The bog had a secret hunger, and only death could sate it! [Weird Tales Contest Co-Winner]
|Rico slapped at his cheek, then studied the fuzzy smear of blood the blow left trailing across his fingertips. "How can there be so many damn 'squitos in a place so cold?" he muttered. Scowling, he pulled his coat more tightly about himself and hunkered lower in the barge.
"Hee-heh!" The skinny man in the aft cackled and plunged the barge pole into the oozing muck; oily waves slapped and sucked at the prow.
"They hongry," he laughed. "Always hongry, always biting, always eating!" He held out an emaciated arm. The lank, gray skin was mottled with bites. "They's her pets, an' she's their chick, an' they takes yer blood back t' her!" His gaping gums, empty save for one crooked yellow tooth, widened into a grin.
"Whose pets?" Rico snarled. "The old witch? Bah, y're all ignorant! Backwoods moonshine," he muttered again. "Shantytown bushwah. Mountain folk!" he ended in a sneer.
But still he drew the collar of his coat up around his throat, and his eyes gleamed as he glanced about the swamp. Vines trailed like anacondas; moss hung like shrouds; and the trees leaned over the narrow channels. He clutched at the .38 nestled in his pocket.
What a place for Frankie Two-Tones to park the geetus from the Boyleston job!
Still, Rico had to admit, a marsh seven hundred miles from nowhere would be the last place the coppers would look for half-a-million in banknotes.
"I'm looking for a man name of Smith," Rico had inquired at the post office when the local motor court couldn't help him. He showed the gaunt old man behind the counter both the envelope and the paper it had contained.
"Old letter," the postmaster observed as he scratched his bald knob of a head.
"Ay-yeah," Rico agreed, and his teeth glinted. "Can you explain to me just how I came to get it two days ago, when the letter is dated from last July?"
The postmaster spat into a corner. "Likely 'cos it warn't posted except last week. I remember the feller."
"And he came in last week?"
"In a manner of speaking. He drifted in, what were left o' 'im, from the swamp. Sheriff found 'at letter in his pocket, recommended I send it off as it might draw summ'n who knew who he were."
"Whaddaya mean he 'drifted' in from the swamp?"
The postmaster chewed on whatever he had in his mouth, then spat again. "Ol' Molly got 'im, by the looks o' what were left."
Old Molly. The Swamp Witch, the postmaster had explained. And the only way to Toadback Island, where Frankie's letter said he'd stashed his "baggage," was by way of the channels that wound by the witch's house.
"Ben's the only one can take you through," he'd said. "She leaves him alone, as he's tetched in the head and good for nothin' but bringin' her victuals in." He'd directed Rico to a sagging shack where eels were hanging out to dry.
"Witches," Rico muttered now. "Why would anyone, witch or no, want to live in the middle of—?" He slapped at his neck.
"H'yeh!" Ben bent nearly double with laughter. "Because she don't wan' no one aroun'! Less'n she wants 'em! Draws 'em in, she does! For their blood!" He cackled again. "An' their brains!"
"Their brains, huh?" Rico felt fascinated despite his skepticism. "What's she want their brains for?"
Ben's bony shoulders rolled. "F'r her skillet!" He cackled again.
"Mm. Well, she's not getting my brains, see!" Rico jabbed the air with a warning finger. "I gotta use for 'em still!"
But he tightened his grip on the pistol. Witch or not, it occurred to him, anyone with a reputation for taking people's blood and brains wasn't to be trifled with. But neither was Rico Krozac, as several district attorneys had learnt to their chagrin.
The afternoon waned and the clouds thickened and the trees closed in overhead. Rico frowned and peered at his watch. "Say, how long's it take to get to this Toadback Island anyway?" he asked. "The old postmaster said—"
Then he stopped. The trees were parting, and he glimpsed a kind of a structure ahead. As the boat drew up, it resolved into a house. The walls were warped, and half the veranda had fallen down, but it was a respectable-sized house in the old Victorian style.
"What gives here?" Rico demanded.
"We stop," Ben said as he tied the barge to a slanted dock. "Pay respects. Always pay respects!" His head lolled on his scrawny neck.
Rico hesitated, then gripped the gun and stepped onto the dock. So Old Molly had got Frankie Two Tones, if what the postmaster had said was true. Well, Rico would show Old Molly who did and didn't get to whack a member of the East Side Syndicate!
The porch groaned as he pushed past Ben; he kicked the front door open with his foot. A stink of rot and mildew swept out. Inside, he blinked and strained to see.
The staircase had collapsed, and debris blocked the passage to the back of the house. But in the front parlor he found an old rocker. A figure huddled in it.
"You Old Molly?" he asked. "Stand up so I can get a look at you, girl!"
The figure didn't move.
"Need yer broomstick?" Rico jeered. He scratched a match with his thumbnail and lifted the sputtering flame.
The shriveled thing in the chair gazed back with empty eye sockets. A spider scuttled across a leathery cheek. In one skeletal hand was clutched something like a doll with pins stuck into it.
And arranged at her withered feet were a dozen skulls with their tops sliced off.
Rico whirled in time to see Ben raise the axe.
"People say I don't got brains!" he chortled afterward, as he wiped his cheek and studied the blood that trailed across his fingertips. "But she taught me how to get some!"
Entry for the Weird Tales Contest: December 2017.