Would you sleep your way to the bottom to get to the top?
|Clark held his breath and forced a white grin onto his face as the cloaked-and-hooded Brethren pressed close and pawed at him. They better not make me put on one of those moth-eaten robes, he thought. Then, with more determination: First thing when I'm in charge, we change the dress code.
To the logical and orderly mind of W. Alfred Clark there seemed no good reason for the Brethren of Belial to cover themselves in black, velvet hoods and wraparound cloaks that stank of sweat, mildew, and sea water. And whatever the meaning of those symbols sewed onto the lapels with crimson thread—probably they were insignia of rank—it could surely be conveyed with a lapel pin instead.
And why the need to hide the Brethrens' identities anyway? He could pick out Bill Simpson by the man's height and olive-colored eyes, which shone at Clark through the ragged eye holes of his hood. As for the others: Any spy would have seen them, unhooded, entering the old Long Island mansion where Clark's initiation was being held. And who could spy on them inside this secret grotto under the boathouse?
A fat, wet drop spattered onto Clark's bald spot. He rubbed it. Maybe the hoods were to keep the water off. The grotto was dank and cold; slime covered the walls.
"The Brethren are pleased with the girl," Simpson said. The hood muffled his deep, resonant voice.
"Swell," Clark replied. In the excitement of his impending initiation he had nearly forgotten the blonde chippie they'd left tied up in the mansion. "Now, when do I get to meet the big man, have my interview?"
Simpson thrust a long arm at a narrow passage that plunged into the living rock. "Through there," he said. "We will meet you on the other side."
Clark repressed the impulse to roll his eyes. When I'm in charge, he told himself as he hunched over and shuffled into the low passageway, we'll hold the monkey business in the library or billiard room.
But first we'll get rid of the monkey business.
Clark had been skeptical—"excoriating" would be nearer the mark—when Simpson informed him he'd been nominated for membership in the Brethren of Belial. Simpson, who wasn't even an executive, who was just a drone down in Billing, had made the invitation sound like a favor—like a tip, almost. Only after Clark had driven past the tall, narrow mansion did the vice-president for plant operations condescend to pretend an interest. "But I come in at the top," he'd growled at Simpson. "None of this novitiate business. I come in at a superior rank to you, or I don't come in at all."
"The Master wants a bride," Simpson had replied. "The highest honors go to those who provide one."
"What do you mean 'bride'?"
But Simpson had only shrugged in answer, and rolled his tongue in his cheek.
I'll slip her an extra hundred, Clark had promised himself after the Brethren seized and tied up the girl—a typist from the office secretarial pool. And another hundred if they drag her down here, he added now as he slid and stumbled down the slimy passageway. And when I'm in charge ...
Yes, if he was going to come in as the number two man, as Simpson had intimated, he would find a way of promoting himself but pronto.
Dim, yellow light spilled from bulbs recessed in the walls. But the illumination now stopped abruptly just before him, in the midst of the passage, as though a black curtain were strung across it.
Clark contemplated it for a long moment. A trick of the light, he told himself. He put out his hand. Or maybe there really is a curtain hanging—
His hand vanished up to the wrist, and he fell forward with a yell.
The hollow plop of dripping water was the only sound in the claustrophobic dark. Clark's eyes started from his head, and he reeled, barking his shoulder on a hard wall and tumbling to his knees. Don't faint, he told himself, and he swallowed thickly. There's plenty of fresh air. Why, it's a cavern, man! An open cavern, there's no walls closing about you, and they're certainly not rolling and squeezing like the stomach muscles of a python, as though you've been swallowed by a great snake and it's getting ready to—!
He shook his head. Where had that thought come from?
He crawled across a floor that was rough but slick with water, and he slipped more than once. Find a wall and follow it, he told himself, and put out a groping hand.
That's when he touched the stalagmite.
It was round and smooth and fat, with a soapy texture. It was warm, too. Hot, even. He hugged it, his palms sliding down and stroking it, as he pulled himself to his feet, and he shuddered as he thought how it felt like a shaft of hard but yielding flesh. The tip was a rounded dome, and his hand slipped inside a cleft at its center.
Clark screamed as the shaft throbbed and stiffened and thrust itself at him.
Somehow he found the way out, and fell into a pool of dim light that struck him like the noonday sun. The Brethren gazed down at him.
"Oh, thank God!" Clark gasped. "There's a thing back in there—!"
"The Master," said Simpson. He put a pistol in Clark's face. "He is well-pleased and will take you."
"Me?" Clark shrieked.
He stared at the muzzle of the gun.
"No! The girl!" Clark yelled, and he broke out all over in a dripping sweat. "She's the—! Give her to—" He swallowed. The word "it" tried forming in his throat, but no pronoun could fit that thing back there in the dark. "She's the bride!"
"She is for us," Simpson said. "You have chosen the honor of being the Master's bride!"
Entry for the Weird Tales Contest: February 2018.