by Richard Holliday
Orange mud was quickly encrusted onto Snow’s black leather shoes as he crossed the threshold of the train station to the road outside. The bright sunshine looked enticing, though this notion soon dissipated. The rumours and warnings were true – this town was filthy and he was here to clean it up.
A lazy sun filtered through the regular shapes of brick walls and slate roofs before casting shadows on the paved street. Taking a deep breath the man gagged as the stench of chemicals and sulphur from factories on the near horizon attacked his nose wall.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Snow snorted impudently. Grasping his suitcase with his spare hand and a piece of typed paper in the other he proceeded along the sidewalk. Wagons and carriages clattered along the uneven streets while burly men and loose-looking women swayed and cantered along the bordering walkway. His eyes shielded by the brim of his hat, Snow looked curiously and studiously at each person he passed.
Criminal, probably. Drunk, certainly. Morally vapid, likely. The list of probable judgements grew in his mind.
Wellhead really was the least appealing town in America. Snow would find plenty to do here.
Snow threw open the door to the police station. It was empty at this time of day and a mess. Papers were strewn chaotically about the disorganised office. Clearly this place was no bastion of meaningful law enforcement. The Sheriff’s office, in a walled off portion of the building’s main floor was equally dishevelled. The desk was barely visible under the detritus of the previous occupant’s dysfunctional stewardship.
Lorwyn Price had died suddenly, and mysteriously. Josiah Snow took it upon himself to fill the vacancy. He’d heard too much about Wellhead’s seedy reputation to pass up the opportunity. He smiled as he surveyed the mess.
The clean sweep would start right here.
With a sweeping motion of an arm Snow threw the shredded papers, chewed pens and dust-caked fittings falling to the floor with a crash, leaving the wooden surface mostly clear. Hanging up his coat and hat on the coat stand behind the door the young man slid into the creaking mahogany chair. His eyes paced the room, taking in every corner and line of the layout. He was studiously planning what to do with this state of affairs, musing to himself that this would be a challenge but also the one that would stand him out as more than just his father’s son. Wellhead certainly felt many miles away from what Snow was accustomed to.
“Good evening,” a well-rounded, portly gentleman said smoothly, appearing in the office doorway. “Octavius Strain, local industrialist and local figure. You must be…”
“Josiah Eckhart Snow, sir,” Snow said coolly. “A pleasure to meet you. I’m the new Sheriff around here, just arrived as a matter of fact.”
Strain’s eyebrows raised curiously. “Is that so? Well, as a prominent local figure, I feel I should welcome you to Wellhead appropriately.”
A hand went into the longcoat Strain wore and pulled out a worn, brown paper package. Strain placed it onto the desk with a mild thud. Snow examined it with one of the pencils that hadn’t fallen to the floor.
“This is money, Mr. Strain,” Snow said slowly, almost unbelieving of what he was seeing. Wads of neat dollar bills. “Are you trying to bribe me?”
Strain’s face fell and scrunched up ominously. “I have a lot of interests in this town, if you catch my drift, young sir. I must ensure that, with your administration of this town’s legal affairs, that they are properly protected.”
Snow hummed, remaining non-committal. “I see. Please, sir, I’ll carefully consider your offer.”
Strain fell back, and the package of money found its way back to his pocket. “Very well. But might you see me at my building should you ever reconsider?”
“Certainly,” Snow pointedly said. Strain left, aggravated. The ‘boy’ was sharper than he’d been expecting.
Snow exhaled dejectedly. He’d been here mere moments and the tendrils of the evident corruption in this place were already wrapping themselves around his ankles.
Price’s liquor cabinet looked appealing, despite its previous owner having thoroughly drained it. Getting up, Snow poured a scotch into a dusty glass and raised it to his lips. The warming sensation relaxed him as the liquor slipped down his neck. Turning back to the doorway he noticed he had another visitor.
“I saw Mr Strain leave the building. I trust his offer was unpalatable?”
Snow smiled. “You’d be correct. I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of introductions?”
The kindly old man smiled and held out a hand. A glint of sunlight refracted from the crucifix about his neck and sparkled neatly. “Gabriel Hartley, reverend at the District Church. It’s not much of a church, I can tell you, but it’s a damn sight better than what’s outside.”
Snow laughed. “What do you mean?”
Hartley continued. “A man in Wellhead is easily led to drink, sometimes too easily. There is a fetid perversion driven by liquor in this town. It brings out the sin that threatens to cloud over every person’s mortal being. Leading to more sin and more of God’s vengeful disapproval.”
“How do you mean?” Snow asked cautiously. He was not particularly religious, though appreciated that faith in something more than men certainly had its appeals and comforts. “What does God disapprove of here?”
Harley’s eyes widened, almost popping from the man’s face. “The temptation of un-godly women is strong here. A drunken fool is no match for the devices of a wily woman of the night. I might not be able to stand for it, but my church is a bastion of righteousness. Without it this place would surely be lost to the Devil himself a long time ago.”
A wry smile crossed Snow’s face. “I’m glad there’s at least one iota of morality in this town.”
“Indeed!” Harley bellowed before toning his volume down. “Please, stop by the church once you feel acclimatised to your new surroundings and feel the requirement to seek solace. You’ll be welcomed.”
“That’s most kind, Reverend Hartley,” Snow chirped. Hartley left the address and made his excuses, leaving Snow alone in his office.
There was nothing more for Snow to do in the office, so the young man retrieved his hat and coat. Cutting out the rot in this town would be easier than he imagined.
The two most likely sources of disgusting criminality in this town had walked straight into his office.
Snow left and checked into the town’s hotel. The sheriff’s apartment was a perk of the job but Snow had been reliably informed that it was ‘not yet habitable’. Its former occupant had died there and, if anything, sleeping in a a man’s still-warm deathbed didn’t appeal.
The hotel was rowdy and the young man initially struggled to sleep. The air was muggy and humid, and the room’s battered sash window didn’t open much. Tiredness and exhaustion soon overcame the heat, sounds and smells of the bar below and heavy eyelids descended.
Crickets chirped once the patrons of the bar had sidled away to their unhappy homes. Flickers of a fire in the hearth sputtered noiselessly into death. Flagons hanging from hooks above the bar rattled with a breeze. It was a peaceful, and seemingly out of place quiet, but would not last.
Symphonic whistling descended around the town with a flurry of high-pitched whinnying following immediately after, culminating in seven rapid-fire thuds that exploded onto the plains outside the town. The noise was so loud that Snow thought the hotel itself was exploding. Rushing from his bed in a battered daze he spied from the window the glow of burning hydrocarbons against a jet black sky. The flames turned into sparks for a few moments before extinguishing with a hiss. As quick as this phenomenon had crashed into existence it was gone, as if it had never happened. No sound came from the fields; even the crickets thought better of it.
“Just what I need…” Snow mused tiredly, and climbed back into his bed. “Another unexplained quirk of this godforsaken town.”
On the outskirts of the town near to the perimeter of the Mayfair oilfield, women slept uncomfortably in a small wooden bunkhouse, kept out of the way until they were deemed useful. The humidity in the air, combined with ambient temperature had made what little sleep that could be gained quite light and fleeting; the explosions outside had woken the dozen women who watched the wells outside burn briefly. As quickly as the light from the fire had risen it went out, and the women elected to attempt sleep once more. Their work was tiring and what little rest they could get was precious – more valuable than oil. Thin sheets rustled as they hoisted themselves back into their bunks, putting the incident outside as the work of men or God – either way it was not their concern.
Heads slowly sank into pillows and the chirping of crickets zoomed about the rectangular building. This was the sound of living in the brush – away from the noises and disturbances of drunken men – and it was oddly soothing. The sound of seeping liquid under the door was soothing too, but it’s alien nature in this place was noticed far too late. The door was smashed to matchwood under the thud of something big that expanded into the space. The shrill cries of the women and the crack of bones were, like the fires at the wells, soon cut short as fast as they had begun.
“Quite a mess, isn’t it?” Snow surmised to a police officer as they surveyed the scene before them. The bunkhouse was ransacked, the wooden beds dashed to pieces and a slimy, viscous brown liquid covered every scrap of blank wall and floor. Soiled fabric was draped over the deformed, mutilated and headless bodies of the twelve occupants of this bunkhouse. Snow stepped forward. His foot slid on the slippery gunk that coated the floor. “Whatever did this was brutal. These women had no chance.”
Outside a car engine puttered into earshot and stopped abruptly. A neatly suited man walked briskly into the bunkhouse behind Snow and his assisting officer. Snow turned, hearing the footsteps.
“And who might you be, sir?”
The man looked blankly at Snow. The officer quickly filled the new sheriff in. This man was known only as Payne.
“Mr Chappel not happy. His girls live here,” the Chinese man coughed, looking down. “Did live here.”
“And why might Mr Chappel be?” Snow ventured. Payne was blunt in his response.
“You not been here long, eh? Proprietor of Chappel’s Emporium of Massage and Medicine.”
“Ah,” Snow realised. The brothel. “And these girls, you say? Relations? Friends?”
“No, they assets to business. Property of Mr Chappel. He want compensation.”
Another car pulled up outside, with footsteps soon following Payne into the bunkhouse. It was Octavius Strain.
“If you think you’re getting a dime out of me you’re on the wrong side of Hell!” Strain boomed at Payne. Snow was confused; there was a history between the men he was not party to.
“Evidence not promising, eh Sheriff?” Payne implied. “Strain own oilfield. Bunkhouse filled with oil. His men responsible. Covered in oil all day. They not welcome by Chappel. They no pay!”
Snow hummed seriously. “That seems plausible, but I’d have to investigate first.”
“Nothing to investigate!” Payne cried. “Arrest Strain now!”
“No,” said Snow, looking at both men. “I want you both to leave. Be assured that I’ll conduct a thorough inventory of this site and report to the Mayor.”
Turning about, Snow looked to his pocket watch, noting the time before he left. Immediately he proceeded back toward the town. He passed Reverent Hartley at the site entrance who looked anxious and distraught at what he’d heard had happened.
“Spare yourself, Mr. Hartley. Those girls suffered,” Snow said solemnly.
“No,” the elderly vicar began nervously, “I must administer the last rights. See that their spirituality is catered for. Doing God’s work is never always clean and pure.”
Snow left the reverend to his calling. Those victims needed a shred of dignity after death, considering their end had offered them anything but. He’d expect the bodies delivered to the morgue beneath the Police Station once the Vicar was finished and went in search of the telegraph station. Snow knew he’d need help with this mystery.
At the industrial mill the news of the Death of the Twelve filtered through the dusty shop floor. The men couldn’t understand it – they all felt they knew those girls, in their own special way. They’d seen them perform, some of them baying for more out of lust. The girls had enjoyed a popular show at Chappel’s Emporium. They were his dancers, and the men felt they were their dancers, too. Some took this idea too literally.
“Jus’ can’t believe it. Killed in a mess like they were,” Spencer, the foreman murmured to his work crew. Their faces were ashen and solemn. If a mysterious force could kill twelve ‘innocent girls’ as they slept, what next?
Night fell. The bodies lay secure in the mortuary vault, locked away from further harm until Snow’s ‘help’ arrived in a couple of days time. At the peak of night, the sounds of tiny missiles hurtling through the dirty atmosphere around the town came as they had the previous night.
Wheeeeeeeshhh! Pffft! Buuuuuuuuummm!
With each thudding impact a man woke up in a cold sweat. The townspeople now knew what these sounds surely meant. A hazy glow of fire encircled the town, popping up atop each of the many oil derricks that filled the flat plans. The fields that brought the town purpose briefly formed a funeral pyre.
Snow woke at the very start, feeling the air in his hotel room tremble in anticipation. He’d slept partially-clothed and was out in the street as the missiles fell. First-hand he saw bright white spheres, almost blinding to look at directly, fall to the ground outside city limits. In the middle of the oilfields. A jabbering, whooshing sound of escaping gas followed, then the derricks lit up like candles for seconds at a time. The sequence of burning oil flames was strangely rhythmic, ending after a few minutes.
Not everyone was outside. In the tavern by the great brick edifice of Strain’s mill was a lone patron slumped over the worn wooden bar. Pools of warm beer and drink made puddles on the bar while the light of gently swinging oil lamps refracted on the moist surface. The explosions and blasts outside hadn’t woken this sleeping man, for the blanket of whisly was repellant to sound. Neither did the sound of the brick wall at the rear of the inn collapsing under the wet, leathery steps of something unearthly that made it’s way into the bar.
The man stirred. Sound might not have woken him but the pungent stench of wet flesh did. His eyes forced themselves open.
“Whuu? Urrrghh!” the man gurgled and attempted to scream before the brown, fleshy substance enveloped him. Bones cracked and skin tore.
Outside, the yelp pierced the silent anticipation of the town outside like a cannon.
“It came from the tavern!” one man shouted, and a flock of men rushed to the building, throwing the doors open with a clattering racket. “Good gracious lord…”
“What do you see?” another voice called meekly. The first man responded, surveying the scene.
“Get Mr. Strain here, now!”
Through the crowd that had gathered the industrialist fought his way through, eventually crossing the threshold of the door and surveying the scene. Josiah Snow was quick to follow, though he knew what he would see.
Strain’s face fell. He recognised the man. It was Spencer, the foreman of his mill. His decapitated body lay straddled across the varnished bar in a pool of blood mixed with the brown liquid that had coated the walls and floor of the bunkhouse. The trail led to the back room of the tavern and to a large, broken hole in the wall that led outside to an alley. From there the trail of liquid became indistinct, and Snow presumed it originated in the empty plains that surrounded the town.
Snow turned back to the crowd that had followed him through the now-wrecked tavern.
“There’s nothing more we can do here, at least not tonight,” the young man sighed irritably, wishing what he said wasn’t so.
“But that was my man,” Strain huffed. “Whatever did this, and did what it did to those girls… we have to do something.”
Snow turned about. “I’m doing whatever I can. I’ve requested help to get to the bottom of this. All I can say to you now is to go home and trust me.”
“Trust you?” Strain barked. “First day in town and people have been dropping like flies in the summer heat!”
Snow let it slide. “Please. Have faith in me. Just go home, lock your doors and watch the sky. If there’s a loud disturbance, you’ll at least know what to expect now.”
That was hardly solace, but Snow’s words were all the town had. Morosely, the crowd dissipated and returned to their homes, hoping for a quiet night.
The next two nights were silent but for owls and the buzzing of insects. There were no more falling stars or disappearing people. For two nights the people inhabiting Wellhead could rest without an alien interruption.
“Good to see you, Nichols,” Snow said with a smile spreading across his face. His help had arrived in the form of his friend and chemist Harry Nichols, all the way from New York. “And thank you for coming,”
Snow’s friend smiled back. “A pleasure, Josiah.”
Snow inhaled sharply. “It won’t be for long, I can tell you.”
From their demeanour these men knew each other well. Indeed, Nichols had worked with Snow back in the City where the shadows of tall buildings making up an urban jungle was their home turf.
Snow showed Nichols into the morgue. The blonde man quickly dispensed with his travelling jacket and rolled up his sleeves. With bare hands he examined the decapitated bodies of the twelve women who had been killed in the bunkhouse. Externally there was bruising and lacerations that suggested a struggle but once the chest cavities of each were methodically opened and examined the true nature of how these people had met their deaths surfaced. It was soon clear that the decapitation happened post mortem.
“Incredible,” Nichols gasped. Snow joined him in the examination room.
“What the holy hell?!” the young Sheriff called out. His voice reverberated against the cold, porcelain tiles. An eerie reverberation rang out.
Inside the open cavities was a pool of brown, solidifying oil that filled the space to the very brim. The stench was unlike anything either man had smelled before – even in New York. There was no trace of the lungs, heart, stomach or intestines – Nichols presumed that either the creature responsible for the attacks had eaten them or the oily substance was corrosive enough to melt the organs into a fetid stew.
A commotion came from upstairs that Snow picked up on in the silence that had fallen. The door to the stairwell clattered against the frame.
“Sheriff Snow, come quickly!” the deputy called. “There’s trouble at the factory!”
“Come on, Harry,” Snow sternly grunted to Nichols, “this is what we’re used to.”
Nichols gave a wry smile – it really was. Gaslight glinted on the cylinders of revolvers as they were transferred from bench to holster. Their use seemed, from the situation, quite likely.
Running up, Snow saw a brawl of men in the front lobby of the police station. “What is the meaning of this?!” he bellowed, commanding attention if nothing else.
Silence fell in an instant. Snow noted the presence of Mr. Strain in the lobby.
“My man was murdered,” Strain begun, “because of those women! You must arrest and incarcerate Chappel at once, sheriff!”
Snow looked nonplussed. “I’ll do no such thing. Why I should even consider it?”
“You really don’t know what you’re talking about, do you, boy?! Spencer was… indebted to those women. Well, one of ’em.”
One of the men accompanying Strain noticed Snow’s confusion. “She were with ‘is child!”
Snow’s eyebrows raised for a moment pointedly. “I see. So… you presume Mr Chappel exacted his vengeance by killing your man. Because he, as you assert, killed twelve women because one had proved particularly loose. I must say…”
“What must you say?!” Strain sneered.
Snow kept his manner collected. “I’ve been here four days, and thirteen people have died in this absolute cesspool of depravity. It’s the year 1906. Should we not have left such perversions in the old century?”
Reverend Hartley fought his way to the front of the crowd and locked eyes with Snow.
“Oh, sheriff,” the man withered, “I’m so happy to see you. There’s been an attack… on Payne’s. The place is ablaze.”
“Shame you weren’t inside, Hartley,” Strain sneered derisively. “Maybe I should refer to you by your other moniker, eh?”
“No, no…” Hartley shook vehemently, his eyes darting about all corners of the room. Snow took hold of Strain’s thread of conversation.
“Other moniker?!” the young sheriff said pointedly, pacing about the space left in front of the crowd. His hand rubbed his temple for a minute before he spun on his heels. “I knew it was too good to be true.”
“What was,” jittered Hartley, suspecting his secret had been supposed.
It had. “You’re Mr. Chappel, of Chappel’s Emporium. A chapel of sorts, I guess.”
His face painted with faux outrage, Hartley protested. “It’s a minor business venture…”
Strain jumped in. “And mine are not being protected! My payments to the city are supposed to…”
Both men trailed off. An ominous and now-familiar whistling sound pierced the ceiling and upper floors of the building from outside.
“It’s daytime…” Snow mouthed. “Never before… everyone out! Now!”
The crowd ran from the dark exterior of the police station to the bright midday sun outside. As each person passed through the door they found the need to shield their eyes from an intense light that dominated the sky. With a boom, the light erupted in a cascade of sparks and shimmering fronds reaching up into the sky, almost touching the sun.
Wind whistled toward the source of the explosion, a patch of desert about a mile outside of town. Snow led the charge to investigate, past burned wooden derrick towers and charred huts, the metal tools within melted and blackened into unnatural shapes.
None of this was possible, not by human hands with human technology.
Bending down, Snow touched the blackened ground. There was no crater, but a fine ash coated the epicentre of the blast that left dozens of round, glassy pearls embedded into the dirt. With a napkin protecting his bare flesh from the heat, Snow picked one up.
“Huh,” he murmured. “Looks like glass…”
His speech was cut short by more rhythmic eruptions all around. The wells surrounding the site were bursting with fire again! The round bauble in Snow’s clothed hand popped like a firework and flew into the sky. The young man winced, and his hand was badly singed.
Nichols looked at it very briefly, one eye starting at the wells exploding all around.
“We have to get back to the town. Now.” He implored.
“I agree,” Snow assented. His voice was hoarse and hectoring. “Back to the town! Now, there’s no time!”
One of the mill workers refused to budge, or let go of the pearl that had landed in his hand. It was cold and perfectly refracting of the light that hit it.
“Come on, man,” Nichols urged. The man looked resolute and irritated.
“This mine. Make me rich, it will!” he responded. He seemed to be possessed by the pearls he held in his hands. Their heat was burning his skin but this didn’t register in the man’s mind.
Nichols shrugged. “No, it’s dangerous! You don’t know how it got here.”
The man sneered. “I’ll have ’em all. Make a ton of money, you’ll see.”
Snow looked back and saw his friend remonstrating with the man.
“Come on, Harry! There’s not much time!”
Wells continued to burst, encircling the site of the explosion. The flames shone brightly through the curved surface of the translucent pebbles the man clearly treasured. Was there anything in this town people wouldn’t obsess over if it had the remote potential to make them rich?
“Go on, lad,” the man chuckled crazily. “Leave me to my wealth.”
Nichols disengaged. “Suit yourself. God help you.”
Snow looked back through a descending fog. Suddenly feeling lightheaded he fell backwards, his bowler hat drifting off away from his head while his body felt… afloat in mid air. His legs slowly felt light as feathers and the cloudy sky enveloped his very person.
Within a blink he was back in New York once more, looking down the avenue one way toward the Hudson’s grey lapping waves and another leading toward the lush green vegetation of Central Park. Both of these things were a million miles away from Wellhead.
Josiah Snow fell back, feeling contented. This was home to him. It always would do.
“Josiah…” an eerie voice sang on the gentle breeze that whipped his black hair. “Son, you’re home again…”
It was his father. Through the streaks of fog Snow saw his father standing over him. In his prime. Young and strong, just like Josiah.
But this wasn’t right. There was no point in the city where one could look down to the river and then toward the park from the other direction. And his father, in his youth, had never even entered the city, choosing to stay in the rural outskirts. Not until Josiah was a boy…
With this realisation, the cloud that Snow had been floating on collapsed into a black, gaping void. Snow shuddered, and cast the malevolent illusion aside.
He woke up. Smoke continued to hug the ground. Snow coughed, realised he was on the ground, and shuffled, his hands clawing in preparation to prop his body up.
“Ah, there you are!” Nichols said, emerging from the gloom. “I don’t know what’s going on, but let’s get out of here.”
Snow felt dizzy. “I was back in New York. My father… and you… it didn’t make sense…”
Nichols prepared to carry his friend away. Snow was finding it hard to stand. Whatever had happened had robbed him of his senses. “Not now.” Nichols soothed. “We’ll discuss it later. Not now.”
Walking slowly away, Nichols and Snow left the wells to burn, emitting their toxic fumes. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Snow gurgled. The filth that festooned the air burned the back of his throat. A wooden door blurred into vision and disappeared. A cast-iron bed frame, a blanket, and his friend looking over him.
Waking up the next morning gave Snow his first experience of the worst headache he had ever experienced. Looking beside the bed he saw Nichols slumped in a chair, asleep too. More attractive to Snow was the warm glass of water on the side table. It’d do – his throat felt like it had burned away.
Nichols heard the glass thud onto the wooden surface.
“You’re awake, then.”
Snow concurred, before telling his friend and associate about the episode he’d experienced. Seeing his father and his friend in all the wrong places, as if they’d been wrenched from different parts of his memory. Nichols said nothing, but nodded with every statement. He’d missed the wind that blown a thick clot of acrid black smoke right over the escaping townsfolk. Instead he’d walked toward his friend and helped him away.
Snow felt exhausted again. His sleep had been restless. He didn’t care about this godforsaken town. Hell, he didn’t even care about the dead bodies filling his morgue. Part of him wanted that strange dream – Snow and Nichols back in New York – to be reality again. Those had been good times on reflection, but times had changed.
That thought induced a sensation Josiah Eckhart Snow had yet to experience during all his time in Wellhead. Comfort.
It was a fleeting moment. Glass tinkled outside as windows imploded. Nichols bolted upright from his chair.
“Trouble…” he hummed suspiciously. Snow murmured back.
“In this place, there’s trouble if there ain’t any!”
Nichols was first out onto the street. The sun was glaring disapprovingly upon the main square of the town, shimmering from the windows in the adjacent buildings.
Something wasn’t right…
Snow clambered from the tavern, slipping a vest atop his shirt. “I heard glass breaking?”
“Indeed…” hummed Nichols. “But where from?”
Snow looked around. The street was devoid of citizens. This was conspicuous. He stuck his head back inside the tavern door. No-one there. Drinks abandoned. Jackets discarded.
Snow and Nichols walked away from the tavern, warily watching their steps. They had no target in mind, but their subconsciousnesses erred them onward in one particular direction. A warehouse beckoned, the windows dark and smoke rising from an adjoining chimney.
“Looks bad…” Snow coughed. He reached for his sidearm. Nichols echoed his movements.
A door that was left open a crack came into view. Snow indicated wordlessly that this would be their entry point.
Agony-riddled moans and whinnies reverberated from inside. The slap of wet leather against something squidgy cracked through the air, followed by a slurping, swallowing gurgle.
Counting down on one hand, Snow placed the other on the door handle. The digits disappeared into the ball of his hand.
Snow flung the door open as his counting hand formed a fist.
“Jesus hell!” he coughed as black smoke wheeshed from the interior of the warehouse, engulfing the pair of intruders. The sound of flesh slapping against brick floors reverberated in the darkness before the smoke finally cleared.
Nichols opened his eyes. Immediately he looked up before doubling down as he retched uncontrollably.
On first glance the figures had the appearance of sleeping humans dressed in shabby shawls but the truth was considerably less grim and more horrific. The skin on the heads – dismembered from the body – had turned grey with death and the shawls were not made of fabric but rather a coursing, jelly-like mixture of blood and crude oil that had a human-like shape to it. Twelve of these figures formed a circle around the perimeter of the warehouse’s floor, watching a thirteenth that stood upon a dais.
The smoke dissipated. Snow and Nichols were soon aware they were being watched by thirteen pairs of reclaimed eyes.
With a clatter, the door closed, blocking natural light from entering. The gloom of a number of gas lamps cast eerie and alien shadows on the wall, through windows that had been boarded up and offered no escape. The walls were linked with barrels of paraffin stacked to the very ceiling, while a gas cutting torch lay idly against a workbench on the far side of the room, out of reach.
“Aren’t these the heads of all the victims?” Nichols asked hoarsely. Snow, barely daring to breathe, huffed a blunt response.
“Yes. They are.”
The shadow on the dais suspended the head of the man from the tavern, Spencer. It turned about and wheezed loudly to its brethren, noticing the two newcomers.
“We have visitors,” it hissed from its stolen mouth.
“No!” Snow called. “We’re not visitors! We’re here to… to arrest all of you!”
The shadow cocked it’s stolen head questioningly. “On what charge?”
“The charge of, er…” Snow stammered, “taking body parts without permission. Of their owner.”
“How does one gain permission when the owner is already dead?” the shadow wheezed. The voice was unnaturally trill and chipper.
They had no answer. The shadow continued.
“You have discovered our lair, as we intended.”
Snow looked on, his face frozen in horror. This was intentional?!
“We are the Prospectors. Hydromorphs. We have come to your planet to harvest the organic hydrocarbon deposits your race so ably cherishes at this time in its history.”
“What does he mean?” Nichols asked. Snow replied with the answer, which was now obvious.
“The oil. They’re here for the oil. Heck,” Snow realised, “they’re made of oil!”
The Hydromorph assented Snow’s assessment. Their planet had been rich in the substance but had been depleted by Hydromorph population growth. Now they searched for planets with plentiful resources for them to invade, reproduce and harvest. Earth was in the right place at the right time. Starting with Wellhead they would subsume humanity’s form and burn the oil, the fumes and smoke being the vapour their forms needed to survive.
Snow and Nichols realised what the smoke had been on their entry and looked past the Hydromorphs. An oil drum lay smouldering, the viscous liquid at the bottom forming a tar that lined the base of the barrel. A mix of oil runoff and molten body fat.
“This substance is insufficient for our needs,” the Hydromorph laughed. Snow tried to turn away, finding the laughter disgusting. In a flicker of gaslight the alien construct had moved and wrenched an oily limb on Snow’s jacket. The grip was iron tight. Chains of the pearls from before had come together to form a living, synthetic skeleton.
“Don’t look away! This is your future! To become a Hydromorph!”
“Never!” Snow cried, and broke free from the grip of the creature. A black mark had been left on his jacket sleeve. The Hydromorph fell back and nearly toppled over.
Scanning a rickety wooden shelf that hung from the wall, Snow spotted an opportunity. He wrenched a metal can of paraffin from the shelf and hurled it toward the fire pit the Hydromorphs had constructed. It burst into flames and the creatures went into a frenzy, spitting burning liquid around the room. Snow was unsure – were they worshipping the flames or trying to extinguish it?
He neither cared nor wished to stay to find out. Nichols followed his friend through the door to the outside, slamming it shut after him.
Nichols was breathless. “What do we do?”
Snow lent against the wall of the building. He looked around but was exhausted. “I dunno… wait…”
“What do you see?”
Snow’s eyelids fell mischievously and his pupils settled on the town gas tank attached to the warehouse that fuelled the cutting torches. Climbing up the ladder to the top, Snow pulled hard and the valve wheel came free.
“You might want to get back,” Snow warned his friend. “I suspect the sudden influx of gas will explode instantaneously.”
The door rattled. It wouldn’t hold for long and Nichols knew it. Whatever was happening, Snow had to act now.
“Good luck,” he said, not knowing what else to say.
Snow smiled weakly as he turned the valve slowly. It squealed. “It’s not I that shall need luck, but those things inside.”
Nichols retreated, not turning away. Snow turned about and rode the cylindrical tank with his legs astride the valve wheel. With a gasp of breath the young sheriff wrenched the metal wheel clean off the rusted pivot. The telltale whissh of pressurised gas surged through the pipe and into the warehouse where it ignited almost immediately in an enormous fireball that took the fuel inside with it. The blast blew away the seemingly solid brick walls in a crescendo of orange clouds and flares. The roof teetered, realised it had no support and then fell straight down, fragmenting into shards of ceramic tiles blackened by pollution. As quickly as the fire had started it was extinguished by the lack of air the collapse of the warehouse had caused.
Silence fell, peppered only meekly with the rustle of shattered glass and pieces of masonry. Then footsteps came from the town toward the site of the blast. Leading the charge were Strain and Hartley, with a surly gang of townsfolk following behind.
“My warehouse!” Strain shouted angrily. “You blew it up!”
“No,” Nichols defiantly remonstrated, “Snow blew it up. He saved all of you from the horror inside.”
“What horrors, child?” Hartley mused, and Nichols told him in explicit detail. Aghast faces hardly dared to believe it.
The priest’s face fell inward. “Devils.”
Nichols brushed down his jacket from accumulated dust. “You could describe them as such.”
“And what of Snow?” Strain hummed, looking wistfully at the pile of rubble that was once his warehouse. “Did he survive?”
Nichols had avoided looking directly at the wreck of the building but decided he must, and turned his neck about. The gas tank Snow had been riding upon was no more. A few of the more adventurous townsfolk started picking at the warm, smoking rubble.
“I see an arm!” one of them called.
Strain sniffed insensitively. “It is attached to anything?”
The men threw chunks of brick out of the way. “Yes! It’s that Snow fellow!”
Nichols heart missed a beat. “Is he alive?”
He was, and was soon pulled free from the debris. Slowly he stood up and found his balance.
“That was a blast,” Snow coughed heartily. “Literally.”
Snow’s joke went unacknowledged.
The clasps of Snow’s case clicked shut as the young man closed it. Most of his personal belongings hadn’t even unpacked so it was mostly ceremonial, but in his eyes, he wanted nothing more to do with the town of Wellhead. Throwing the sheriff’s badge to the desk atop his letter of resignation, he picked up the case and met Nichols on the front step of the police station.
“When’s the next train?”
Nichols smiled. “To New York City? Any time.”
What happened in Wellhead remained locked in the memories of those that had witnessed it, and was never spoken of again. Only two men knew the explicit truth and it left the town with them. The blast was explained as an industrial accident in a town of depravity, and expected as such; though the rubble of the warehouse was buried in cement just as the wells dried up seemingly overnight.
Wellhead became a blown-out town of ghosts, once infested with ghouls and capped… for now.
A Kindle version of The Prospectors can be downloaded from my Dropbox here – just navigate to the Short Stories folder!
Header image credited to icarus-falls at DeviantArt