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The Last Breath by Ray Printer Friendly

Foul things are afoot tonight, children, whether you know it or not. Sit still, breathe deep, can you not feel it? It’s in the air so thick it can be tasted. Just beneath the fog, just beneath the chill; can you not feel it? Something dark, smoky, and wrong.

Don’t take my word for it. Look—striding down the street now, this mysterious stranger with the parcel under his arm, his raggedy coat flapping in the damp wind. It’s too cold to be out, especially with such a thread-bare coat, and business at this hour is bound to be uncomely.

He casts a glance our way as he hurries past, and his look is all at once pathetic and terrifying. His eyes are pits of solitude, older than the years, darker than secrets shared between lovers. But rest assured, he cannot see us. We are the seers this night, and as unpleasant as it may be, it is now time to perform our duties.

Come with me, children, and we shall see what nasty business lurks in the dark of this winter night:

He isn’t rushing, exactly, but he’s walking faster than usual…faster than is comfortable with his injured leg. He doesn’t limp, for that might draw attention, and attention is something he wants to avoid at all costs. It’s rather unfortunate, however, because traveling out in weather such as this in the first place draws attention enough. He doesn’t make this trip often, thankfully, but the fact that he must make it at all disturbs him.

This is usually Slate’s job, and Slate is the man built for it. Big enough to be intimidating when the need arises, small enough to blend in to the crowds, and average enough to render himself unmemorable. Ah, if only Slate were still here. Unfortunate that he got greedy.

The man slows down a bit and glances around. He knows this is a bad habit—people who look around are either unsure of where they need to be, or sure they needn’t be there. Either way, it makes others notice.

He ducks into the alley and is immediately assaulted by a gust of wind even more violent than that on the open street. With one hand, he clamps his hat down onto the top of his head, with the other hand, he clutches the parcel against his chest. He leans into the wind and pushes his way down the alley.

He stops in the darkest part of the alley, as if he has lost his way, and he turns toward the brick wall to his left. He stares at it, taking it in with his eyes, his lips moving so delicately that it is difficult to know if they are really moving at all. He steps towards the wall, pushes one brick, then another, and then another.

There is a low grumbling sound, like two boulders being scraped together, and then a door snaps open. He lunges through the door, knowing that it will only remain open for a matter of moments. He has had to bear witness to the aftermath of a man entering this particular door too slowly. The door swings shut just as quickly as it opened, and just as silently. Then, the sounds of the boulders rubbing together as a stone pillar the size of a man slides back to block the exit.

A long hall awaits, lit only by small candles that flicker independently of any breeze. Their light casts an orange glare out into the stone hallway, and instead of making him feel better about the candles keeping the shadows at bay, the light almost seems to emphasize them. It’s as if the designer of this hall only added the candles because they made it more frightening than merely walking down a dark corridor.

He shudders and pulls his coat tighter against him—knowing that it will do no good—then strides to the staircase at the end of the hall. The staircase is a malnourished-looking thing made from wooden slats and rusty iron handrails that spirals down further than he likes to think about. It looks like it could give way at any moment. He steps onto the first wooden plank, and the entire construction shivers.

Although he is still cold down to the center of his bones, he finds himself sweating. He takes a deep breath, and begins to make his way down the staircase. He closes his eyes as he descends—to look at the darkness awaiting him has always frightened him, and the light from the corridor above always seems to fade too fast.

When he finally climbs down from the last step, he stops and waits. A door opens, covering him in a strange blue glow that is colder than the outside wind. He steps through the door and finds himself in a gargantuan room occupied only by an enormous fountain.

The cavern is easily over four stories high, and the top tier of the fountain reaches at least sixty feet. Darkness overtakes the light before the ceiling can be seen, but it gives the impression that it is domed. It also gives the impression that there are things moving about in those impenetrable shadows—things that one would never want to see.

The fountain consists of six tiers, and each tier looks like an upturned turtle shell, filling and overflowing with a glowing blue fluid. The fluid appears to be what is lighting the cavern. The sounds of the splashing water dance through the cavern, distorting and echoing as they reverberate from the walls. The water is splashing down into a gigantic pool that is well over a hundred feet around. The wall of the pool stands about six feet high—low enough that one could look over the edge if one were inclined, but not without trying a little.

The man stops just inside the door, and it closes behind him. He shudders. He doesn’t wish to go any nearer, but he knows he’ll have to. He takes a tentative step and stops. The water in the pool splashes a bit, as if it were growing excited by his presence. A hand reaches up out of the pool and grips the edge.

It is a dark and slimy blue, and each of the seven fingers on it is as big as a man. An identical hands rises form the water and grips the edge further down. And then the creature pulls itself out of the pool.

“Hello, Dr. Landerhorn,” The creature says. “So glad you could make it out on a night such as this.”

The man with the parcel nods a small nod, and continues to concentrate on holding back his cry. He has seen this creature before, several times, in fact, and upon each of those meetings, he has had to fight to repress a scream.

The creature is mannish in shape, but distorted and vile. Its skin is several different shades of blue, the lightest being the sky-blue patch on his belly, the darkest being its bared nipples—which are dripping a pus-like gel down his chest. The streams of gel mix with the iridescent blue water that is still dripping.

The creature has horns on top of its head, that spiral like a mountain goat’s, and the horns penetrate the thing’s body in several different places as they spiral. It looks as if they have grown through his shoulders in several places—which they have.

Its head is lumped and uneven and bare, like unset clay left in the rain and smashed in anger. The eyes that peer out of this hideous formation are glowing yellow: two cancerous suns, glaring out from a head of repulsion.

“Well,” the creatures says impatiently, “Come in.”

Dr. Landerhorn closes the space between himself and the creature, careful not to look up at the tiers above him. From far away, their markings make them look even more like upside down turtle shells, but upon close inspection, one will see that the designs are all faces, distorted in pain and terror. If one inspects for even longer, one will see that the faces are still moving.

Dr. Landerhorn doesn’t like to think about those faces—not how they got there, nor how long they’ve been there. He concentrates his attention on the ground just in front of the pool, because he doesn’t want to see the markings on the wall of the pool, either.

He stops in front of the pool and offers up the parcel.

“You collected them yourself?” The creature asks.

“I did. I may have to have an absent day at work tomorrow because of it.”

“But you, sir, are the only doctor in town!” The creature cries out with mock surprise. “However would they get along with out you?”

Dr. Landerhorn knows that he is being baited. He doesn’t answer. The creature laughs an ear-splitting laugh like the blast of a locomotive and the screech of a banshee. “You will go into work as you do everyday, Dr. Landerhorn, and you will do it without complaint. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” Dr. Landerhorn mumbles.


Yes! Yes, sir! Very clear!” Dr. Landerhorn stumbles away from the creature, and trips over his own feet.

“Good then,” the creature says, and inspects the parcel. It’s the size of a antiquated ledger—perhaps three feet tall, and one foot wide. The creature plucks the yellowing twine, and it snaps off. The massive fingers edge along the sides of the parcel, gently slicing away the brown packing paper.

The paper floats to the floor and the creature holds the box up to examine it. It’s a plain black box, with one silver latch on the front. It isn’t the type of box one would generally associate with treasure, but the look on the creature’s face twists in desire, greed, lust.

“Very good, Dr. Landerhorn,” the creature says, and drools a drop of saliva the color of rotten gravy.

“Then I may go?”

“Not so fast.” The creature chuckles and oozes back into the pool, holding the box above the liquid. “It’s almost as if you don’t enjoy what happens next.” The creature twists the clasp and the box breaks open.

The room is immediately filled with screams of terror, of agony. They are the screams of children. Dr. Landerhorn feels his knees growing weak. The creature laughs its ear-splitting laugh and empties the contents of the box into the pool. Its laugh turns to a perverse moan, and the screams of the children become warbled. He doesn’t want to look, but he’s compelled to, and Dr. Landerhorn glances up just as the last of the contents spill into the water.

They look like crystal orbs, so thin that the slightest jolt could cause them to shatter. They disintegrate the moment they touch the liquid in the pool, giving off a tiny orange spark as they do so.

The creature groans in ecstasy, and it submerges itself completely in the blue liquid. Dr. Landerhorn can take no more, and he turns and runs to the door. He expects it to be locked, but it opens before him—the creature is finished with him…for now. He sprints up the rickety staircase, unconcerned about safety, just craving fresh air.

He dashes into the alley and immediately retches. He falls to his knees and breathes deep. His throat and lungs feel to him like they are covered in grimy oil. He vomits onto the ground, but it doesn’t rid him of the greasy feeling within.

He doesn’t know how long he remains there, vomiting in the dark, deserted alley, hunched over in the snow.

He stands, eventually. He kicks garbage-laced snow over his vomit and staggers out of the alley, hoping to get home before first light. He holds his ragged coat close, and it does nothing to warm him—his chill is beyond any that fabric can warm, threadbare or not.

He stumbles into his house and sees that it is three in the morning. Although he wants nothing more than to fall into the bed and sleep, he knows he cannot. Instead, he begins a bath. He walks into his bedroom and begins shedding his clothes. Only when Dr. Landerhorn is completely naked does the stranger make his presence known.

“Good morning, Dr. Landerhorn.”

Dr. Landerhorn shrieks, and falls back against the bathroom door. The stranger laughs from the darkness. “I don’t know what I expected,” the stranger says, “But I know it was something more impressive than you.”

“Who are you?” Dr. Landerhorn asks. “What do you want?”

“It’s not who I am that’s important. It’s who you are. It’s what you are.” A hand reaches from the darkness and flicks the light switch. The room is immediately flooded with yellowish light, and Dr. Landerhorn is able to see the stranger.

“I have money,” Dr. Landerhorn wails. “I’ll give you whatever you want! Just leave me in peace.”

The stranger laughs. “No, sir, there will be no peace tonight.” He reaches into his coat pocket and brings out a pistol. “Sit down, Landerhorn. No, not on the bed—on the floor, just where you are.” The stranger walks to the bed and sits down, the gun never wavering.

Dr. Landerhorn looks at the barrel as it looks down at him, and he almost feels relief. There is salvation waiting in the other end of the gun barrel, ready to be struck and launched into his head, or perhaps his heart. It is a better escape plan than any he could have come up with.

“We shall have a talk, you and I,” the stranger says. “I have yet to decide what to do with you, for I can think of no justice harsh enough to fit your crimes.”

“I’ve committed no crimes. You must have me mistaken for someone else.”

“Sir, your lies fall on deaf ears, for I know the truth. We may talk honestly and reasonably, or I can speak with violence. It is your decision.”

“I’m telling you, I don’t know what you’re speaking o-”

The sound of the shot fills the room, as does the smell of cordite. Dr. Landerhorn falls to his side, grasping his leg and screaming. The stranger rises slowly, and approaches.

“I will not say it again, Landerhorn. It is the time for truth, either now or later. If it is now, you will save yourself a great deal of pain. Now stop screaming.”

Dr. Landerhorn continues to scream—he cannot help himself. The pain is horrible and omnipresent, filling him. The pistol touches down on his other leg, and the hammer clicks back, and Dr. Landerhorn stops screaming.

“Very good,” says the stranger. He crouches down and examines the wound. “You’ll not bleed out any time soon. But you knew that of course, you being a doctor.”

“Please, can’t you just leave me alone?”

The stranger sits back on the bed. “No, I’m afraid I can’t. Do you know who I am?”

“No, I’ve never seen you in my life.”

“Actually, you have, but just barely, perhaps. My name is Jerrod Miller.”

“I’ve never heard the name.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. It is not a famous name. Perhaps it would mean more to you if you knew my sister’s maiden name. Annie Miller?”

“I don’t know her, either.”

“Not as Miller. You knew her instead as Annie Goodman.”

Dr. Landerhorn’s eyes grow large.

“Ah, so you do remember her. Is it because her child was one of the first? Or is it because it was the one you bungled?”

Dr. Landerhorn cannot speak. He slowly shakes his head from side to side, not in disagreement, but in disbelief. After all of this time, after all of these years.

“Yes, Dr. Landerhorn, I know all about you. I have tracked you from township to township, sometimes missing you by days, other times by months, and sometimes even by years. I have tracked you down, following your wake of suffering, following the trail of tears you leave behind. I have hated you and I have feared you, and I have obsessed about what kind of a monster you must be. And now that we are here, I must admit that I am a bit disappointed.”

Dr. Landerhorn is still shaking his head, slowly so slowly, and tears are dripping from his eyes.

“Crib death can only be crib death if it happens to babies, Landerhorn. That’s what put me onto you. Adults don’t die of crib death. You should have cut her throat or beat her with a fire poker. Anything other than taking her essence.”

“You can’t blame me for crib death, it’s a natu-”

“I can and I do!” Jerrod Miller roars. He rises from the bed and strikes Dr. Landerhorn across the face with the pistol, and then kicks him. “Do you hear me, you filth? I can and I do!

Landerhorn wails, holding his injured leg. “Kill me then, you bastard. Kill me and be done with it!”

“I have no intention of killing you, Landerhorn.” Jerrod Miller reaches underneath the bed and removes a plain black box, with one silver latch on the front. It isn’t the type of box one would generally associate with treasure, but Jerrod Miller holds it as if it’s the most valuable thing in the world.

“No,” Dr. Landerhorn cries, and he lunges across the room at Jerrod Miller. But the years that have been so kind to Dr. Landerhorn have been hard and wicked on Jerrod Miller. While Dr. Landerhorn was fattening up, softening up, Jerrod Miller was doing whatever it took to survive. Life has made him hard in all of the same places that it has made Dr. Landerhorn soft.

Jerrod Miller swats him down like a fly, and steps down onto his neck. “We can do this as long as you desire,” Jerrod Miller says. “I have often imagined how it would be to make you pay. How much enjoyment I would get in making you suffer.”

Dr. Landerhorn stops squirming. “How? How did you know?”

“It wasn’t hard, once I knew what I was looking for. Everywhere you go, the other doctors meet their untimely ends. Usually accidents, but sometimes chalked up as foul play. And everywhere you go, the rate of crib deaths increases. The world is growing smaller, Landerhorn. Whereas once it would have been almost impossible to make the connection, I was now able to track you by your actions. Other people travel, they tell stories. And stories about all the babies in town dying, that makes for some interesting talk.”

“I don’t know what you’re tal-” The heavy click of the hammer cocking stops Dr. Landerhorn from completing his sentence.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve followed you all the way from New Constance, and I imagine if I had checked for a back trail, I would have found that your monstrosities go even further back. How long have you been doing this, Landerhorn? Fifteen years, easily enough. Did you start in the old country? Come over here on a boat, and bring your hellspawn with you?”

“How do you know about that?”

“Because people talk, Landerhorn. They talk of what they know, even if they have no proof. Getting people to talk of monsters isn’t that hard, if the night seems safe enough and the liquor seems free enough. I’ve followed you, and I’ve talked to men like you, and I know about the creature you feed. What do you get in return? Fame? Power? Wealth?”

“Life eternal,” Dr. Landerhorn sobs. “That’s what it promised me.”

Jerrod Miller laughs, then. “And you believed it? Did you make the same promise to your henchman fellow? Your Mr. Slate?”

Dr. Landerhorn nods, and tears drip from his face.

“Did he want more money, or did he just want his life back? Answer me that. What did he want that made you sacrifice him so easily?”

“Just kill me!” Dr. Landerhorn screams, and throws himself at Jerrod Miller. He growls like a wild animal, and perhaps he is at this point, driven out of his mind by fear.

The growling stops suddenly, and there is a violent thud, and then the room is silent. After several moments, the silence is broken by the sound of a plain metal latch clicking into place.

Jerrod Miller rubs his hand over the outside of the box, amazed. He had heard the stories, and he had thought that he believed them, but actually seeing it, he realizes that nothing could have made him believe that it was actually going to happen. He pushes the inert body with the tip of his boot, wondering what the local constable will think. It will look like the doctor was cleaning his gun and accidentally discharged it into his leg. But that wouldn’t be the cause of death. Will they discover that the good doctor had died of crib death? Or will they think that his heart gave out due to the shock of the gunshot wound? He nudges the body again and decides that it doesn’t matter.

There is moist heat radiating from the box, like a warm breath against the skin, and Jerrod Miller doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like anything about this business. Arranging the room for the police is only one of the many arduous tasks awaiting him that must be done quickly, before the sun exposes the brutal secrets of the night.

And so we find ourselves in this alley once more, children, as much as we abhor it. We follow a different man this time, but his business is just as dark and as uncomely as the business of the man we saw before.

But look, there is a difference. This man walks with purpose and without shame. Whatever has him out in these wee hours, it is something he believes in. And now, as much as we hate to, we must follow him down this alley, to the very darkest part of it, where even on summer afternoons the sun does not shine, and we must bear witness.

Watch as he touches the bricks, as the door opens, and now we’re hurrying down the steps after him. It is unpleasant, but rest assured that we are safe. Here we are at the bottom now, and he has already gone through the last door, and even now we can see him striding towards the fountain.

He does not slow, he does not hesitate. He does not wait for the creature to arise. He pulls back the latch and dumps out a single orb, and the cavern is filled with the scream of a man we knew not so long ago. The sphere bursts as it touches down in the iridescent liquid, and if we look ever so carefully, we can see a new etching form on the underside of one of the fountain’s tiers. If we were to examine it closer, I imagine that we would recognize the newest face on the fountain tier, just as we recognized his final scream.

But we won’t get closer, for although we are safe, it is never a good idea to push safety to its limits. We’ll turn and follow the man up the stairs, and when we emerge back into the street, the sun will just now be peeking out over the rooftops.

We don’t know what will become of the man; we don’t know what he will do with himself now that justice has been served. We hope he will fair well in life, but that is a tale for another night.

posted 10/03/07


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