The Dark Lagoon by Simon M Shinerock
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Buy The Dark Lagoon on Amazon
By the time the service ended and Herbert returned to his car it was 10.30 p.m. As usual he hung around for a while, talking to the priest and other notaries about church business. Even though it was a week night the car park was stuffed full of cars, vans and ambulances. It was the same after every monthly healing mass; there was mayhem, as friends, relatives and nurses loaded up their sick and disabled charges ready for the drive back home (or back to the Home as was often the case).
This made leaving a hazardous and frustrating procedure, giving Herbert an excellent opportunity to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes; helping other “less worthy” people than himself to learn the gentle art of patience.
After making certain he hadn't forgotten to talk to anyone important, he said goodnight to Father Kennedy and slowly walked back to his car. He got in and made himself comfortable before starting her up and carefully, deliberately, manoeuvring his pride and joy out of its parking space and into the main thoroughfare where he stopped dead, blocking everyone's exit.
Once in position he collected himself together and went through all his usual pre-journey checks, oblivious to the inconvenience he was causing to the other churchgoers. While this was going on some of the less Christian worshippers started sounding their horns impatiently. This didn't worry him though, far from it, he found the sound gratifying, a sign of how necessary his little lesson really was.
No, these protests didn't concern or bother Herbert, after all the Lord taught patience and he was a patient man. If others were less so than he then perhaps they would benefit from his example; praise be the Lord.
When he was finally satisfied everything was in order, he eased the white Pinto into drive and moved gently towards the exit. As he snuggled comfortably into the fleece lining of his car coat, he thought how dark and unusually cold for the time of year it was. The thought of all the poor unfortunates in the world who didn't have a nice warm car coat, or a nice warm car for that matter, added considerably to the smug self-satisfaction he already felt, which he always felt, after one of these services.
It had indeed been most uplifting. He particularly liked going to healing masses, there were so many unworthy people to feel sorry for. Many were ill, only returning to the church in desperation but Herbert knew these people weren't true believers and could expect no help from the Lord. In spite of this belief, he always made sure he was among the worthy who stood and helped catch the souls “struck by the spirit” at the end of the service.
He would stand there waiting as the minister first prayed over them, then touched their foreheads lightly, (or sometimes not so lightly if the case demanded). Over backwards they would go, “struck by the spirit”, into his waiting arms or the arms of one of the other good people of the parish. It never ceased to amaze him how most of them had the gall to come to church in the first place, some weren’t even Christian and there they were expecting to be healed, no questions asked; fat chance. But he would smile comfortingly anyway and do his duty like he always did. Yes, he'd been going to the church and doing his duty rain or shine, three times a week minimum, for the last twenty three years. Twenty three years of service guaranteed a few favours when you needed them; oh yes, when he needed the Lord’s help he got it and he always would, no question.
It was true, the Lord had been kind to him. He'd never needed to call on too many favours though, his life had been mostly uneventful, shielded by the Lord's mercy he liked to think and he was grateful for it. As he drove home that night he let his mind wander through the past, counting his many blessings until, as always, he ended up thinking about “the incident”; the one blot on his otherwise unblemished copybook, the one thing he most wanted to forget.
He'd moved twice since coming to the city. The first time was for the right reasons, he was doing well at work and there was no longer any need to stay in the little rented apartment in James Street. He still remembered the thrill of buying, of going into the Realtors’ office to give the agent his requirements. No doubt they charged a small fortune in commission but as it wasn't him paying, it was worth every penny. He really made them work for their pieces of silver, going to see at least fifty properties before making up his mind (for the third time that is) and nearly driving the agent mad in the process.
In the end, he chose a modest neat little house in a good neighbourhood within easy reach of the museum where he worked as a curator, it was perfect, just perfect. The previous owners had no children or pets and the place was in truly lovely order, they'd really looked after it. He gave them hell when it came to working out the price though; he heard they were in financial difficulties, the man had lost his job and the bank was about to foreclose on the mortgage. Well that was their problem not his, he had certainly never seen them at the church and he doubted they attended any other, so few did these days, more’s the pity.
Buying that house was a real milestone, after fifteen years at the museum he'd finally arrived. He was a respected member of the community, he earned a decent five figure salary in a respectable job, and owned a respectable but modest house in the suburbs. Yup, he had it made all right, he had everything he wanted to satisfy his needs.
Well, most of his needs anyway.
Never a particularly sexual person, some people didn't even hide the fact they thought he was gay, but he wasn't. Men, or women for that matter never really interested him, not like that anyway. Throughout his teens the other kids were obsessed with sex whereas he could never really see what all the fuss was about. Then one day he found out there were things that could turn him on, harmless things, though as he was to discover, others didn't share his view.
It had been in order to pursue these harmless fantasies that he signed up to help out at the local Children’s Theatre. Being an English Lit major, it was easy to convince the Principal of his earnest intentions and his intentions were after all very earnest indeed; even if they weren't the same ones he talked about at his interview.
Despite never having acted or directed in his life he threw himself into his role in the group, quickly establishing his status as a stalwart member of the behind the scenes crew. Nothing was too much for him, he worked tirelessly, putting everything on the line for those kids.
And what thanks did he get for all his hard work, huh? That was a joke; thanks! Even the thought of what happened made him feel sick to his stomach.
Who'd always been out there backstage making sure the props were put out (and put away) on time?
Who would sit there for hours listening to them recite their lines over and over again till they were right?
Who was always there at every first night and most performances?
Herbert Miller, that was who! And what good did it do him in the end? No good at all. The reverse actually, if it hadn't been for the Lord’s help after the unfortunate incident, he would have had to do more than just move house. The mere thought of the possibilities sent shivers down his spine, partly out of fear but mostly out of righteous indignation at the way he was pilloried after all he'd done for those kids.
The incident itself was unplanned and to his mind totally harmless, he would never hurt anyone, much less a child and it was shameful for anyone to think that he could. Even now he could feel his cheeks flush red with temper as he remembered what happened and the brutal way he was treated.
It was early September, they'd been rehearsing for six weeks. The kids, mainly aged between ten and thirteen, were going to put on a showing of Peer Gynt. It was by far the most ambitious production ever undertaken by the youth theatre and it needed a lot of organisation. There were a lot of people who said the idea was a stupid one, saying that if it went ahead it would be an embarrassing disaster. He and a few others dug their heels in though, insisting it could and should be done.
Maggie Weismuller was especially insistent that the show go ahead as she was keen to do all the costumes. She knew it would be a bit much for the kids but just couldn’t resist the opportunity to indulge her passion for dressmaking and design. This hobby of hers was quite surprising considering the way she looked. She was a big woman, at least a hundred and eighty pounds and to say she wasn't very glamorous was like saying Attila the Hun wasn't very friendly. Her shoulder-length hair was usually dirty and unkempt looking, she bought all her dresses in the outsize department at K Mart and they were invariably too small, failing to disguise the fat hanging from her midsection in great blubbery rolls. But the two things that made Maggie particularly unattractive were her heavy facial hair, which had become so bad lately she'd been forced to take up shaving, and the fact that she constantly smelt like a lumberjack on a hot day. Designing and making beautiful clothes had become a fantasy outlet for Maggie and one she loved to indulge at every possible opportunity.
Her voice on the other hand was a revelation, it was warm and melodious with perfect pitch, it was a voice that caused many men to make suggestions on the telephone that they would soon forget if they ever were to meet her face to face.
But she and Herbert had developed a kind of understanding; it was unspoken, they simply recognised each other as kindred spirits, different from others, “special”. He never socialised with her away from the theatre but he knew that if she was around he was safe to indulge himself and his little fantasies in the dressing rooms without fear of being interrupted unexpectedly, or of things being misunderstood by one of the meddling busybodies who passed for helpers.
On the day of his “mishap” rehearsal had gone badly, the children were disorganised, none of the links came off right and there was a disruptive element in the show that needed to be dealt with. This disruptive element went by the name of Gregory Fisher. Gregory was twelve years old and small for his age, he had dark curly hair and a cheeky smile which he quite often relied upon to get him out of the trouble he had a habit of getting himself into.
Maybe it was the long summer evening that was responsible for the restless atmosphere but whatever it was, Gregory took every opportunity to ambush the rehearsal by distracting other members of the cast. He made rude remarks about the girls’ costumes, he made cracks whenever someone fluffed their lines and generally orchestrated the kind of havoc likely to drive a grown man to tears.
Now everyone knew that you couldn’t put on a half decent production without discipline. If he'd said it once, he'd said it a million times, these kids needed a strong hand from time to time if the best was going to be got out of them. Although he was never actually asked to do the job, after a while it had become accepted that when a child played up, he would deal with it.
It was certainly true that after he'd spoken to a child they rarely gave any further trouble; a few of the more sensitive creatures had even chosen to leave the group as a result, but if that was the price that had to be paid to maintain discipline, then so be it.
He always handled these situations the same way, never scolding or chiding in public; he would simply ask the offending child to see him after rehearsal. These meetings would invariably take place in the Props Roomthat doubled as a kind of administration office. The Props Room was a place where he could be very sternindeed, often reducing the child to tears but always making sure they had dry eyes before their parents arrived. For that same reason he always kept a few packets of sweets and the kind of small junky trinkets that children liked in the Props Room; you never knew when they might come in handy.
A couple of times, when he may have been a little over zealous, a small bribe made sure there was never any come back. If he was honest, he'd had a few scares in the early days before he worked out how far he could go without attracting unwelcome attention. What particularly appealed to him about Gregory was the fact that his foster parents had hit hard times and were recently forced to give him up, so for a while he'd been living in a Home. From experience he knew he could afford to go a lot further with a Home boy without fear of repercussions, so Gregory's antics that day received his special attention.
Nevertheless the child was given fair warning; he fixed him with a deliberate stare at least three times before informing the young man that he required to see him after rehearsal in the Props Room. He remembered how Maggie had thrown him a knowing look which reassured him they wouldn't be interrupted. At the time he felt very happy at the prospect of administering the naughty boy with some much needed discipline, he was confident that it would do the lad good (and he was sure as hell it would do him good as well).
The rest of the rehearsal seemed to drag on endlessly, there were several more total breakdowns before it was finally over. The youngsters’ already short attention spans had been further reduced by the prospect of playing outside in the warm evening sun. They knew if they carried on playing up eventually the adults would give up and let them go early. Unusually, given his predicament, Gregory was as annoying as ever, perhaps even more so. Kids who were asked to see him after rehearsal normally had the good sense to keep their heads down afterwards lest they incur his greater wrath.
Gregory however appeared to be totally unconcerned at the prospect, if anything he was playing to the crowd who found his antics even funnier because of their disrespectful implications. He remembered thinking how that type of behaviour could not be tolerated, it really incensed him. He felt like his entire authority and reputation was being undermined by a kid and he wasn't about to overlook it. No siree, he was going to teach that kid a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry he surely was.
He remembered the bittersweet feelings of anticipation that built up inside him that day, and how when the time finally came for the kids to pack up and go, he could hardly contain his eagerness to get on with it. Then there was a despairing moment when he looked around and there was only Maggie and a couple of stragglers left behind, no sign of Gregory Fisher. Surely the little tike didn’t have the temerity to leave without seeing him? The thought burned him even more, he started to entertain bad thoughts about the boy, much worse than in the past and those bad thoughts made him feel stronger and more powerful than he could ever remember.
By the time Gregory finally appeared he'd worked himself up into a bit of a frenzy which he found difficult to conceal. His top lip was shaking, small beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead and even better, he had one of his rare erections. The boy, who had merely gone to the men's room, probably because he was scared and needed to relieve himself, stood before him looking hopeful. He'd changed back into his everyday clothes and carried his bag over one shoulder as if he were about to leave.
His expression was easy to read. It said, “Do I have to stay behind? If you let me go this time I promise to be good in future”. That’s what the expression said but the eyes, those eyes, they said something different. They said “I've been bad today, very bad and if you let me go I’m going to be bad tomorrow and the day after and there’s nothing you dare do about it”. Nothing he, Herbert Miller dared do about it? Well they were going to see exactly what he did dare do about it and Gregory Fisher was going to learn never to mess with him again.
He gave one final glance at Mary who was still clearing the stage, she nodded in understanding and he motioned the boy in the direction of the Props Room. They arrived at the door with Gregory slightly in front which further irritated him as he was forced to shuffle the boy out of the way in order to get the key in the lock to open up. Once he'd unlocked the door, he stood back and stuck out his arm indicating that Gregory should go in first.
There was still that teasing look in the boy’s eyes, he'd been wrong about the fear, there was no fear, just an insolent cockiness. It suddenly struck him that this boy wasn't taking matters seriously enough. In the past all the children he'd disciplined had been vulnerable and supplicant. This had somehow always taken the edge off the experience because deep down he wanted them to put up a fight so he could demonstrate how truly powerful and dominant he really was.
This one on the other hand was more challenging than the others, his teasing attitude goaded Herbert to go further than he ever had before. At first things went as usual. He sat the boy down on the stool at the back of the room where he'd made a clearing between the rows of costumes and boxes full of props. This measure was designed to ensure his little interviews were well screened should some busybody decide to poke their nose in where it wasn’t wanted at an inappropriate moment. There was also a chair for him but at first he chose to stand, he always started off this way, it showed the child who was the boss and made Herbert feel more masterful, more in control of what was happening.
Even once he was seated the boy still wouldn’t show any signs of nerves or apprehension. He didn’t smile or laugh outwardly but there was a smirk in those eyes, a smirk which seemed to imply they knew something that gave the boy power over him. All through the lecture that followed he kept that same look in his eyes, refusing to show due respect, or take things seriously, never mind be intimidated.
Finally Herbert really began to lose his temper (get excited) his cheeks had flushed and his body began to shake slightly. He sat down on the chair in front of the boy, who seemed to find his reaction amusing, and steadied himself.
‘Gregory,’ he said in the most menacing tone he could manage ‘I can see that nothing I say is going to have any effect on you, so I'm afraid you are forcing me to resort to more extreme measures, I am going to have to administer corporal punishment.’
Now that got the boy’s attention at last; it was amazing the way the look in his eyes turned so rapidly from insolence to fear, he started to squeak in protest but by now Herbert was all out of patience, he wanted some action. He made a grab for the boy who was too frightened to move or cry for help, his jaw just moving up and down soundlessly. This reaction filled Herbert with excitement, he was finally in control, now they would see who the real boss was around here.
He twisted him over his knee bringing one arm down on his back so he couldn’t move. He remembered being surprised at how little he struggled, all his previous cockiness gone, like a cornered deer, frozen as the lion prepares to move in for the kill.
Like a lion, he felt the need to toy with his prey a little; surprising himself at how deftly he managed to slide the boy’s trousers and pants round his ankles. He started to spank those bare buttocks with exquisitely light strokes which were almost (but not quite) caresses. Suddenly and violently the boy did start to struggle, catching him unawares, making him lose his grip for a moment, enabling him to wriggle free and shout out loudly.
Almost instantly the door to the Props Room was flung open without warning and two cleaners burst into his inner sanctum.
It all happened far too quickly to have been in response to Gregory's call for help although it may as well have been, the outcome was the same. The cleaners took one look at the scene, the adult seated, red faced and out of breath, the minor semi-clothed and now crying with relief and confusion. They knew what'd been happening and given the rumours about Mr. Miller, they weren't surprised, or so it seemed, particularly concerned. There was something else on their minds, something important enough to override their natural outrage, for a while at least.
It was a cruel irony that it was Maggie, his soul sister who was responsible, at least indirectly for his disgrace. In another way though it was only the melodrama surrounding her death that enabled him to escape without losing his job, gaining a criminal record and quite possibly a jail sentence as well.
They said it was Maggie’s weight that was responsible for the heart attack that killed her. She didn’t die straight away, but at the state hospital a few days later. The stupid woman had forgotten to take her medication and her blood pressure had soared out of control popping the major artery in her head. Even if she'd survived, she would never have been able to walk or talk again.
As far as he was concerned, the only tragedy about her death was it meant she didn’t have to pay for what she'd done to him, the fat bitch. He could feel the bile coming up in his throat, the feeling he always had whenever he recalled those events, it always put him in such a bad mood, something he didn't deserve, especially coming back from doing good work at the church; life could be just so unfair.
He was so engrossed in his own thoughts, he almost didn’t see the man standing in the middle of the road until it was too late. He could have sworn he came out of nowhere, one second the road was clear, the next there was this crazy guy trying to commit suicide in front of him. There could be no doubt that he was trying to do away with himself either, he wasn't scuttling across the road having misjudged the oncoming traffic, in fact he wasn't moving at all. He just stood there facing the oncoming car, looking him directly in the eyes, challenging him to drive on and run him down.
Herbert wasn't a violent man, he abhorred violence, he was also very squeamish, the thought of all that blood and the damage the impact would do to his beloved car was too much for his gentle nature. It was therefore a knee jerk reaction that caused him to swerve to avoid the man, for all he knew he could have been turning into a brick wall. Although he was only doing thirty, the effect of hitting a brick wall head on would have been the same as if he were going eighty. His car was old and somehow he never had got the habit of wearing a seat belt, very out of character given how cautious he was in most other things.
He was never to know that it wasn’t the impact of a collision that killed him, his last memories would have ended as he entered the side road. It was possible, though unlikely, that he may have regained consciousness for a moment later on. If he did, the thought would probably have crossed his mind that he was wrong again, when it came to the crunch God wasn't there to protect the righteous, all his good works were for nothing, it just wasn’t fair.
Wilbur had no difficulty dragging Herbert’s limp body from the car and carrying it to his own. Ever since he met Proctor his strength seemed to have multiplied, giving him a power that belied his size and age, never mind the amount he smoked and drank.
This was a routine affair for him, he found the whole thing quite ordinary, after all Proctor needed a constant supply of bodies, correction, live bodies and it was his job to find them.
They say honesty and fairness is its own reward, well he wasn’t sure about that, but he did find his work rewarding, Proctor was good to work for, he made him feel important, part of something bigger than himself of something extraordinary.
Before he met Proctor he'd been at rock bottom, involved with the mob spending his life on the make, hustling, pushing and sometimes killing to get what he wanted. He'd controlled one of the biggest Italian restaurants in Miami, a front for drug dealing and a particularly vile human trade. They would ship in young girls from South America, usually Costa Rica and use the rooms above the restaurant as a kind of halfway house before finding profitable homes for them in the specialist paedophile brothels of Miami.
Judged in dollars business was going well; he was amassing a fair sized fortune, he had a young wife and all the material things he could ever want but it wasn’t enough, nothing was enough to fill the empty void inside him. The only thing he had that could touch that void was hate, he hated the people he did business with, he hated the people he met in bars, in supermarkets, he hated everything and almost everyone, even his wife.
The only person he didn't hate was his only son Ronnie, and of course Ronnie had hated him. It didn’t seem to matter what he did, that boy wouldn't give him a break. He'd sent him to the finest private schools, given him a generous allowance, bought him a new car every year but it hadn’t mattered. Ronnie didn’t like the way his old man spoke, didn’t like the people he associated with, didn’t like the way he treated women and above all didn’t like the business he was in. Of course these finer feelings never stopped him taking the money but they did lead to fights.
Eventually, they had one fight too many and Ronnie had gone away taking his mother with him. At least that was what Wilbur told everyone and what everyone had come to believe. The truth was more bitter, the truth was he'd murdered them both.
Wilbur always had a terrible temper and the boy knew it, what he never knew was when to back off for his own good. Oh no, he'd just keep on pushing... push, push, push; the day it happened he just pushed too far. He was twenty one years old and they'd been at home arguing as usual about something or other, Wilbur couldn’t even remember what it was. Oh yeah; it was coming back to him now.
It was all caused by Margarita not being able to account for the housekeeping money. It wasn't the first time either, the dumb bitch was always running out of cash halfway through the week and it drove him mad. That day he'd had enough and he was going to teach her a lesson she'd never forget.
Of course Ronnie had to get involved, taking her side like he always did, accusing him of having double standards, of taking out his gambling losses on his family. He'd been drinking heavily all day and wasn't in the mood to be lectured by anyone, least of all his son. The bottom line was he ended up losing his temper and working him over pretty bad. Even then the boy wouldn’t leave it alone, he kept needling and needling, saying anything he could think of to make him madder; accusing him of being an impotent psychopath, a sadist, a homosexual, anything to get a reaction.
What made him pull the gun he still wasn't sure, it might have been an automatic response to being pushed so hard, all he could remember was feeling disappointed, let down, all he wanted to do was to shut him up. Here was his only son, the only person on earth he had ever loved and he was just like everyone else, just as weak, disloyal and pathetic. He had to kill him, he had no choice and even after he did it he felt no remorse, just more emptiness, more disappointment and more hate. Then of course Margarita came running in screaming and crying and he shot her as well, although that was no great loss really.
The feelings of being empty, unfulfilled and disappointed didn’t go away after Ronnie's death, just the reverse, they grew and grew. No matter how much he drank or gambled, or how many people he killed, there was nothing that would make those feelings go away. It would only have been a matter of time before he got careless and either ended up in some stinking jail, or just like his father before him, the cell of some sanatorium for the criminally insane. Even more likely, he'd be taken out by one of his business partners, if the hate and bitterness in his heart didn't totally consume him first.
He went through three women before he married his second wife, a Costa Rican beauty less than half his age called Maria. The first had survived but the second wasn’t so lucky, he sometimes thought about the first woman and wondered where she was, what she was doing. There was even the thought that he may one day hunt her down and kill her, or pay someone else to do the job.
Then one day something happened, which although he didn't understand it fully gave him back the meaning to his life in spades. He was given a second chance, a reason to live.
He'd been at the restaurant, a place he tried to avoid these days. Too many people, too much noise, too much life. The reason he was there was simple, he had a deal to do, a big deal, the biggest he'd ever done and it involved a lot of money. There were always going to be risks, the kind of business partners he was involved with weren't above avoiding a debt by eliminating their creditor, if they thought they could get away with it. As with all things though there are degrees of risk and levels of craziness. That night he descended to level zero, the lowest level around, the one where the craziest characters lived and the chances of escaping with your life were slimmest.
Life really didn't matter to him any more, he already felt dead and he wasn’t going to be worried by a few drugged out grease-balls no matter how well connected they were. It even occurred to him that he might be the craziest cuckoo in the nest, and it was the grease-balls not him who needed to watch their backs if they wanted to see the dawn of another day.
The stuff he was buying was uncut heroin. The price was too cheap and there was a reason for it. The grease-balls had already sold it to his biggest rival. His information came from an unimpeachable source, one of his own people on the inside of their organisation, so he knew if he made the buy it was liable to start a war. Now ordinarily he wouldn't necessarily be put off by a little conflict, provided he could see himself coming out on top at the end of it. But over the past months he'd let things slip in his own organisation, if there was a showdown now he would almost certainly lose and end up dead in the process. Somehow though, the prospect of death made him even more determined to go ahead; the way he looked at it, if he was going down it might as well be sooner rather than later and it might as well be in flames.
After the deal was done and the money and drugs safely exchanged, he decided to go outside for a walk. This was possibly the stupidest thing he could do. There was a good chance that someone would be out there waiting for him in an unmarked sedan, ready to put a few bullets into him as soon as he put a foot onto the side walk. So what? he thought, what the hell! Perhaps after killing him they'd raid the place and steal back the drugs. Who knew? Who cared? Not Wilbur Kohn that was for sure.
Once he got outside the night air was colder than expected, there was no black limo waiting for him, no rat tat tat of machine gun fire to finally put him to sleep. The street was empty and quiet; uncannily so. In addition, the cityscape was blurred by a mist that seemed to be erupting from across the street in front of him. The whole scene kind of reminded him of a magic show he'd seen when he was a kid, when the magician appeared on stage in a puff of smoke.
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cheroots; there was one left, so he removed it and cast the empty packet onto the sidewalk. As he lit the cheroot, in the flame of the match he caught a glimpse of a dark figure standing across the street. The mist made it hard to make the figure out but it vaguely crossed his mind that this could be it.
He could have just seen his killer waiting patiently to do the job he'd been paid to do. The match burned out but he could still see the figure, perhaps even a little more clearly now. He looked up at the sky and noticed a bright crescent moon shining through the mist. Slowly reaching into his jacket he gently withdrew his Beretta part way out of its holster, thinking, if this was to be his encounter with death, then the least he could do was to make it an interesting one.
He spat the cheroot into the street and started to walk slowly towards the figure. As he got closer he could see it was a tall man dressed in a heavy black coat (any amount of weaponry could have been hiding in that coat). What did he have to worry about though? One cap from his little B and it wouldn’t matter if the fucker was carrying an anti-tank gun under there for all the good it'd do him.
He stepped off the sidewalk and onto the empty highway, this was a commercial part of town and most of the buildings were run down, in any event at this time of night they were deserted. The stranger hadn't moved from his spot, he stood about twenty five metres away, between two old monolithic factories dating from before the war. They weren't tall but their tops were hidden by the mist which seemed to be getting thicker by the second, threatening to obscure or absorb everything around it.
As he approached, the man made a movement with his left hand, reaching deliberately inside that heavy coat, finally confirming his mission that night. Wilbur knew what would be in that hand when it emerged and whose name it was that would be written on the bullet that would follow. Well he was real sorry to ruin the plan and everything but he was going to have to end the party before it began. He withdrew his own gun, taking the time to notice how the Beretta felt natural, comforting before he opened fire. He hesitated for a moment when the stranger didn't react at all, the thought even occurred to him that he may have got it wrong, that he may be about to shoot an innocent man. Then the thought evaporated, there were no innocent men, just hunters and their prey, killers and their victims. Then he realised that although the stranger’s expression hadn't changed nor his movements speeded up, they hadn't stopped either, if he didn't stop thinking and act he would pay the price for his indecision.
The gunshot crashed through the night, it was a comforting noise, something you could always rely on, the flash momentarily forcing back the mist and bringing the skyline into sharp relief.. He didn't fire again, why waste the bullets? He was a great shot and he'd aimed carefully, the guy was dead, end of story. Slowly though, it dawned on him that the man in black wasn't doubling up in pain or recoiling with the force of the impact. He wasn’t writhing around on the ground and dying like a good little fuck; nope, he wasn’t even reacting, he just kept on reaching for whatever he was reaching for as if nothing had happened at all.
He felt a little put out by this behaviour, it threatened his perception and shook his faith in the fundamentals of life. There was only one thing for it, he had to re-establish the order of things and to do this was going to be simple. He raised his aim away from the man’s body up to his unprotected head. There was no more holding back either, no more Mr. Nice Guy as he unloaded the remains of the clip right into the stranger’s face.
The explosions seemed to go on forever and with every one he felt a little better. When the clip was empty he carried on pulling the trigger oblivious to the impotent sound of the hammer falling onto empty chambers.. When the smoke finally cleared and he saw the man was standing holding out his hand towards him, he stopped firing and dropped the gun. It was impossible, he should've been lying on the floor without a head, not standing there for all the world as if he was greeting a long lost friend.
The thought struck him that perhaps he'd finally crossed the frontier between sanity and insanity. I mean here he was standing in the street, having just unloaded his Beretta into a man who seemed not to have noticed. Yup, the men in white coats couldn’t be far away now.
‘Wilbur, come to me. I have something for you.’
He wheeled round when he heard the voice, he'd been watching the man carefully and the sound definitely hadn't come from his mouth, there had to be someone else in on this, an accomplice who was watching the whole farce and laughing at him.
‘Come to me now Wilbur, don’t keep me waiting.’
Eventually he accepted that there was no-one else around, which left only two other possibilities, either the man in black was some kind of magician, or the voice was coming from inside his own head.
Somehow, without being aware of it, he'd crossed the distance between himself and the man in black and stood before him holding out his hand ready to accept the gift.
‘Wilbur,’ said the voice. ‘I am not your master and you are not my slave, do you accept this gift willing?’
He shouldn’t have known what the voice was talking about but somehow it all made sense. This man washis master and he was his slave, he didn’t need to be coerced into accepting the gift, he wanted it, he wanted it so bad it hurt. The man in black smiled and withdrew his hand, watching the expression on Wilbur's face change from wonder to despair as he realised the offer was being withdrawn.
‘I see’ said the voice, as if confirming whether or not it had made the right choice.
Wilbur was sure he'd been rejected and for some reason the thought was too much to bear, the emptiness had finally won, there was no longer any point in living. If his Beretta hadn't been empty he would have finished it right there in the street in front of the man in black.
‘Don’t be sad,’ said the voice. ‘I mean to redeem you’
Redemption; the word had no meaning to him but the sound of that voice put his despair on hold, he realised he needed that voice now more than he needed life itself. If that voice had commanded him to jump off a bridge he would do it, if it asked him to save his own life, he would even do that too.
‘Take this gift and wear it as a sign of our friendship.’
The hand was outstretched again and now he could see that it held a silver ring. The ring was simple in design but a closer look revealed the emblem forged on to its surface, was in the shape of a crescent moon.
He extended his hand to receive the gift and the man in black took hold of his wrist and slipped the ring onto his left forefinger. There was a moment of searing pain as it seemed the ring was welding itself to him, becoming part of his body. He smelt the burning flesh and imagined the smoke curling up from around the edges of the ring, then the pain was gone and his head was clear, clearer that it had ever been. More to the point, the emptiness had gone and since that day it had never returned.
He had a new mission and meaning to his life, one that he pursued with enthusiasm and carried out proficiently. His job was to make sure the man in black was supplied with a steady stream of .... of, he didn’t know how to describe them, victims, sacrifices, or just fuel he would use in his own unique way. Herbert was just the latest in a long line and he wouldn’t be the last.
It didn’t matter how many times he went out to the Island, he always felt the same feeling of awe as he entered the mist, knowing that just before him lay a land other mortals would never know, could barely even comprehend. The thrum of the twin engines of the motor launch took on a deeper note as if the mist was harder to ingest than normal air. He felt sorry for his quiet passenger who couldn't appreciate the honour that was being bestowed upon him. He looked across at Herbert sitting beside him looking straight ahead, vacant, the lights were on but no-one was home. It was a look he'd seen many times before and one with which he'd become only too familiar.
‘So old buddy; enjoying the ride?’ He paused as if he was really waiting for a reply. ‘Cat got your tongue huh? Never mind, you just relax and let me do the talking for both of us, after all this is your day.
You see, I've seen all this before, whereas you....you need a chance to take it all in. Just one thing old buddy, don’t take too long getting used to things because you may not have as much time as you think.’
He laughed out loud at his private joke, and gunned the launch towards the Island’s shore.
As they emerged from the mist that surrounded it, the south side of the Island was revealed. It didn’t matter how many times he made this trip, Wilbur was always filled with wonder at the sight of it. If there is a heaven on earth, then it would probably look like Proctor’s Island. Even from five hundred metres offshore it was easy to see that here was a very special piece of terra firma.
The Island didn't conform to any natural laws. By rights it should have looked much like all the other Islands in the region, Key Largo for instance which was a long thin piece of land, its shape determined over millions of years by the sometimes tiny, sometimes catastrophic movements of massive continental plates. There was no high ground, no forest, and the tallest tree was the palm. Proctor’s Island should have been much the same but it wasn't.
As the launch drew nearer, it became clear just how impossible the Island really was. A perfect sandy beach was flanked by white cliffs rising a hundred feet above the ocean. Along the tops of the cliffs you could clearly make out the edge of a rain forest. At various points waterfalls cascaded into unseen pools sending up great spumes of spray; sunlight turning the droplets into shimmering rainbows which danced in the air, making the Island look as if it were set within some fantastic precious stone.
Wilbur felt his breathing quicken with excitement as it always did every time he saw the Island. For a few moments he just gazed at it, totally enraptured until his eyes could take no more of its excruciating beauty.
He aimed the launch straight at the entrance to the cove, throttling back at the last minute and letting the vessel coast silently towards the shore. As they moved in closer he headed towards a small jetty, bringing the launch up alongside and making her fast before turning to his prisoner who had given no sign of having registered anything at all.
‘OK old buddy, this is your stop,’ he said taking Herbert by the left hand and guiding him out of his seat, up the ladder and onto the jetty. Even the smell of the Island was different from any other place on earth, There were hints of cinnamon, lime, and vanilla in the breeze, overlaid with the scent of exotic flowers, as if someone had spent hours choosing exactly how they wanted the Island to smell.
Underneath the fragrant facade though there was something else, something disturbing lurking beneath the surface speaking of secrets dark and dangerous.
Often Wilbur would go up onto the beach and wait for his master. When he came they would talk and Proctor would let him know anything special he wanted him to do. Over the years their interests on the mainland had increased although it seemed they didn’t really interest Proctor at all. Gradually he also lost interest in these mundane pursuits, delegating the everyday running of their operation to well paid underlings, becoming more and more captivated by the Island and its development. When he thought back to the first time he set foot on these shores, it was hard to believe they weren't completely different places. There was hardly a trip he would make when he didn't notice some new feature and there was no doubt about it the Island had grown, it was a lot bigger these days. He took great pride in these changes, maybe he wasn't the architect of them but at least he could claim to be his main assistant.
Today however he didn't stop, he was pre-occupied with something else, a search that was taking up more and more of his time lately, a search important enough to make him impatient to return to the Keys as soon as possible.
He walked down the jetty, Herbert needing only a little encouragement to trot along in front, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, totally unaware of his fantastic surroundings. One of the things that tickled him the most was the way he could take a person and make them like Herbert. It was one of the things he learned from Proctor early on. Not everyone was susceptible to the influence but he quickly established how to choose his subjects wisely and he hadn't made a mistake in years. Sometimes he wondered whether the effect would eventually wear off, he didn't know because he'd never seen anyone he'd brought to the Island ever again. He left his latest victim sitting on the white coral sand and turned around without a backward glance. A few moments later he was powering back to the mainland leaving Herbert to await his doom.
Herbert didn’t have long to wait, within seconds of the launch disappearing over the horizon and into the mist Proctor appeared to claim his prize. Herbert found himself being led through the impossible Island a silent witness to all its miracles and follies. Of course he could appreciate none of it, nor would he ever understand the contribution he would make to its destiny.
Proctor had made this journey innumerable times before, the fact that he still personally guided each of his new guests to their destination was out of ritual not necessity. If he desired it his victims could have been delivered to him wherever he wanted but that would be to deny himself the symbolic transition from light into darkness.
He would walk with them through the Island appreciating as he went all the wondrous marvels he'd created. It helped to remind him of the inestimable value of his work and the enormous privilege he was bestowing on the one who accompanied him. If he had spoken to Herbert at all, it would have been to tell him how greatly honoured he was to be allowed to make his small contribution towards such a wondrous place. Of course there was no point in talking to Herbert so he saved his breath, instead hurrying onwards towards the Island’s centre where it hid its blackened heart.
The moonlit walk took about half an hour during which the strange pair travelled through a land of many marvels. It was as if someone had gone round the world shopping for the right animals and plants to complement the habitat and where none could be found made them up to suit. But as they started to approach the centre of the Island, things started to change. At first it was hardly noticeable, the odd tree infected with some wasting disease, a dead bird lying untouched by predators, a small patch of land where nothing grew. The further they walked the more evidence there was of decay and rot until it became clear something was drastically wrong.
From a paradise on earth, the surroundings had gradually metamorphosed into an earthly hell in which all living things were either dying or dead. The smell which had up to now lurked beneath the fragrant air leapt unbounded to the fore, finally revealing itself for what it was, the stench of evil decay and death. At the centre of the dead plain like an open sore on the landscape lay a sinister oasis, a Dark Lagoon, towards which Proctor led Herbert Miller. It was to be by its blackened shores that he would meet his destiny.
When they arrived at its edge, Proctor stood absolutely still and looked across the oily surface of the waters. His expression was one of intense meditation, as if he were in communion with a monstrous deity lurking beneath the depths. After a time the waters seemed to sense their presence and began to send small waves rippling slowly to the shore. He seemed happy with this and turned to Herbert who was still waiting patiently by his side, looking quite dishevelled now, his clothes crumpled and torn. It was many hours since his abduction, hours during which he’d had nothing to either eat or drink, although from the stain on his pants it seemed his body’s desire to relieve itself remained intact. His face was tired and drawn and he stood with a pronounced stoop, only the forces controlling him keeping him on his feet at all.
Proctor looked across at this sorry looking individual and allowed himself to indulge in a brief moment of sentimental reminiscence. He could remember in the old days how these human offerings were so much more robust, spiritually as well as physically. There was a time when the positive life force he drained from a simple peasant would satisfy him completely, leaving little to add to the waters. Over the years though things had changed. Man was becoming more civilised, more sophisticated. In a way, these changes made his job easier as his victims became less wary of him and his servants but they also brought with them an unwelcome side effect. People seemed to contain less and less goodness and more and more badness. Lately he could almost see the level of the dark waters rising after every new sacrifice and often he would be left feeling unnourished and unsatisfied. He cut short his lament for the good old days, knowing the time for the transformation was approaching.
He felt Herbert’s mind opening to him, the night darkened, blotting out the stars, the only thing saving them from inky oblivion was the half light of the silver crescent moon.
He tilted his face skywards, acknowledging the moon extending his arms upwards and outwards in a gesture of welcome. The diffused moonlight began to waver and break up, patches of darkness appeared, hanging in the air eating the light, rendering the world putrid and rotten. But the light was itself gathering together, light with light, concentrating its strength as if preparing to launch some unimaginable counter-attack against the invading darkness.
Finally the remains of the light, surrounded and under siege made a last ditch bid for freedom towards the moon. The beam became a flood lasting less than a second, then it was over and the only thing that prevented the land being overcome totally by the darkness was the faintest of glows from the crescent moon.
Herbert’s body had begun to shake and contort struggling vainly with an unseen force, the struggle didn’t last long, his already weak spirit had no stomach for the contest. When it was over his facial muscles relaxed and his jaw fell open in surrender. A luminous glow appeared in the centre of his chest, brightening first to burnt umber, then red; orange, yellow and finally to a dazzling white which threatened to consume his body, leaving it a charred sacrifice on the banks of the dark lagoon. No human could have stood that light, yet the brightness intensified still, until within the incandescence there could be seen the seeds of unborn stars, the furnace of creation revealed in all its awful glory.
The place where they’d been standing had turned supernova, the nucleus which started in Herbert’s chest now rose and spread out to hang like the sun above the dark lagoon. Just as it seemed the whole Island would be consumed by this cosmic inferno, the light began to wane. Whereas it started in Herbert it ended in Proctor, the fading glow disappearing into his chest with a symbolic finality that left no doubt as to the fate of its prior owner. The moonlight had returned, perhaps a little brighter, revealing the two figures standing as before but no longer the same, no subtle transformation this but a terrible change leaving one stronger and one drained of all that saves a man from damnation. Around them the Island had grown a little stronger, a little larger, perhaps a few new features had been added, or a strange new species would be found flourishing in a newly created habitat.
Herbert, though still standing and breathing had changed. He was a charred and blackened shadow of his former self, a hulk whose life force had been stolen leaving him only with the unspeakable part of his nature for which Proctor had no use. No use, true, but a place certainly. Yes there was a place for him, a cold place where he could share his fall with the others who had gone before him. That place even now sensing his changed nature, beckoned to him. Proctor watched dispassionately as the latest source of his increasing strength and power turned sightlessly and walked on guided feet towards the edge of the dark lagoon where he paused and looked down. But the look became a stoop and the stoop a fall. There was no splash as his body hit the water, no splash and no sound.
Proctor looked deeply into the blackness for a long moment after Herbert disappeared, contemplating his own doom. In over a thousand years he’d witnessed countless endings such as this and after each there was always the shadow of insecurity, a feeling he only ever felt at these times. Insecurity because he didn't know the price of his ascension or how it must be paid. Insecurity because as his power grew and the Island flourished, so too did the dark lagoon. Even now its banks groaned under the weight of the swollen waters. There must come a day when it could hold no more; he couldn’t help thinking about that day, how soon it would come and what its consequences would be.
For a thousand years he'd watched it grow as he grew wondering when it would try to consume him. He turned to walk away, knowing that when he returned it would be just a little bit deeper, just a little more swollen, just a little closer to breaking point.
He had less time to wait than he thought. At first the vibration was hardly noticeable, a trembling emanating from deep down in the earth's centre, gathering strength, working its way slowly but inexorably towards the surface, seeking the lines of least resistance, always returning to its chosen course. He made no attempt to run or find cover, for this was the long awaited moment. Soon he would see if his nightmare or his dreams would be realised.
The ground started to shake, in the silver light of the crescent moon the still black waters began to dance and jump in tune with the vibration. Ripples were forming, ripples that grew quickly into small waves. The waves travelled in all directions, colliding into one another and sending great splashes into the air which fell back to the surface in a fetid stinking rain.
The trembling in the ground developed into a full blown quake, one which would go unregistered by any Richter scale. The ground was rocking and rolling like an enraged bull trying to dislodge an impudent rider and trample him underfoot. Proctor though was not to be dispatched so easily, he stood his ground, moving fluidly with each new convulsion as if he were part of the fabric of the Island itself. As the shaking grew to its climax, the air responded also, the elements had decided to have a party and all were welcome. The wind came suddenly and violently, whipping the waters into a frenzy of foam and dark spume which rose up in a doom-laden mushroom cloud to be carried away on the infected air.
Then the pain started. In a thousand years he'd never experienced pain but now he experienced a thousand years of pain compressed into a single second. Every poisonous drop of rain that fell to earth, felt like acid burning his flesh. Everywhere the waters dealt out decay, corruption and death. He was the Island and the Island was him as they suffered their destruction together.
Confirming his despair a giant geyser erupted from the centre of the lagoon. It rose over three hundred feet above the Island in a dark column forty feet across and hung there in defiance of nature. His vision was blurring but in his mind’s eye the column had become a monstrous hand, reaching out for him. It was a hand made up of all the hate, revenge and evil that lurked within the dark lagoon, put there by him... and now coming to destroy him.
He could see the waters bursting through their banks, rivulets were forming, taking the gushing black waters out through the Island to destroy everything they touched until there was nothing left to destroy. The acid rain burned the flesh from his upturned face. The crescent moon stared down, mocking the grinning porcelain whiteness of his skull as it reflected moonbeams over the boiling waters. He could feel himself disintegrating with the Island, all his power unable to save him, until finally he succumbed and with a cry of despair dissolved into the screaming earth.