For August Derleth and Bill Crawford, both gone but not forgotten
SPIDERS AND FLIES
Horrors and monsters are creatures of the night that have no business being up and about on a bright, warm, sunny morning, or so most think. Few stop and think that should evil rest between dawn and dusk it would be a far simpler and less dangerous world.
As was his custom, Sir Robert McKenzie arose at half past six in the morning, showered, dressed, and went down to the Lodge dining area for breakfast. Because he owned the place, and everything that could be seen or heard around it, he could easily have had his breakfast delivered to him privately in his luxurious suite at the Lodge, but he disliked the very idea of it. A sociable man who thought of the Institute as a sort of surrogate family, he would never have dreamed of cutting himself off from that family, so long as he had any chance to spend time with its members.
But as was often the case, there were few about when he entered the dining room, and, seeing no one he really needed to talk to, he took a table by himself. Knowing he was a man of punctuality who insisted on routine, the staff had his two soft-yolk, sunny-side-up eggs, three fat sausages, toast, and strawberry jam ready for him, it being Tuesday. A staffer entered, went to him, and handed him a thick sheaf of computer printouts. It was virtually impossible to get newspapers delivered to this spot until they were long outdated, but his computer link gave him photostatic copies of the relevant sections compiled by his global staff. He lingered over juice and coffee as he read the items one by one. About halfway through the stack of papers he suddenly stiffened, frowned, then hurriedly polished off the last of his coffee and, tucking the papers under his arm, he left the dining room and went immediately out the front entrance of the Lodge.
He was a big man with thick snow white hair and a matching moustache, and he was never inconspicuous. Only Sir Robert would wear a finely tailored tweed suit, long sleeve shirt, and carefully knotted red necktie in this subtropical heat.
He paused to light a cigar and glanced over at two small electric cars that resembled orange-colored golf carts, but then decided to walk. Port Kathleen was about a two mile downhill walk, and either because he was enjoying the fresh air and sun or because he wished to think on some matter he decided that walking was the way to go. He often liked to walk down to the tiny little town that was the island’s only harbor, although he joked to friends and associates that he was far better at his age walking down than walking back up. No matter. Both electric cars and horses were available for the trip back if he required them. After all, he owned not only the Institute but also the town and, in fact, the whole damn island, all 1.8 by 2.2 miles of it.
Allenby Island was the remnant of a long extinct volcano, one so old that little in the way of geography would tell the casual visitor its origins and nature. It was shaped somewhat like a teardrop with a ramp-like terrain; Port Kathleen, at the bottom, was virtually at sea level, while the Institute, at the far end, stood at an elevation of almost two thousand feet, making it a bit cooler and breezier than the area below, but not by much.
A lone road snaked back and forth down the vegetation-covered slope formed by an ancient lava flow to keep the trip from having too severe an elevation for the little electric cars to handle, though for those afoot or on horseback, there were all sorts of trails, old and new, and short cuts. Sir Robert kept to the road for almost half the distance down, though occasionally being passed by a cart going up or dbwn and politely nodding to them as they passed while refusing offers of rides.
He stopped for a moment at one worn trail head and then took it, instantly plunging into the dense tropical forest that was the island’s true master and owner. The trail eventually reconnected with the road, but was hardly a short cut down; rather, it was occasionally used as a short cut to the beach, it being at the highest point up the mountain where it was possible to get down to the beach without plunging off a rock cliff.
A few hundred yards to the east of the road the trail suddenly broke into the clear, revealing a small, intimate meadow in which grew bright green grasses and flowers but, for some reason, no trees or vines or other large shrubs. Botanists had theorized that some mineral either present or lacking in this particular segment of rock was producing this effect, as there was no climatological reason for it, but it had never been satisfactorily explained. In the center of the meadow was an abrupt outcrop of ancient black lava upon which nothing would grow. It was a huge mass of obsidian or an obsidian-like rock, quick cooled and glassy, and while it was well worn, its persistence over the eons it must have stood there was another meadow mystery.
There were a great many insects in the forest, and tens of thousands of birds, but no land animals, big or small. Over the years some rats had come from ships that called, but those who survived the eradication campaigns and the numerous cats mostly stuck to the more civilized areas of the island; the jungle was not for tough and world-wise rats any more than it was really for people.
The sounds of birds and insects were all around him, lifting his spirits and making him feel truly alive. Not obtrusive, they were simply a comfortable and natural background to this remote little spot. He approached the glassy black mass and walked around it once, studying it, although he’d been here and seen it thousands of times before. It had, of course, acquired the nickname “the altar stone” even before he’d bought the place, although it was clearly a natural formation linked to larger deposits below. Its rough shape and downward slope could, with a bit of imagination, be said to resemble a facsimile of the island, complete with a depression down the center. The entire stone was perhaps eight feet long and three feet wide, a bit too long to be an island model, but that never stopped anybody.
Sir Robert looked at the depression, walked down to the foot of the stone, then knelt for a moment and examined something at the base. He stiffened. “That idiotic fanatical bastard!” he muttered under his breath. “Well, we’ll fix him now!”
He got back up and began to walk away from the slone. He was almost at the edge of the meadow when he suddenly stopped again, turned, and looked puzzled. He could sense a wrongness, but for a moment he couldn’t really place just what was wrong. Then he had it. The birds, the insects, even the distant roar of breakers and the sound of breezes through the treetops had ceased. It was as if he were suddenly covered by some huge and invisible bell jar, allowing sight but nothing else to.penetrate. It was the most unnatural thing he’d ever experienced, and he had the good sense to be as frightened of it as he was curious about it.
Suddenly he heard a sound, back from the direction of the altar stone. A sharp, odd sequence that sounded very much like a great door opening, swinging wide, and then being closed again, a sound coming not really from the stone but from somewhere deep beneath it. Again there was silence, then the sudden, unmistakable sound of something coming, something huge, as if great feet were slowly and methodically climbing a great stairway from beneath to the surface.
Sir Robert frowned once more and tried to figure out the nature of it. Broadcast, somehow? Some sort of beam striking the meadow and making it, or perhaps the stone, some kind of radio receiver? It made sense. It fit in with all the other known facts. Anger replaced confusion within him. Just as the ancient shamans had carefully sculpted acoustical canals in their idols so as to make the masses believe they spoke, he had repeated the trick in a materialistic age using the most modern techniques. Now, he thought, I understand how it works. Now I know it all.
With that thought came the sudden realization that all this would never have been revealed to him unless it no longer mattered. Looking around, he entered the trail and the forest but stopped as the sounds from the meadow made it seem as if some great beast had now reached the top and was out in the open. It was such a convincing illusion that in spite of himself he stopped, turned, and looked back at the meadow and the altar stone. Nothing was visible in the eerie silence, but now, as he looked on, the grass in front of the altar stone bent and twisted as if crushed by an enormous foot, followed by yet another giant imprint a few yards further on.
Sir Robert turned and began to run down the path. He reached a junction of two trails, one well worn and leading back to the road, the other leading away towards the cliff trail down to the beach. He did not hesitate but.took the slightly overgrown cliff trail. The road was his logical choice, and even if he’d met other people out there it would not stop that madman from killing them all to get to him. That he would not have. The cliff trail was also the most direct route to the village, although it was almost never used for that.
There were sounds behind him, sounds of some great beast crashing through the dense underbrush. Beamed-in illusion or true monster, it made no difference; the thing was almost certainly death and it was stalking him.
His heart pounding, he broke through the last of the bush and came to the edge of the cliff. It was more than a hundred foot drop and quite sheer, and he was forced to run along for a few hundred yards, fearing that the terrible thing, whatever it was, that chased him would spot him and simply knock him off the cliff. He was determined not to give its controller that satisfaction. If he could not outrun it, he would make bloody well certain that no verdict of death by accident or natural causes was possible.
He reached the trail break where it wound down the cliff to the sea and took it, going as fast as he dared. He was not in top condition, but he was no heart candidate, either. He jumped a few of the switchbacks when he dared to save time, and heard it break from the trees behind and above him. He dared not look back, but made for the beach as fast as he could. He jumped the last six feet into the sand and fell momentarily, then got up and continued to run along the beach towards the town and also out towards the water.
There was a rocky outcrop ahead, and he knew that the town lay not far beyond it. As he moved to the water’s edge, he suddenly caught sight of the steeple of the small church and felt encouragement. He might just make it! Slowing, he risked a look back, and saw a huge disturbance in the sand near the bottom of the beach trail; now the sand was falling away, as if pressed in by some great weight, a body that had to be twenty feet tall if it existed at all and with a stride to match. He knew in an instant that he could not make it, and made his way out into the water. Even now sounds were damped, and the breakers came at him not in silence but as if far away. He knew the water was quite shallow at this point, but he hoped that the rough water would diffuse any projection if that was what his stalker was.
The great footprints reached the edge of the water and then began to walk along, paralleling his progress. He felt suddenly elated. Oho! Don’t like the rough water, do you?
Another five minutes and he would be within hailing distance of the town. Another five minutes of wading in waist-deep water and surviving the occasional high wave and there would be plenty of witnesses, probably too many for such as this. With the supply boat due in today, his assassins would miss their chance.
He had nearly reached the outcrop after which the town would be in full view and he was suddenly feeling confident. He risked stopping for a moment, ten feet or more out, and turned. “Got you, you bastard!” he yelled back at the apparently empty beach. “You cut it too fine this time!”
At that moment a huge breaker came in and struck him in the back, propelling him forward, towards the beach. He stumbled and dropped into the water, losing the papers he’d managed to cling to, and then picked himself up as quickly as possible. He had been pushed forward a good four feet!
Suddenly something he could not see grasped him by the head and shoulders and lifted him out of the water. He was flung by some invisible force fifteen feet or more into the air, dangling and struggling as if held by some great hand.
The “hand” shifted and held him suspended now by a hold on his waist, and he found himself lifted still higher, perhaps twenty or twenty-five feet, and brought close over the sands as if whatever had hold of him was studying him for a moment. He yelled and screamed, hoping that some noise, anything, would carry to the town that was so very near.
And then the great hand slowly tightened, more and more, and his eyes bulged and his mouth opened wide, only now it was incapable of sound.
And then the bloody, mangled carcass of what was now hardly recognizable as human remains dropped to the sands below, out of the reach of the water that might have saved him.
Quite abruptly the area was alive with the screeches of sea birds, the buzz of insects, and the roar of crashing breakers once more.
The entire beach area had been covered with a huge patchwork of tarpaulins so that it resembled a sports stadium field being protected from the rain, though it was in bright sunshine.
Security officers stood at all access points to the beach area, extending from the trail above all the way to the point at which the body had struck the sands. The body itself had been photographed and then removed, but all else was as undisturbed as it could be considering the circumstances.