telling him that the dog was dangerous--that it was no longer Dish but something else, some alien creature in Dish's form.
The dog got up and made a step toward Timmy whose twelfth birthday was coming day after tomorrow. Timmy saw a slick, slimy substance draining down Dish's neck and front. In the moonlight it looked purple, but Timmy knew it was blood. Dish was hurt badly.
Timmy's concern for himself instantly melted and he went to his knees, opening his arms for his longtime friend to enter there. Dish took a tentative step toward him, his growl swallowing into a whine that almost sounded like the old Dish. But at the same instant, something dark and strange-smelling came down over Dish and made the dog disappear.
Timmy's heart almost stopped when he saw the black of sky cover the dog. Dish was simply swallowed up by the night, gone. Timmy got to his feet and raced to the spot where Dish had been standing. But he was gone.
Then he felt a drop of rain patter on his shoulder, then his cheek--except that it smelled twice as strong as the normal smell of a thick copper rain--and when he went to touch the rain, he felt the warmth. It was raining blood.
Timmy looked up, and in that instant of looking he saw two things: death in the form of blackness that blotted out a good section of the trunk of the tree, and Dish's lifeless body stretched raglike across a branch.
Fear turned Timmy to stone. The black tarlike mass engulfing the tree was feeding on Dish's slashed neck; suddenly it looked down with two piercing, fantastic, and bulging eyes at Timmy, transfixing him there.
It never let Timmy free from that moment on; it held him with its powerful, hypnotic gaze--the gaze of light at the center of total darkness. The creature held onto the tree, upside down, suspended magically there, until it swooped down. With a mild, interesting flutter-sound, like an army of moths, it came to cover Timmy in its darkness and enfold him in its bony, flinty-haired wings.
The child's wail began as a terrified plea and soon turned into a wail of animal madness--the squeal of a trapped, tormented boar. Or was that the crazed killer giving voice to his own delight? It was then that Timmy, while unable to recall his name or what he was, suddenly felt an attachment--a need--for the thing at his throat. Without it--should it remove itself from his throat--Timmy knew that he'd be dead, that all his blood would drain away like Dish's was doing.
In fact, he felt closer to
than he ever had to Dish. Timmy somehow knew that it knew; he had somehow communicated this to the monster that folded him into a fetal position and rocked him and held him by his feet, swinging safely with him from the limb so strong it defied gravity.
Monster. He loved it. He had to love it. Even as it was drawing his life away. For it made promises in his mind, positing them there for future reference, telling him that it loved him, too....
Abraham H. Stroud was the only witness to the attack on the boy and his dog. Stroud didn't know the names or identifying marks or mannerisms of either of tonight's victims. He didn't know the boy's age or address, his favorite color, superhero, comic strip, toy, film or game show on TV. But he
know the boy would soon be declared missing and that Andover, Illinois, would be aghast and hard-pressed to find him.
Stroud knew he must do what he could but he must also be most cautious in what he said, did, and pointed to. He didn't relish the idea of his new neighbors thinking him the killer.
Abe Stroud's mind fought to regain access to the trance that was forcing him out like a melon through a tube. The trance he'd been in was not one he had expected or invited, induced as it was via a painful seizure that sent his body into a catatonic state--his only defense against the head-quaking, lightning cracks around the fissures of his skull.
He had been a long-distance witness to a brutal killer wearing black clothes, who had leapt from a tree to take the dog, slash its throat a second time, and then return for the boy.
Stroud saw hazy outlines and an occasional detail, his enormous body shaken and wracked with the convulsions of the seizure and the emotion brought on by what he was witness to.
He saw it all from the center of Stroud Manse, a pre-Civil War mansion made entirely of stone, its spirals, pinnacles, and columns creating a Mid-Western Stonehenge in the little community of Andover, Illinois. Some called the ancient house a monstrosity and hoped the “Andover Horror” would be torn down brick by brick, along with its ten-foot-high stone fence. Some said it'd been used as a fort during the Civil War, and many of its battlements had been built during that era.
Abe Stroud knew better; Abe Stroud knew many of the secrets of his family and of the house. Not all, but many. He knew that the original house had been built more than two hundred years before, and that the original foundation walls had been fashioned by stone carvers from a quarry that had torn a rift in the side of a prehistoric cave dwellers' graveyard. What had been done with the bones at that time had never been mentioned, but once his grandfather had said that the bones were ground up and used in the mortar and concrete that filled the cracks of Stroud Manse. Until now, until becoming the owner of the manse, Abe Stroud had never believed the story. Now he was beginning to wonder, as the walls seemed sometimes to groan.
It was not his first night as owner here. He'd slept here alone now for almost three months, and he had visited and lived here as a child between the ages of eleven and eighteen, some seven years. Even then he'd become used to creaking-wood voices, scratching-limb whining outside, doors banging in the pantry, steps crossing the girth of the halls. He was used to swelling window jambs that moaned in banshee chorus. The whistling dervishes out of thirteen bloody fireplaces he hardly heard at all. It was not the first time he had ever felt uncomfortable here, not the first time he'd ever felt as if there were eyes in the walls, shapes in the woodwork, hands reaching from above and behind him. Much of it was the space--so much of it. He was not used to so much space on all sides. It was enough to give anyone the impression that his every step was being shadowed.
If one allowed the imagination full reign here, anything was possible in the rambling old stone manse left him by his grandfather.
But tonight was the very first time he had ever seen or known of the circle at the center of the manse.
In a sub-basement, hidden and unopened since his grandfather had last seen fit to enter here, lay a sunken chamber filled with dusty instruments of torture, a kind of black museum. There was a rack for extorting confessions and a chopping block that could only serve one purpose. Smaller instruments of death abounded, such as guns and knives, but the one that drew Stroud's eye was a box of stakes, cleanly honed and shapely, the dust recently blown off. Amid the awful collection of weapons there were a number of huge crucifixes and a collection of ancient books on shelves stocked with skulls, jaw bones, femurs, and oddities made from bone--such as boxes and clasps. Other skeletal remains littered another wall. Ananias had said he was something of an amateur archeologist, but what was all this?
Near the center of the chamber, alongside a desk and chair, was a huge old red ottoman. Oddly, the room was in the shape of a circle, and it was at the very heart of the house.
Like its owners, the house held its dark secrets. Stroud, at first, and again now as he fought to fully regain control of himself, was not at all certain he wanted to know more than what his eyes told him. His great-grandfather had been a madman, he knew, but a Gilles de Rais, an Elizabeth Bathory who fed on the pain, suffering, and blood of helpless victims strapped to such instruments as those housed here? It could not be.
And why all the old books in this cathedral of horrors? Great-grandpa's reading room? Abe had stumbled onto this room and this fear all in an instant, fully unprepared for it. The jolt had so shocked him that he had sat down in the cobwebbed chair and was just as suddenly in the realms of another world altogether--the world that stress and the steel plate in his head controlled. It threw him into the night beyond the protective walls of this house, out on the still-wild prairie of the Spoon River Valley. It placed him in danger, alongside a terrified little boy who was out there now--or tomorrow, or next week, or next year--slowly dying ... unless ... unless he could do something.
All the years he had lived with Grandfather here he had never known of the circular dungeon. Now this place was his along with the rest....
It had been his first discovery--the circular room--and in this room strange things happened inside Abraham H. Stroud, specifically in his heart and in his head. For now he knew there was more truth to the old stories his father and grandfather had told than he had ever imagined. Like the weird tales told by his grandfather in front of the fire--lessons of a kind, foretellings, concern and anxiety over Abe's future. He knew now the stone walls and fences
really laid out by his great-grandfather not to ward off marching armies of Southern anarchists during the Civil War, but for the man's very neighbors for whom he'd had a morbid fear. Perhaps they would one day discover his torture chamber and hang him from the nearest tree, or the highest turret of the manse, before burning it to the ground.
According to his grandfather's tales, Ezeekial Stroud had believed that some of his Andover neighbors were ghouls returned from the grave--that they were even stranger and more eccentric than he, in other words. One of his last written statements, on his deathbed, told of a nest of blood-sucking creatures that roamed the hills and gulleys, the river bottoms and graveyards of Andover, holing up by day in caves. He finished by calling other local citizens, some in high positions, grave robbers and body snatchers, pleading with his son to do to him as he had with all of Ananias's brothers' bodies upon their deaths--cremate his remains.
How Ananias's six older brothers had all died was one of the secrets the house wasn't giving up, but given the torture chamber, Abe Stroud wondered if he hadn't gotten the answer. A foul thought--that his own flesh and blood could kill six sons, Abe's great uncles, here in this hideous chamber. But Stroud had been a policeman and he had seen worse in Chicago when a woman drowned all of her children in the kitchen sink.