A detective is unwittingly drawn into a conspiracy and discovers a horrible secret.
Detective Eric Moyer of the Gloucester Police Department was woken at two o’clock in the morning by the shrill braying of his new candlestick telephone.
“Oh, Jesus,” Moyer mumbled, but did not rise.
Rachel, his wife, poked him from the other side of the bed. “Answer the telephone, Eric, or so help me I’ll rip it out of the wall.”
Moyer got to his feet and shuffled toward the parlor. He resented the fact that City Marshal Cronin required his detectives to install telephones in their homes. “Soon everyone will have them,” the electrician had told Moyer whilst his crew erected telephone poles on their street. “You’re gettin in on the ground floor.” With his Massachusetts accent, the last word had come out as floah. Moyer had come to hate those blasted poles, which sullied their view of the harbor.
He had emigrated from England to escape the constant demands and punishing working hours of his job at Scotland Yard, but now, six years later, it seemed like little had truly changed. The crime rate in Gloucester had actually increased since his arrival. It was a far cry from the wife-killers and serial rapists of London (and for that he was thankful). But he had come across scenes of domestic violence that lost him sleep, and three missing persons cases over the last year had still not been solved. Policework was thankless and exhausting, it seemed, irrespective of the continent.
Moyer reached the phone and lifted the receiver to his ear, putting an end to its shrill ring. “Moyer here.”
“Detective, hello!” crackled the voice on the other end.
“Hello, yes. Who is this?”
“It’s Patrolman Smits! Leon Smits! You didn’t recognize my voice?”
“Everyone sounds like Frank C. Stanley over the telephone,” Moyer said.
Moyer rubbed his eyes. “He’s a singer. Never mind.”
“Listen, Cronin needs you at the First Parish burial ground right away. He’s sending a wagon for you.”
Moyer sighed. “Right. Tell him I’m on my way. What happened over there?”
“Some sort of desecration,” Patrolman Smits said. “No one’s quite sure, to be honest.”
Moyer dressed, shrugging on in his rumpled beige frock coat and smoothing out the brim of his black derby. Fifteen minutes later, he was sitting in the passenger seat of the Gloucester PD wagon (sitting shotgun, these Americans called it) next to the baby-faced police chauffeur Patrolman Norman Goodenow, jostling up Centennial Avenue toward the burial ground.
Perhaps it was simply the salty chill of the sea wind, but Moyer felt a cloying dread as the cemetery came into view, illuminated by the bobbing lights of his fellow officers’ electric torches. This ride reminded him of another he had taken, eight years ago in the north of England. He had not been in a wagon then, but a carriage – and it had borne him to a meeting that changed his life.
Goodenow pulled the horse to a halt at the cemetery gate. Moyer hopped off the wagon and thanked him, then trudged past rows of chalk-white headstones to the crime scene.
Two officers and a woman were huddled around an open grave, shining their electric torches downward, speaking only softly. Moyer approached the edge and peered into the grave. It was empty.
The first copper was Sergeant Tom Hickey, probably the best friend he had in the Gloucester police; the second was Patrolman Richard Clark, a lanky, quiet young man that Moyer did not know well.
“Has anyone touched anything?” Moyer asked them, kneeling to get a better view of the exhumation.
“No,” Hickey said. There was a tremor in his voice.
Moyer looked at him. The sergeant’s face was pale and his eyes would not leave the empty grave. “What’s wrong, Tom?”
“You should meet Beatrice,” Hickey said, gesturing to the woman. “Detective Eric Moyer, meet Beatrice Babson. This grave is … was … her mother’s.”
“It still is, Tom, whether she’s in it or not,” she said, and curtseyed to Moyer. She was about Moyer’s age, with severe features and a conservative blue-grey dress, but oddly, her wavy hair was unbound and flowing about her shoulders.
Either she never married, Moyer deduced, or cares little about what others think.
“How do you do, Ms. Babson? Or is it Mrs. Babson?” he asked.
She ignored the question. “Your accent. Are you from Glencoe?”
Moyer blinked. “I am. You’re familiar with London, then?”
“Not particularly,” she said, and smiled. “Do you believe in witches, Detective Moyer?”
The inquiry took him aback. He chose the words of his reply very carefully. “Not as such.”
“It’s a yes or no question,” Beatrice said. “Do you or don’t you?”
Moyer glanced about. Neither Hickey nor Clark seemed perturbed by this turn in the conversation. Beatrice may as well have asked him if she could borrow a cup of sugar.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I have … seen things. Years ago, in England.” The words were tumbling from his mouth. He fought to stop them and found that he could not. And so the secrets came pouring out, like water pushing at a crack in a dam, widening it, until it became an irreparable breach.
Before he knew what was happening, he was telling them the story of the Yellow-Eyed. He had told no one that story, not in eight years. Not even Rachel.
When he had finished, Beatrice Babson favored him with a long look of sympathy. “We thought so,” she said quietly. “You were right to recommend him, Sergeant Hickey.”
“I could see it in his eyes,” Hickey said. “The first time we met, I saw it in his eyes.”
Shaking, Moyer turned to him. The sergeant stared back at him blankly. It was like looking into the face of stranger. “Marshal Cronin never sent for me, did he?” Moyer asked.
“No,” Beatrice said. “I did. Jack Cronin’s family has only been on Cape Ann for two generations, detective. Consequently he will know nothing of tonight.”
“The station called me,” Moyer said. “Leon Smits …”
“… is at home, asleep,” she said. “How are you so sure that was him? After all, everyone sounds like Frank C. Stanley on the telephone.”
Moyer’s hand drifted to the .38 Smith & Wesson on his hip. “What the devil is going on here?”
“Easy, sir,” Patrolman Clark said.
“We need your help, Eric,” Hickey said.
Beatrice reached down and gently lifted Moyer’s hand off the butt of his gun. Moyer let her do it. He wanted to hear this.
“You have certain experience with the inexplicable,” she said, “experience that will prove invaluable tonight. You see, detective, there is no mystery here. I know exactly who dug my mother up … and why.”
“Don’t leave me in suspense,” Moyer said. “Who?”
“Let me show you,” Beatrice said.
Goodenow’s horse strained against its traces and girths as it pulled their wagon uphill, away from the harbor and into the forbidding woods of an inland wilderness.
The interior of Cape Ann had once been a thriving working class settlement. After the Revolution, however, the city fathers moved the town meetinghouse closer to the sea. So the masons’ hammers fell silent; the cattlemen led their herds to more convenient pastures. Within decades, only the most disreputable sort remained inland: the vagrant, the jobless, the queer, and the mad. When they died off at last, their animals went feral – and the place was known forever after as Dogtown.
The houses they passed in Gloucester proper were still and silent. Neither Babson nor the officers spoke during their ride, which was just as well. Moyer did not feel like making conversation.
The only sounds were the clacking of horseshoes, the creak of the wagon, and the distant roar of the Atlantic. Soon the tight rows of residential neighborhoods gave way to the barns and outbuildings that marked the outlying homesteads of town. On the edge of the woods, they went by a ramshackle house, no more than a hut, with a single candle burning in the window. Moyer squinted and noticed the shadowy outline of a woman’s face, watching them. Her eyes seemed to gleam – two glistening orbs in the dark – when she leaned over the flame to pull her shutters closed.
Then they were in the forest, on a dirt track flanked by squat rock walls. The night was very dark.
“We’re close,” Beatrice said.
Moments later, the horse came to an abrupt halt. Goodenow whipped and cursed, but the stubborn beast simply snorted and stamped and would go no further.
“We’ll walk from here, gentlemen. Norman,” Beatrice said to Goodenow as the men helped her down from the wagon, “Wait at this spot until daybreak. If none of us return, head home. Deny you were ever here. Your mother will vouch for you, I’m sure. There’s a good boy.”
“God be with you, madam,” Goodenow said. There were tears in his eyes.
This is daft, Moyer thought. “Lads!”
Hickey and Clark turned to regard him.
“I’ve had about enough of this. We’re going back to Gloucester. I’ll wake Marshal Cronin and explain things as best I can, but I expect a full report from you two first thing in the morning.”
“No,” Hickey said. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Is it not?” Moyer’s tone sharpened. “In that case, I’m going back. You can do as you like. And when I return to the station, I’m writing you up for insubordination.”
“Have you wondered, detective,” Beatrice said, not meeting his gaze, “why a man of your talents could not find the Taormina boys? Or Francis Massey? Or any of the others this year?”
The missing persons. “What others?”
“Three people have been reported missing, sir,” Clark said.
“There is a system of justice here on Cape Ann far older than our police department … or the Constitution of the United States, for that matter,” Beatrice said.
“Bloody hell,” Moyer breathed. He was in it now. A simple grave robbery? That could wait until morning. But if there was even an infinitesimal chance this strange woman (or these men he thought he knew) had information on the whereabouts of missing townsfolk, why then he was bound by oath to follow this rabbit hole all the way to the end.
This could be a ploy, of course, he thought – but a deeper part of him knew better. There was something rotten in the state of Gloucester. It was like a tumor, a cancerous growth on the body of this picturesque community, and Moyer could sense that the font of corruption was near at hand.
The track narrowed ahead. The upward grade of the terrain steepened, and then flattened into a plateau. The trees grew sparser around them. There were massive boulders strewn about this high place, as far as Moyer could see. High above, the silver sliver of a waning moon cast a dim, meager light.
Hickey tapped Moyer’s shoulder and pointed at a boulder several yards away. He brought a finger to his lips: Quiet.
They approached. Moyer navigated the boulders only with great difficulty; maddeningly, the others seemed to be gliding over them, leaping with deft silence from stone to stone.
At length, they reached the boulder Hickey had spotted. It was almost perfectly round, and etched onto its surface was a curious sigil. Moyer traced his fingers over the carving. It appeared to be a pyramid, drawn in three dimensions, over a representation of the sun, the sort a child would draw.
“This symbol,” Moyer whispered, “is it Satanic?”
“Worse,” Beatrice said in the same hushed tone.
Hickey was crouching, staring at the ground. “I think this was Francis Massey.”
Clark, some distance away, added, “I think this was, too.”
They continued through the maze of boulders with more haste. Moyer could smell the apprehension coming off his confederates, and it terrified him. Even Beatrice, hitherto calm and implacable, was sidestepping shadows as though she expected them to come alive. And when she stopped suddenly and turned round to look at the men, her eyes were wide and vital with fear.
Moyer could, and his breath quickened at the sound. It was a low, throaty groan emanating from many throats, neither distinctly human nor manifestly animal.
“God protect us,” said Clark.
Further ahead, they saw firelight flickering from within a ring of boulders, each a little taller than a man. Trembling, Moyer drew his big .38 from its holster.
Beatrice pulled them close. “When I interrupt the ritual, their true forms will be revealed. Then you must attack, and fell as many as you can. No matter what happens, no matter what you see, remember: they can be killed.”
The groaning grew louder as they neared the ring of stones. Beatrice climbed them first, hitching up her skirt, and Moyer followed behind. What he saw next was burned into his memory forever.
In his extreme old age, Eric Moyer would live in an almshouse in Manchester, New Hampshire. Long after he forgot the names of his children and the faces of his parents, the ring of stones stayed with him. When he brushed his teeth, took walks on the grounds, sat on park benches with the other invalids and listened to radio reports of the war against Hitler – this moment would return to him.
A dozen nude women stood in a circle around a blazing fire. The groaning was coming from within their throats and out of their gaping mouths. Floating above the fire was the rotting corpse of an old woman – Beatrice’s mother. The body’s limbs had been ripped off, and two pairs of children’s limbs were stitched onto the stumps.
This monstrous creation was dancing. It gyrated, wobbled, and flailed about. The lips and gums of the corpse were decomposed, revealing skull-teeth stretched in an eternal smile.
Before Moyer could even gasp, much less soil his trousers, Beatrice leapt on top of a rock in full view of the witches. “Silat, mah-rek!” she cried in a booming voice, and a wave of light shot out from her body, kicking up a gust of wind that blew Moyer’s derby right off his head.
The monstrous collage of corpses tumbled into the fire when the light struck it, and the witches screeched in rage. Before Moyer’s very eyes, the women shrunk and shriveled until they were but eighteen inches tall – wrinkled, grotesque pygmies with beady black eyes and oversized yellowed teeth.
“Now, Eric, now!” Hickey shouted, pistol in hand, and Moyer did not need to be told twice. The three policemen took aim at the pygmies and Dogtown echoed with the thunder of gunfire.
Two of the tiny witches snapped back in mists of blood, but the others raced to cover in the rocks, running on all fours, sniggering madly.
One of the witches spat at them, drawing Moyer’s eye. The spit zigzagged through the air, taking on a life of its own, before splattering itself on Patrolman Clark’s hand. It immediately began disintegrating his arm. Clark screamed, and kept screaming as the saliva burned away his skin, through his muscles, and into his bones. His gun fell, hit a stone and went off.
Then the witches were upon them, popping up from cracks in the rocks to swipe at them with knives and claws. Moyer cursed and drew back.
Two of the witches crawled up Clark’s legs. He tried to shake them away, to no avail. They climbed to his head and jabbed their long, crooked fingernails into his face and eyes over and over and over again.
“Sorry, old pal,” Hickey said, and fired three shots. His pistol roared, and Clark’s head was obliterated along with the two devils fastened upon it.
Moyer felt an explosion of pain in his calf and looked down to see a witch frantically cutting at his leg with a steak knife – in her small hands, it looked like a sword. With a disgusted cry, Moyer lifted his boot and crushed the pygmy underfoot to a spray of viscous green blood.
“No, no, no! Please!” Hickey had four witches affixed to his chest, holding on by the buttons of his uniform. They were savagely stabbing him in the stomach. He swatted at them, spitting up blood, then lost his footing and tumbled off the stones onto the jagged rocks below, landing with a sickening crunch that cut his screams short.
Moyer could hear, but not see, the witches grunting as they butchered Hickey’s body. They seemed occupied – he reloaded his .38 and slid off the stones on the fire-lit side, trying to ignore the flare of agony in his wounded leg as he landed on his feet. Within the ring, the stench of the burning corpse was almost unbearable. He found his hat and stuffed it back onto his head.
Where the hell are they? The witches were nowhere in sight, and he could no longer hear them mutilating Hickey’s body. He stepped closer to the fire – trying to ignore the thick odor of foul roasting meat – and made a 360˚ revolution, inspecting every inch of the lair with his gun raised and ready to fire.
Moyer dared to call out. “Beatrice!”
No response, but then a breeze came through, the flames licked up, and in that moment of illumination Moyer spied some folds of blue-grey cloth caught in the branches of a shrub.
He reached forward and tugged on the cloth. Beatrice’s dress came tumbling out of the briar, along with her stockings and undergarments. They were wet and sticky to the touch.
Jesus Christ, is she –
Moyer heard sniggering behind him.
He reeled about, drawing back the .38’s hammer, to see eight of the little buggers squeeze out from a rent in the rocks like mice scurrying out of a hole. The two witches in the rear guard were dragging another of their number behind them, who seemed unconscious, perhaps even dead.
Drenched in panic, Moyer’s trigger finger tightened and the .38 belched flame. The shot missed – but the witches didn’t even flinch.
“Put that absurd thing away,” one of the witches told him, her voice an almost comical gremlin falsetto.
Moyer was too shocked to reply, but did not lower his gun.
The tiny witch bared her thin teeth. “I said … put it away!”
The .38 flew from Moyer’s hand and clattered against a stone. He stepped back, heart pounding, until his back thudded against a stone.
“Thank you for coming to our humble family reunion,” the witch said.
Then they all threw back their heads with a chorus of growls; their spines twisted at unnatural angles, and their limbs stretched three times their size, to the audible popping of their bones. The creatures expanded like balloons, transforming back into human women; and as a final touch, their hair grew back all at once, bursting from their scalps until it flowed down their backs and upon their breasts.
The witch who had spoken to him had golden hair and bright blue eyes. Her body was thin and muscular. She looked to be about twenty years old, but how could that be? She carried the unmistakable gravitas of wisdom and experience about her. She gestured to her companions, who dragged the unconscious witch – now in human form – into the light of the fire.
Beatrice. Oh Jesus.
She was naked, like the others. Her lips were pale and her eyes sunken. Whatever spell she had cast to reveal the witches’ true form must have not only affected her as well, but taken a horrible toll.
They threw Beatrice Babson to her knees, holding her arms back to keep her from collapsing. Her body was covered in a queer film of slime, which sprayed in all directions when the blonde witch slapped her awake.
“Oh, sister,” the blonde witch said. Beatrice’s eyes flickered open. “Why did you come here?”
Beatrice said nothing.
“She takes too much after our mother, eh, girls?” the blonde witch said, and others hooted in agreement. “Pathetic. You didn’t put an end to the ritual, Beatrice darling. You merely delayed it. Father will be very, very disappointed when I tell him what you’ve done.”
“There is something she can do!” a witch shouted.
“Yes, yes! Blood for the Blood Father!” another chimed in.
They took up the cry. “Blood for the Blood Father! Blood for the Blood Father!” but soon slipped from English into a language Moyer did not recognize. “Strak ab Patestrak! Strak ab Patestrak! Strak ab Patestrak!”
Moyer felt an intense, blinding pressure across his whole body. It felt like there were a thousand strong hands crawling over him. He had the sensation of thick fingers raking across his face, his chest, his toes, his groin – everywhere – and then the hands pushed him all at once. He caterwauled forward over the fire, landing prone on his face below where Beatrice knelt. Slime dripping from her hairline spattered onto his cheeks.
The coven was still chanting – “Strak ab Patestrak!” – when the blonde witch handed Beatrice a gleaming dagger.
“Kill this man, and redeem yourself in our father’s eyes.” The blonde witch kissed Beatrice on her slime-coated forehead.
Beatrice looked at the knife, then down at Moyer.
“STRAK AB PATESTRAK!”
Moyer closed his eyes and started praying. It had been fifteen years since he set foot in a church. Please, God, take care of Rachel. She’ll remarry, I expect. Please send a good man her way.
“STRAK AB PATESTRAK!”
And Lord, if you’re listening, please strike Alexander Graham Bell dead for inventing the bloody telephone in the first place.
“STRAK AB PATEST–”
A thick torrent of scalding liquid showered Moyer’s face and ran down his throat. The witches were howling in – fury? No, not anger … anguish. Actual grief. He spat, sputtered and blinked the red out of his eyes.
Beatrice Babson had cut her own throat.
Rachel Benson Moyer was woken at six o’clock in the morning by the shrill braying of her husband’s new candlestick telephone.
She reached for Eric’s side of the bed and felt only pillows and sheets. Marshal Cronin must have kept him at the station all night. Poor bastard, she thought.
Rachel got up and shuffled toward the parlor in the dim glow of early morning, rubbing her eyes, wincing every time the telephone clanged its tinny alarums.
Then the ringing was mercifully interrupted. She entered the parlor to find Eric sitting at the telephone table, dressed in his nightclothes, the receiver to his ear.
“Hello, Leon,” Eric said, flashing Rachel a smile as she entered. “Uh huh. What kind of desecration? Right. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Bye-bye.” He hung up.
She came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Good morning.”
“Morning, love,” Eric said. “How did you sleep?”
“Fair to middling. What was that call in the middle of the night?”
“Hmm? Oh, nothing. A misdial.”
He’s lying. “Ah,” she said.
“I’ve got to pop off, I’m afraid,” he said.
“If you must.” She kissed his neck. He smelt salty, like sweat, or perhaps the sea. Her gaze caught a dark stain behind his ear. “What’s that?”
He wiped his ear and a finger came away dark red. “Oh, I bloody cut myself shaving.”
Another lie. Is that lipstick? God help me, is there another woman?
He rose from the telephone table. “I’ll just pop upstairs and get dressed. Love you.”
“Love you too,” she said.
When he had mounted the stairs, she sat by their front windows and watched the sun rise over Gloucester harbor. It didn’t matter what Eric was hiding, she decided. Whatever it was, she would find out.
Women always find out.