“That’s it, just beyond that fallen oak,” the old woman said, pointing at the splintered trunk of a tree recently felled by storm, subsidence—or something else.
John Absolom pulled the hood of his cagoule back, letting the rain patter on his scalp and form rivulets down his neck. He raised a pair of field glasses and focused on the white fleck of raw wood indicated by their octogenarian guide.
“No blackening,” he said and flicked the matchstick in his teeth to the other side of his mouth.
“I told you, it weren’t no thunderstorm brought it down. It was the Snallygaster.”
Absolom looked at her askance. “Let’s take a butcher’s,” he said and pulled his hood back up.
“It’s a long haul up that slope,” the girl behind him said, “and we’ll have to strike out over marshland first.”
“You complaining already, Shandice?” he asked.
“Just sayin,” came the curt reply.
Absolom kept in step with the old dear who went by the name of Marley. Shandice had identified her from the news-feed a week back when she’d discovered an article in her research about the Snallygaster. The Harrisburg Gazette featured the story and, when she’d shared it with Absolom, he’d pricked his ears up straight away.
“Younger generation,” Marley said, “don’t know they’re born. Most exercise they get is their thumb muscles twiddling knobs on a video game.”
Absolom snorted a token guffaw, “Perhaps true, but this one’s web-clicking fingers picked up on your story, so she’s good for something.”
Picking their way over tussocks of reed and squelching through the bog was difficult going, but before long they reached the incline. After ten paces up the steep slope, Marley stopped to catch her breath.
“Damn these lungs. Only gave up smoking a month ago, but I ain’t seen any good come of it,” she said, her wheezes interspersing every other word.
“Tell me about the sightings again, Ms Marley,” Absolom said, “any small detail will help us in our research.”
“I told you most everything already. I guessed it was gonna turn up sometime this season, always does, every thirteenth year.”
Shandice joined them, wiping her walking boots against a mound of moss to remove the rank-smelling sludge they had accumulated. “What’s special about thirteen?” she asked, “besides the usual unlucky connotations.”
“Connotations? Your side-kick knows some fancy words, Absolom. To answer your question, Missy, I don’t rightly know, but here—see this.” She pulled out a small compass. It looked to Absolom like it had been salvaged from a shipwreck or purchased in some maritime museum. As they watched, the needle spun round continually.
“Seems like the magnetism’s shot in it,” Absolom said.
“I’ve had the compass fifty years or more and it’s always pointed true—except during the Snallygaster season. They carried out a geological survey thirteen years ago. The professor leading the team said he’d never come across anything quite like it. Something about dipoles in the ironstone under the hills. I didn’t quite follow his meaning, but he took some samples back to the Maryland Institute to examine them.”
“Intriguing,” Shandice said. “What did he find?”
“Diddly squat. The magnetite was just the same as any he’d found in other rock formations. The dipoles were aligned together, yet he swore they’d formed a different pattern out in the field. Anyhow, he ain’t been back, so I guess he lost interest.”
Absolom spat the match out and replaced it with a strip of chewing gum. “We’ve read the folklore, Ms Marley, but you’re the only person we’re aware of who’s actually claimed to have seen the beast.”
“That’s true enough, though I wished I hadn’t—still get the collywobbles every time I hit the sack. You don’t ever get a thing like that out of your head.”
Shandice caught Absolom’s eye from behind Marley, giving a shrug. She was obviously reserving judgement about the woman’s state of mind— for now.
“Tell me what you saw,” Absolom prompted.
“The thing was huge, big enough to blot out the moon. Farmer who own the fields south of the Allegheny Plateau had lost a handful of livestock and it was my job to protect them from wolves, cougars and the like. There’d been no trace of them, though. Usually a scavenger will leave a carcass, pick off the choice pieces and leave it for the worms afterwards. But they were nowhere to be found, despite me and my boys scouring the area. The beasts were always taken at night time, so I got it into my head to set up camp north of Lonesome Creek, right where we’re standing now. Triangulated the sites where the animals, mainly sheep, had been taken. I couldn’t afford to pay my boys overtime, so I took my rifle, sat on a stone and waited.”
Marley’s breathing came steady now. “Let’s make it up this hill and I’ll tell you the rest at the top.”
Absolom nodded his agreement, and they braced themselves for a long climb. It took the best part of an hour, but eventually they gained the summit and set themselves down on a sodden tree stump. The smell of pine resin permeated the air and chickadees could be heard calling from the shadow of the trees.
Once Marley had caught her breath, she continued her story. “I must have dropped off ‘cos around one in the mornin’ I was woken by a God-awful noise. Sounded like a thousand eagles screeching at once. I covered my ears to block out the sound of it, but it didn’t do much good. Felt like rock-hammers were tryin’ to pound their way into my skull.”
Marley’s face had gone pale and Absolom reflected that whether Marley was of sound mind or not, she certainly believed what she had seen.
Marley pointed to a spot in the distance where the forest had creased into a steep gulley. “I was camped at the lip of that valley when the creature flew over from the north. I could only see it in silhouette but it was like nuthin’ I’d ever laid eyes on before—or since. Wings that musta’ bin’ what, forty feet across, and a long neck stretched out in front of it. Long, stringy bits that looked like tentacles dangled from its knobbled head, some of them tangled round the heffer it carried.”
Marley reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a pack of smokes. Absolom noted the woman’s shaking hand as she fumbled it open.
“You said you’d given up,” Shandice said.
Absolom darted a glance and cut her off. “In your own time Ms Marley. It’s hard to give up the cancer sticks, isn’t it? I’m on my sixth month of abstinence already,” he said and replaced the gum in his mouth.
After a couple of draws and one coughing fit, Marley was ready to carry on. “The thing flew like them B-52 bombers. My daughter used the word, pon … ponderous to describe it. Some words just sound like what they mean, you savvy?”
“For sure,” Absolom said, “did it have a tail?”
“Oh yeah, long and thin— bit like a rats. A big rat at that.”
“Anything else you remember?”
“Just the reek of the thing, like a cross between tea tree oil and shit. Between that and the beast’s hollerin’ I didn’t have enough hands to cover ears and nose.”
“Thanks, Ms Marley, I appreciate how hard this is for you.”
“Wish you’d just call me Marley like everyone else. You’re still payin’ me a week’s wages for this, right?”
“No problem, you’ll get your other half once we’ve finished our business here.”
“So, you believe me then?”
“That I do, Ms … Sorry, Marley.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Most folks round here figure it’s just the yapping of an old woman who’s had her brain eaten out by weevils. But I know what I saw, and I’m no drinker.”
“We need to study the tree,” Absolom said, “you up for the hike?”
“Pretty sure I can manage,” the old woman replied.
A short traverse over drier ground brought them to the broken tree. Absolom circled round the jagged stump, examining the damage while Shandice took pictures with her SLR.
“Looky here,” Marley said, pointing to a shard of timber rising from the shattered bole.
A grey, slimy ooze was plastered over the birch timber, with ringlets the size of doughnuts clinging to the surface.
“They look like suckers,” Shandice said.
Absolom took out a sample bag and picked up one of the ringlets with a pair of forceps. He dropped it in, then collected a sample of the viscous goo in a specimen bottle.
“Well? Whaddaya think?” Marley asked.
“Unless octopuses have learned to fly,” Absolom said, “I reckon we’ve got real concrete evidence of the Snallygaster.”
“Why would it leave bits of itself over a tree?” Shandice asked.
Absolom looked up at her from his hunched position. “There’s no doubt in my mind it crash-landed. See that depression in the earth over there? That’s not a sinkhole, it’s a dent.”
Marley snuffled a laugh, “You reckon the Snallygaster’s bin’ at the moonshine?”
Absolom gave a nasal grunt, humouring the woman. “I don’t know,” Absolom replied, “but it’s possible it might be wounded.”
“What could wound a thing like that?” Shandice asked.
Absolom rose to his feet. “That’s what I aim to find out.”
~ ~ ~
Shandice rubbed her hands together and warmed them over the camp-fire. “This is supposed to be our break, Absolom. You always spend your vacations like this?”
Absolom looked over from the other side of the fire and, not for the first time, admired the girl’s angular but comely cheekbones. He hadn’t chosen her from the Agency’s portfolio for her looks though. She was raw, but had potential. After interviewing her, he’d also conceded she had one major advantage over the other candidates he’d seen. She was willing to put up with his unorthodox approach and uncivilised working hours. In return, he promised her a deep baptism in paranormal investigation. He had a reputation, not all of it good, but she had stuck with him the first year of her contract—which was up for renewal after this trip.
“Busman’s holiday,” he said.
“A turn of phrase. Coach drivers often end up travelling on their foreign holidays by bus. It … oh never mind. You wish you were soaking up the sun on a beach in Miami or something?”
She rubbed her stiff neck, wincing at the discomfort. “Nah, I’d last a day, then get bored.”
They listened to the crackle of burning branches for a while until Shandice broke the silence.
“So, what’s the plan, Van Helsing? If you ask me, you should have convinced Marley to stay. At least she knows what to expect.”
Absolom cocked an eyebrow, “The plan is to wait. Marley’s earned her fee twice over, and at her age she’d only get in the way.”
“Then what? Do we ask it to pose for us and say cheese while we take a few snaps?”
He curled the corner of his mouth in a smile. He liked her sense of humour. His last protégé had been too serious by far. She’d left after only a month, but not before filing a complaint with the Agency citing sexism and failure to provide a duty of care. “Don’t let this put the wind up you,” he said, “but I plan to take down a monster tonight.”
Once Shandice had got over her apoplexy, they’d talked over implications; the result being she had no more idea of what they were going to do than when Absolom first began his discourse. He was short-changing her, but she was still on probation, and she’d just have to trust him.
Whether she had retreated into a huff, or grown tired of his monotone grumble, Absolom wasn’t sure, but they shared a half hour of stilted silence. During this time, he took out a collapsible cross-bow, cleaned it thoroughly and tested the mechanism. He also examined ten quarrels, each tipped with electroplated heads, and satisfied himself they were plumb-line straight. They certainly felt sharp enough to pierce the hide of anything the night might throw at them.
After performing this task methodically, he took a flat shovel and began to heap earth over the fire.
“Hey, what’re doing?” Shandice said, “I’m freezing my tits off as it is.”
“Attracts too much attention,” Absolom replied, “by the way, it’s not pretty when you curse.”
“Don’t tell me,” she said, “its not lady-like.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You meant it though, didn’t you? You’re an unreconstructed throwback, Absolom and I’m—”
“Shh, do you hear that?”
Shandice knew better than to question Absalom’s senses and strained her ears against the night. The bubble of whippoorwills was soon replaced by the sound of great, beating wings, increasing in volume by the second. Then came its cry. Marley’s description had been spot on and Absolom’s skin pricked in response, despite his experience of the weird and wonderful.
“It’s coming,” he whispered, “quick, we need to take position.”
They had made camp just inside the tree-line and it was only a matter of yards before they reached the edge. Absolom motioned for them to lie low as the crescendo of a leviathan’s flight came towards them. He couldn’t make anything out against the moonlit sky, but already the stench of something acrid and sulphurous wafted down from above.
“Where is it?” Shandice said, her eyes grown wide in surprise or terror.
“There,” Absolom said, pointing north. Gradually, an undulating shape loomed out of the darkness, heading right towards them.
“Bloody hell, it’s huge,” Shandice uttered, her Brixton accent breaking through her normally genteel tone.
Absolom brought his crossbow into play, raising it to his shoulder. “Its flight pattern’s erratic. It’s wounded alright,” he said.
“No shit Sherlock, it’s not going to make it over the tree-tops—and we’re right in its flight path. We should move.”
“Stay put,” Absolom said, “we’ve got a job to do. Now’s not the time to get unprofessional.”
“Unprofessional? You’re planning on bringing down that bugger with a crossbow and you call me unprofessional?”
“Shandice!” It was enough to silence her for now. “Get busy with the infra-red camera, we need to document this.”
By Absolom’s calculation it would be upon them in another ten seconds, but still he couldn’t see what he was looking for. Shandice’s camera was rolling and Absolom thought, if only for a split-second, they might be documenting their own demise.
Just when it seemed the thing would fall on them like a collapsed building, it lurched away from the tree line and let out an ear-splitting screech. Next second it plummeted to the peaty ground, sending shock-waves that threw them both off their feet.
“What just happened?” Shandice asked as she struggled to her feet.
Absolom was looking down the sight of his crossbow. “What just happened, my erstwhile assistant, is that our quarry just revealed itself.”
The Snallygaster writhed in pain and anger, sounding its banshee-like call over and over. The moon broke through the cloud at that moment and illuminated a beast that was both terrible and magnificent.
“It’s incredible,” Shandice said, wonder written on her face. “Who’d have ever imagined such a thing could exist? Look how the moon glints off its scales, and the colour of those feathers. Surely you can’t kill such a creature.”
“I don’t intend to.”
Shandice looked at him. “Wait a minute, where are you pointing that thing?”
Absolom didn’t answer but aimed his weapon on a target perpendicular to the Snallygaster and loosed a quarrel. It sliced through the air parallel to the tree-line until it found its mark. The wet sound of an arrow-head piercing flesh came back at them, followed by a dull groan.
“What the f—” Shandice said.
“C’mon, let’s get over there before it recovers.”
“Before what recovers?”
“The Actaeon.” He didn’t have time for an explanation and bounded over the bracken towards the place where he’d aimed the quarrel. The Snallygaster was still thrashing around behind them, clearly in great pain, but he put it out of his mind. He had other fish to fry now.
Between two Wellingtonia conifers he found his quarry, slumped over a tripod-mounted harpoon gun. “Gotcha, you bastard,” he said in triumph. The would-be hunter was humanoid in form but covered in long shaggy fur. The feathered shaft of Absolom’s arrow protruded from the thing’s gristly ear.
Shandice gasped. “What the hell is that?”
“Vermin,” he replied, “no, worse than vermin. A poacher who’s strayed too far beyond its limits.” He approached the creature and kicked its flank. The body was unresponsive. Still, he raised his crossbow and loosed another bolt into its head.
“That’s gross, Absolom, You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? Whatever happened to respect for the dignity of a noble beast?”
“There’s nothing noble about this piece of shit,” he said. “They hop through the celestial gateways that appear from time to time, hunting the more exotic and rare creatures that get lost in the space-time continuum. It calculated the Snallygaster would appear here, and it hoped to claim the king’s ransom it’d have fetched in the auction markets of its world.”
“You knew it was coming?” Shandice gave him a reproachful look. He’d kept information from her for the first time—it wouldn’t be the last.
“It didn’t occur to you to let me in on the secret?” Absolom could almost feel her ire rising.
“Think of it this way, Shandice, you haven’t finished your probation yet and you might have tipped the Agency off.”
“I wouldn’t have done that. After all, you’ve got a licence to kill hostile entities. I … Oh shit, you haven’t got a licence, have you?”
“I have,” he replied, “it’s just a little out of date, that’s all.”
Another roar cascaded from the wounded Snallygaster.
“Our work isn’t finished yet,” he said.
“You’re not going to get closer to that thing, are you?”
But Absolom was already striding towards the stricken beast.
The pallid moonlight showed the beast had taken a harpoon in its shoulder, just between the wing base and its torso. Another hole, the size of a crater, wept serous fluid and blood from its chest.
“Easy fella,” Absolom said to it.
The beast lifted its tentacled head and regarded its saviour.
“I don’t like the way he’s watching me with those squid eyes,” Shandice said, a tremor in her voice. “Are you sure it’s not sizing us up for supper.”
“It wouldn’t dare,” Absolom replied, “Snallygasters are sworn to respect the safety and well-being of any who comes to their aid.”
“You sure about that?”
“Well, I’ve not exactly tested the theory.”
Shandice blew an upward of draft of air through her lips, flicking her fringe in a gesture of exasperation.
“We need to get you back home,” he added.
“How’re we going to do that?” Shandice asked, “it’s the size of a house, and its wounded.”
“It looks bad, but it’s not a mortal wound. See, it must have pulled out another harpoon from the attack last night and it’s already healing over.”
“The broken tree?”
Absolom slung the crossbow over his back and rummaged in his coat pocket. “Guess this explains it. Anyhow, we only need to grant it access back to its world. Its kind will tend to it there.”
“Fine, we’ll book it on the one-thirty train then.”
Absolom shook his head in mock disapproval. “Cursing and sarcasm. How am I ever going to make you into an investigator of decorum and worthy of respect?”
Shandice gave him another of her stares. “Un-fucking-believable.”
Absolom smiled and held up a large, golden key, smugness written across his face.
“Behold, Solomon’s key—well, one of his keys. Now, if I can just find the portal. Where the hell could it be?”
“645345,” Shandice said.
“Grid reference. The one I found in that map from the British Museum when I was doing my research. It was in the Cabbala volume about Solomon’s Gates. I’m surprised you missed it. Then again, you were too busy chatting up that red-head curator.”
“Don’t be silly. The Hebrews didn’t use Ordnance Survey references.”
“No, they used a system of runes. I had to translate … Never mind, Tentacle Head here’s getting impatient and the portal’s about a kilometre in that direction.” She pointed to a place where the forest met the skyline.
“Magnifico, Shandice. I could kiss you.”
“Don’t you dare!”
The Snallygaster was too drained of strength to fly, but it limped across the moorland on legs the size of tree trunks, grunting and bellowing as it went. On reaching their goal, Absolom spoke the required words and a portal outline materialised in a sparking silver-blue. He inserted the key into the ring of light half-way up and the fabric of reality tore open.
The Snallygaster turned its mournful face toward Absolom and shook its head.
“Yeah, think nothing of it, my friend. You get to go home early. My advice is to give the next anniversary a miss. It’ll be better for you and the farming community round here.”
It stepped through the portal and, before Absolom could stop her, Shandice craned her neck over his shoulder and glimpsed what lay beyond. She promptly lost all colour from her face. “That’s its home?”
“Grackack-Narr, I believe it’s called.”
“He’s welcome to it,” she said and turned her head away.
Absolom had hoped to spare her the sight of a dimension to warp the sanity. “Don’t worry, you’ll see weirder sights than that if you stick with me.”
“You mean I’ve—”
“Passed your probation, yes.”
She squealed with delight and held herself with both arms, spinning round and around, not able to contain her excitement.
“You want to hear the bad news?” He said.
Shandice’s face fell. “Bad news?”
“The successful probationer is obliged to buy their sponsor the first drink at the bar.”
“You just made that rule up.”
“Improvisation my dear Shandice, it’s the mark of a true master.”
~ ~ ~