Under the light of the pale and sickly moon, the odd shadows along the road seemed to shift and blend in a weird trick of the eye, and Doctor Gil Grissom, professor of Ancient History at Arkham University, Rhode Island, found himself looking time and again in the rear view mirror, hoping desperately for the reassuring headlights of another vehicle.
Only the inky darkness met his questioning gaze though, and the silver taint of cold moonlight spilled over the landscape, turning it into something unworldly. The few sounds in the Duesenberg were the steady breath of air from the unrolled window, sending a chilled breeze into the dark vehicle, and the little murmurs of Sara’s uneasy sleep as she shifted in the passenger seat, lost in a nightmare. She was paler than usual, and her thin shoulders hunched, as if warding off dream demons.
Grissom blinked and put his focus back on the road ahead of them, trying not to think of what might be haunting her. He had far too many ghastly memories of his own, and no way to purge them for the moment, those eldritch mental scars still fresh and glistening on his brain, legacy of this last case, and destined to haunt him for many nights to come . . .
Distressing news here from the hospital. Doctor Robbins has received a fifth body now, mutilated in the same bizarre fashion as the others—missing her tongue and the ring fingers of both hands, eviscerated and with a large letter V burned into her forehead. This corpse is older; a mature woman who also bears signs of time out in the wilderness. The local police have identified her as Helen Matteos, domestic, lately of Innsmouth, Rhode Island.
I have yet to do my own examination of the corpse—it is scheduled for this afternoon.
Nothing links Mrs. Matteos socially to the other victims—yet. My dear secretary, Sara, is still checking the woman’s employment records and reference and Captain Brass is still making his inquiries. Both processes will take time—time I fear we may be losing.
I have both Mister Hodges of the laboratory and his assistant Warrick working on isolating any traces of odd materials on the woman’s clothing and personal effects, and without a doubt we will find more of the mysterious silt on our victim as well. The puzzle continues.
Captain Brass tells me that an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation is coming in later this afternoon to look into our case. I have my doubts about the usefulness of this action—the Bureau’s main function concerns itself with interstate crime and bootleggers primarily, nevertheless I’ll join Brass and the gentlemen for lunch and see what brings the interest of the government into these murders. Horrific as the killings are, they seem to have been confined to our little jurisdiction here so far . . . or is it possible there have been other occurrences in the country?
This is a disquieting thought, for if true, it would mean that these murders are not the work of an individual, but possibly of some highly organized group.
The meeting was more productive than I had anticipated, and more disturbing. The young agent in question—Mr. Nicholas Stokes—brought with him a keen interest in the murders that have shocked our little community here in Lowcroft, and a desire to learn more about their particulars. From his manner and conversation, I gather that Special Agent Stokes has some prior knowledge of the Occult; this was confirmed by his admission that he had studied under Pendergast and West in Louisiana, and indeed, his very drawl gives him away as a son of the Lone Star State.
It’s rare to find a person open-minded to concepts beyond those of accepted thought, and Special Agent Stokes lends credibility to our evolving theory about the murders. Over quahog chowder and baked bluefish, the three of us: Captain Brass, myself and Agent Stokes laid out the fundamentals of the case.
At the beginning of March, the local authorities were summoned to the site of a horrific murder. A body was found in the Flaxton woods, a lonely stretch of scrub on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. The body was that of a laborer, unknown then and now, but unofficially recognized as ‘old Milt’ a local eccentric who did odd jobs in the town of Lowcroft. He was a dour man, not given to conversation, and those who knew and hired him weren’t able to supply the authorities with a surname for the unfortunate.
His was not the only body, but it was the first, and bore what were to be the trademarks of the case: the ring fingers of his hands had been cut off, as had his tongue. He had been eviscerated as well, and most unnerving of all, a large letter ‘V’ had been burned into the flesh of his forehead, above and between the old man’s eyes. The authorities failed to recover any of appendages or organs, and wanted to dismiss them as scavenged by predators, but the edges of the body wounds were too clean to have been made by anything other than a knife or razor.
Inquiries revealed that while ‘old Milt’ had been a self-contained individual, no one in the town held enough animosity towards him to do away with the old man, and if robbery had been the motive, then the perpetrators would have absconded with fewer than five dollars at most.
There did not seem to be an overt cause of death—no strangulation marks or other wounds of any kind; no poison in his system or broken spine. Nothing to indicate how he came to be dead prior to the disembowelment.
It was definitely a puzzle.
Then, another body was found, a few nights later, not more than a mile from where Milt’s had been located. This was the body of a taxi driver out of Innsmouth, one Emile DeRondeaux. He was found several yards away from his vehicle on a lonely stretch of road running from Lowcroft to Innsmouth, and in a condition similar to that of the first victim. The police approached me at that point, well-aware of my interest in unusual crimes and my assistance in previous cases. Captain Brass in particular remembered me from the Merton River case and came calling at my office in the university.
Sara, my dear and invaluable secretary was there to usher him in and take notes of our conversation. I would be lost without her efficient assistance and of late, her comforting company. She is uniquely qualified to complement my foibles and tolerate my stodgy ways. Of late I have found my respect and admiration for her deepening, and am in a quandary as how best to make my feelings known.
In any case, Sara settled down to take steno notes as Captain Brass shot her an apologetic look. She was made of sterner stuff, however and looked to me for support, which I gave immediately.
“Sara is more than capable of hearing the pertinent facts, Captain. She’s attended autopsies with me in the past.”
“If you say so,” he acquiesced, and cleared his throat. Carefully he laid out the facts that I have noted above, and although Sara paled, she kept to her pad and pen while I absorbed the whole of the murder.
Particularly intriguing were the ritualistic aspects of the mutilations; the missing fingers and the burned letter V. Many a murderer has eviscerated his victims, intentionally or not, but the added symbolism of the letter in particular spoke in my mind to a darker motivation behind the killings. Brass himself agreed, and felt that the letter clearly symbolized something, but had no immediate theories as to what.
I promised to research what I could about the letter in question, and see if I could find anything relating to the missing digits or the eviscerations within my resources.
And that was where we were as the next three bodies came to light.
Special Agent Stokes listened attentively to all that Captain Brass and I knew about the murders, not interrupting us during our recitation. When we were done, he looked to me keenly. “Do you have a hypothesis, Professor Grissom?”
“I do,” I told him slowly, “Although it seems fantastical in the light of day. Nevertheless, my assistant and I have found three references to ritualistic murders that match the particulars of this case. The first is in Grildon’s tome The Hidden Realms of Leng and the Peoples Thereof, in which the author describes a ritual that he was told of, a sacrifice to a Great Old One who was not named for fear of terrible retribution.”
“And where IS Leng?” Captain Brass asked curiously. “The Andes? Asia?”
“Neither—an expedition from the University placed it in Antarctica three years back. The records are sealed, but I knew of it,” I replied. “A disaster. Nevertheless—“
“—Nevertheless, we have more of a clue than we did before,” Special Agent Stokes nodded. “What WAS written about this ritual, Professor?”
I consulted the notes that Sara had compiled with me, looking over the neatly typed paragraphs. “It says that Grildon’s guide took him to see quote, “The body of a young woman, laid on a dais of hewn stone, her internal organs removed through a surgery so skillful that no trace of viscera was left. Her third fingers had been severed cleanly, and upon her head smoldered the brand of a V, viciously burned there. Hai-El, our guide assured us that this offering was necessary to insure the goodwill of the Great Old One that the people worshipped in deep fear and horror, unquote.”
“Sounds like our cases right here,” Captain Brass pointed out, “Without the stone altar.”
“But they were all found at night?” Special Agent Stokes asked, and I appreciated the thoughtfulness of the question. Captain Brass nodded.
“Yep. And all of them were found outside, in uninhabited areas. One in Flaxton woods, one along Cut Crow Road, two by the old mill at Dunwich pond and this latest out on the salt marsh.”
“I’d say those point to a more sinister connection,” Special Agent Stokes commented, and I had to agree.
I had no small experience with ancient religions and my last published academic paper on the sub cults of the Kali had been received with interest by the leading academics in the field of Eastern Religion. To my frustration however, few of them were willing to listen to my more singular theories of inter-dimensional influences among those same cults but I bided my time and continued to collect evidence, evidence that further built my case and strengthened my resolve. Some day and soon, I WOULD publish my theories.
In any event, the discovery of more bodies with the same gruesome and sadistic mutilations claimed my immediate focus, and with Captain Brass counting on my help in finding the common focus of this madness, I returned my attention to the concrete aspects of the situation.
It was Sara who provided the first useful clue in the mystery, and her keen observation came about in one of those random moments of serendipitous observation. I had a map of our local lands spread out across the work desk in my office, with the sites of the bodies marked in graphite pencil. There seemed to be no discernable pattern to the casual eye. Sara had brought me my coffee (Wedgwood china cup, two lumps of sugar and a dollop of fresh cream) when she glanced down at the map that was continuing to flummox my common perceptions. She handed the cup to me and quietly remarked, “The center is Enoch’s Hill, but I suspect you know that, sir.”
I looked up. Long ago Sara and I had reached an agreement about terms of address, appreciating the finesse of other societies, where an employee and employer might find respect and affection with terms that seemed formal and cold on other ears. Her use of ‘sir’ was a matter of propriety, but under it was warmth meant for me alone.
“So is Marochett Pond and the hamlet of Saltmire, dear girl,” I replied.
“Not to the same point of convergence,” she countered and drew a finger from the site of Old Milt’s murder to that of the cabby. “This line from the first to the second passes through Enoch’s Hill, as you can clearly see. And the point from the third murder is not only equidistant from the other two, but if you draw a line from it to the fourth murder . . . “
And with graceful casualness she proceeded to draw invisible lines with her pretty finger, passing each time through Enoch’s Hill.
“I see—you’re right; the intersection point of all the murders is clearly the hub of Enoch’s Hill. How did you ever come to realize that, Sara?”
“You had me researching ley lines last year, and I recalled that one of the few ever mentioned in context to our own country was thought to pass through Enoch’s Hill. I kept my eye on it as a matter of course when you began to mark the sites of the murders. By the third one, I began to see a pattern, but I could not be sure of it until the fourth, unfortunately.”
“Refrain from self-blame, dear Miss Sidle—I am certain the murder would have happened in any case, and your perception is exceedingly useful.”
She smiled and looked down; a habitual gesture of hers that I find adorable. I picked up my ancient and tattered copy of Von Mare’s Botanica Malificus and opened it to a page I had saved with a scrap of paper. “I myself have had some luck in finding a reference to the ‘V’ mark on the foreheads of the sacrificial victims.”
“You are convinced they are deliberate sacrifices, Professor?” she asked me, and I nodded confidently.
“Indeed I am. Aside from the account from the Leng Expedition, I’ve found another reference to them in a passage on the rare plants of the inner mountains of Tang-Teshi. According to Von Mare—“ and here I read the passage aloud, “The tribe of the Tang-Teshi worship a deity that holds the form of a many-tentacled, grotesquely gigantic fungus. This God of theirs is much feared and held in quaking awe by the savages, who offer up sacrifices of slaughtered animals to it. The villages of the Teng-Teshi each have a cave-like shrine to their plant-God, and only the Chosen Servants who have breathed in the perfumed spores may dare speak in the name of the Enticer, Vulthoom.”
“Vulthoom?” Sara asked uncertainly. I nodded, feeling the same tinge of amusement and fear roil up in me at the odd name. It was no laughing matter to have five deaths possibly attributed to this monster, but at the same time, the name itself was very odd.
I shrugged. “Heathen tongues and poor translations I suspect, but the account is reliable, despite Von Mare’s untimely end. If there is a cult of Vulthoom here, it must be fairly small—barely an off-shoot, if you will permit me the pun.”
Sara shot me a look that I can only describe as tolerant. “You have made better bon mots,” she told me in that low voice of hers, “but if in fact you are correct in identifying our horror here as said cult then I shall forgive you . . . sir.”
“Then my world shall be complete—now let us inform Captain Brass and see if a cautious trip to Enoch’s Hill is in order.” At her anticipatory glance I shook my head. “I think not, Sara—there are too many possible dangers, and I doubt the good captain will permit you to join us in any case.”
“I find that chauvinistic and unjust,” she murmured, a mutinous look in her rich umber eyes. “Not only am I a better shot than you—no offense meant, Professor, but if my help proves out the case then I DESERVE to see it through to the end!”
“Logical as your argument might be dear girl, this trip is now under the captain’s jurisdiction, and while I might have sway in an academic sphere, I have little to none in martial matters.”
I left Sara fuming in my office, and felt badly for her, but I’d only spoken the truth, painful as it was.