Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
 
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The Fixer

by Damir Salkovic




The day was overcast, heavy with the promise of rain. Dull, orange lamplight washed against the leaden firmament, sprawled over the wet, dirty streets like an oily stain. Fletcher drove across the bridge, past the corrugated warehouses that lined the cutbanks of the muddy river, through row after row of low, leaning tenements, the sound of the car’s engine vast and hollow in the predawn emptiness of the town. Street lamps were coming out down the main street, the dark bulk of the town church outlined in their dirty glow.

He wheeled the car around the back of the church and parked in a narrow alley, behind the carcass of a gutted, rusting pickup truck propped on cinderblocks. The damp breeze stank of oil and urine and decay, the mudflat reek of the river rising from beneath like mist. He halted at the edge of the little square, vacant save or an old ragpicker cocooned in filthy rags squatting in the shadows, and gazed at the graffiti scrawled across the broad, weather-stained front of the church. A wreath of symbols unfamiliar but strangely obscene, surrounding a rudimentary human face that was mostly mouth and knifelike teeth.

Fletcher drew the collar of his coat closer around his neck and walked on. Shapes crept out of the gray dawn, peeling facades and padlocked office buildings with yellowing For Sale signs in the windows. Sullen faces appeared on the crumbling sidewalks, squinting at him with suspicion and tempered hostility. He was close; he could sense a quickening in the air, the sharp tang of prey under the stench and squalor.

The place was a rat-warren, a dying industrial town set in a valley between crooked, pine-grown hills, surrounded by vast, bleak tracts of dead farmland. In another decade or two it would become a ghost town, its lifeblood draining out to the bigger urban centers to the east and north, the wilderness moving in to reclaim abandoned plants and mills fallen to ruin. A good place for a man to disappear.

Or a monster.

Fletcher reached for the door handle, his reflection long and distorted in the glass of the diner. He stepped into the rich smell of frying grease and soapy steam, the clatter of dishes from a dingy kitchen in the back. A handful of old men hunkered over the marble counter. He ordered coffee and toast from the tired waitress and sat facing the wide plate-glass window, watching the street come to life, feeling the stare of wary, rheumy eyes on his back. A hazy red sun bled over the hills like an infected wound.

Fletcher felt the reassuring weight of the pistol in the shoulder holster under his coat. Word of his arrival would get around: strangers were a rare sight in these parts. The man he was looking for knew he was closing in, or would know soon. Fletcher didn’t care one way or the other; the thrill of the chase had long worn off and all he wanted to do was to finish the job and collect his pay. He was certain that it would end here. A sense of finality had settled in his gut, the familiar tremor of anticipation before the inevitable anticlimax. Violence, blood, probably a body he’d have to get rid of. Then lie low for a while, wait for the next call to come.

When the light came on in the window down the street, he took two quarters from his pocket and set them by the empty cup. He pushed the door open and shuffled down the street, stamping his feet against the morning cold.

******

“Can’t say the name’s familiar.” The old police chief squinted at Fletcher’s credentials, reached into his shirt pocket and fidgeted with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. “‘Course, a man on the run ain’t apt to use his real name, is he.” The chair creaked as he leaned back behind the cluttered desk and slurped his coffee noisily. “What’s he done, this -- er -- Walton?”

“Wharton.” Fletcher stirred sugar into the vile dark liquid, took a cautious sip. “Emery Wharton. Used to teach as an adjunct at a fancy school up in New Hampshire. There was a scandal, two students found dead in some kind of ritual. Wharton’s name came up. Cops started looking into him, turned up some weird stuff. Occultism, devil worship, blood sacrifice. The University fired him, but he stayed around town. He’d built a following among the rich kids at the school. Used to bring them round his place, show them these old books and manuscripts in his library, feed them hallucinogens. Rumors circulated of black magic sťances and orgies.”

“Jesus wept.” The old man shook his head. “How’d he end up in my town?”

“Local police started digging deeper, discovered a pattern of missing persons in the area: hitchhikers, salesmen, hobos, prostitutes. Some of the college kids got scared, dropped a few hints. Bodies were found buried in a field near Wharton’s house.” Fletcher decided to omit the curious condition of the corpses, the symbols and pictograms carved into dead flesh, the flat black stones arranged around the burial pit. The public was still reeling from the gruesome Gein trial in Wisconsin; he didn’t want the chief to get cold feet. “Wharton was brought in for questioning, but nothing stuck.”

“Figured as much,” said the police chief. “Else the Feds would already be crawling around, poking their noses everywhere.”

“Anyway, Wharton figured the cops would lean on him until they found something. He packed up and skipped town. The trail had gone cold, but a waitress at a truck stop up the highway identified him from a photo.”

“Law’s got nothing on him.” The chief’s wrinkled face was pensive, his small eyes gleaming like a rat’s. “But you ain’t no lawman, are you, Mister Fletcher.”

“I’m a private investigator.” The old man’s gaze slipped to Fletcher’s heavy, scar-knuckled fists, but he let the lie slide. “My client is a wealthy man. Very wealthy. His daughter was one of the students who hung around Wharton. Nineteen years old, pretty as a picture and stark, raving insane. Babbles about doors opening and closing, about bleeding eyes watching through cracks in the shadows. He’s got her in a private mental asylum for the well-heeled near Boston. Quite discreet, I hear. He would very much appreciate a face-to-face meeting with the man I’m looking for.”

“I’m sure he would.” The old man tapped his glasses against false front teeth. “Got a picture of this Wharton fella?”

Fletcher dug through his coat pockets, handed over a creased photograph. The chief repeated the ritual with the glasses, cleared his throat.

“I seen your boy around.” His voice was low, his eyes darting away from Fletcher’s as he spoke. “Came into town a month or two ago. Goes by a different name now. Trelanney. He’s rented the old Oakes farmhouse, up past the pike.”

“What’s he been up to?”

“Walking round the woods, making sketches, drawings. Keeps to hisself, for the most part. Folks reckon he’s a writer, or some other artist type. Truth is, a man shows up around here with a little cash he’s willing to part with, people don’t ask question. Not with times being as they are.”

“Any funny business since he’s been here? Disappearances”

“Not that I know of. But it’s hard to tell, what with the hunting season and all. Hikers and hunters get lost in the woods. City folk. Teenagers run from home. Not much to keep them around.” With a groan, the chief lifted himself out of his chair and refilled his cup. “Be careful if you go into those woods, is all. Used to be an Indian burial ground in there. Mounds of earth and stones and all sorts. No one lived close to the woods ‘cept old Harlan Oakes, and he was crazier’n a shithouse rat afore he died.”

“Wharton come into town much?”

“From time to time. If he ain’t on the farm, he’ll be in Caleb Brown’s tavern, on the other side of the tracks.” The chief’s face darkened. He loomed inside the station window, an ancient, gnarled troll framed in dappled autumn sunlight. “Let’s get one thing straight, Mister Fletcher. What happens to this fella -- Wharton, or Trelanney, or whoever he is -- ain’t no business of mine. But Caleb Brown and me, we go way back. We were in France in the Big One in ‘17. Whatever you gotta do, better do it outside his tavern.”

Fletcher said he understood. The old man scratched his belly absentmindedly. “Got less than a year afore I retire. Not that it’ll do me much good. There’s a sickness on this town, a cancer. Been that way even in better times. Like it’s rotting from within.”

“Allow me.” Fletcher took out a roll of bills, peeled off a few and laid them on the cluttered desk. “A contribution to the county police pension fund.”

“Much appreciated.” The chief pocketed the money with a nod. “Fund sure needs every contributions it can get.”

******

By the time Fletcher stepped outside, the day had grown dim. He took the old dirt road out of town, past rusted fences and overgrown weed lots, through barren, desolate fields, the black shapes of dead trees stark and naked against the darkening sky.

The farmhouse squatted in a stretch of fallow land, a grim decaying shell of rotten clapboards and blackened timber. He maneuvered the car into a thicket and crept through the brush on foot, pistol in hand, the hairs at the back of his neck prickling. The windows were dark and blank, the door closed. There was no car in the overgrown front yard. An opportunity, or a trap. Wharton waiting behind the windows, rifle nestled in his lap, waiting for his pursuer to show up in the clearing. Fletcher’s stomach curdled with apprehension.

A chill wind swept through the clearing, carrying a wet smell of turned earth, scuttling the few leaves that still clung to the trees. The woods seemed to take on a tenebrous life of their own. Shadows trawled the far depths of the forest, gathering around and behind him. He glimpsed movement in the twilight and raised his weapon, but the shape dissolved into a whirl of fallen leaves, a branch stirring in the wind. Still, he felt he wasn’t alone, a presence vaster than the forest stalking him behind the creaking treetops. He tried to shake off a sudden vision of faces forming in the bark of the tree-trunks, of knots opening like yellow, lidless eyes.

He waited until near dark, but no one came. He retraced his steps to the car and drove back, shadows thickening across the rutted dirt road. A mile or so from town, he pulled into a cracked parking lot dominated by a broken vacancy sign. The old hotel was a rundown affair with cold, bare corridors and an elderly desk clerk who handed over the room key and nodded back to sleep as Fletcher scrawled a false name into the guestbook. Town lights glowed beyond the dusty windows, infinitely distant in the blackness.

Fog rolled in from the river shortly after nightfall, huddled around the crooked rooftops and tall, fluted chimneys, draped itself around the dying streetlights until the world dissolved in a blur of sooty orange. When he was sure no one could see him, Fletcher made his way into town and found the tavern.

Cigarette smoke drifted in lazy, oily clouds under the neon of the bar. Fletcher ordered a beer and sat at the long counter, pretending not to notice the stares. He pulled the photograph out of his pocket and waved at the wizened barkeep.

“Seen this man around?”

The old man folded his towel and wiped at a stain in the dark wood, averting his eyes. He shook his head and mumbled something unintelligible. Fletcher didn’t pay attention: he was watching the other patrons in the filthy back-bar mirror. A large, swarthy man glanced in his direction. The movement was so quick Fletcher almost missed it, but it told him all he needed to know. He asked a few trivial questions, paid for the beer and walked out of the squalid tavern, dipping into the shadows that pooled around the dirt parking lot. He stepped into the wild growth beyond the fallen fence and waited. He was an expert at the game, sinking into himself until he became part of the scenery, breath bated, all senses alive.

Time slowed to a trickle. The tavern door swung open, letting out light and a thread of radio music. The dark-haired man appeared in the rectangle of the doorway and cast a quick look around. Swaying slightly, he headed for a battered old Ford across the lot from where Fletcher was hiding. He fumbled with the keys, dropped them, cursed loudly and bent over to root in the darkness. When he came up, the muzzle of Fletcher’s Browning was pressed against his temple.

“Get in the car,” Fletcher said, opening the door and moving into the back seat, “and don’t make a sound.”

The interior of the car stank of sweat and cheap whiskey. Fletcher thought he could sense another smell beneath, a stale odor of dark, damp places in the earth. The large man climbed into the driver’s seat and sat there, hands on the wheel. Fletcher prodded him with the pistol. The car started with a cough of exhaust. They pulled out onto the deserted blacktop, the ghosts of ramshackle houses rolling past the windows. Tall trees lined the road, gray phantoms gathering out of the fog, reaching for them with long, pallid arms. Everywhere a deep, dead silence.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Loath as he was to admit it, Fletcher found the man’s silence unnerving. The stranger hadn’t tried to plead or threaten, didn’t even ask where he was supposed to go. Fletcher stared through the window, trying to find his bearings, but the world had disappeared under a thick blanket of white. The reflected glare of the headlights hurt his eyes.

The large man chuckled -- a low, unpleasant sound. “You’re here ‘cause he wanted you to be here. Been expecting you for some time now.”

So much for the surprise factor. Wharton had wasted no time gathering new followers; the town was probably lousy with them, eyes and ears on every corner. “We can skip the pleasantries, then. Where’s Wharton? Trelanney?”

“Everywhere and nowhere.” Fletcher saw the driver smile in the mirror, a broad, rubbery grin. The fog thinned out; a swollen, yellow moon rose above the forest like a great eye. The road turned to gravel, the Ford rattling over potholes, the silvery curve of the river gleaming in the distance. Dark trees as far as he could see. “Looking for doorways. Lots of them in this forest. Space has no meaning to him, you see. Neither does time. The laws of physics no longer bind him. He dwells on other planes now, in different geometries.”

“Hadn’t pegged you for the scientific type.” Fletcher pressed the muzzle deeper, eliciting a hiss of pain. The car swerved a foot or two to the side. “Just who the fuck are you, chum? What’s your connection to our friend?”

“Name’s Hobart.” The man chuckled again. The rank stench coming off him was abominable. “Me and a bunch of others, we go out to the woods to hear him preach. He told us about the secret place in the forest, the wiser, older things that burrow beneath. Showed us black constellations burning in the outer darkness.” The car was approaching a covered bridge. Fletcher narrowed his eyes, but couldn’t see the other side of the tunnel, only blackness. “Things are different in town, now that he’s around. There’s many of us who have seen inside the mouth of the Pit.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Fletcher didn’t know what to make out of the gibberish, but he’d heard enough. “You need to lay off whatever he’s giving you, pal. Looks like it’s burning a hole in your brain. Should’ve seen what happened to his last bunch of followers.”

“You think you know the truth about him,” Hobart said, clicking his tongue. “It’s greater than anything you can imagine. But you won’t have to wait much longer.”

“Why is that?”

“He’s changing. Becoming something else, something more. He wants you to be a part of it.” Fletcher saw the driver smile in the mirror. “You’re special to him. Seasoned, he says. He has things to show you -- wonders in the warm, crawling dark.” There was envy in the man’s voice, Fletcher realized. The opening of the tunnel gaped ahead, a huge black maw spreading to swallow them. Wheels chattered on worm-eaten planking. Panes of darkness sliced across the inside of the car. Hobart’s voice faded and returned, like a bad radio station. “You’ll be fuel for his change, burning as oil burns in a lamp.”

“I don’t think so,” Fletcher said, and brought the butt of the pistol down hard. His fist swept through empty space. Moonlight slanted into the car through a gap in the roof of the bridge: Hobart was gone. Fletcher cursed and clambered into the driver’s seat, wrestling with the steering wheel. His brain refused to process what he’d just seen -- the swarthy man vanishing into thin air, the darkness inside the tunnel pulsing like a living thing.

He braked on the other side of the bridge and turned the Ford round, shining the headlights into the blackness. Hobart was nowhere to be seen. A gust of fog and decay, unseen feet stirring the black dirt. A stillness in the trees, like breath held in great lungs. Boards creaked under his shoes. Nothing in the tunnel but his shadow, immense and distorted, stretching from one end to the other.

He left the lights on and began to walk.

******

It was past midnight when he found his way through the fog and back to the hotel. Muddy and exhausted, he fell into his bed and dreamed of horrors.

A group of people standing around a mound of earth in the woods, eyes raised to an enormous effigy of interwoven branches and leaves hovering in the treetops. Chanting rising from the sodden ground, emanating from their open mouths. Wharton’s face taking shape in the dying leaves and twigs, grinning a grin several sizes too large. Eager forms emerging from the trunks, a restless presence watching through hundreds of glistening eyes. Treetops dissolving, bleeding black into a dim, sunless sky.

A wide, shallow hole in the center of a field, nude figures capering in and around it. Wharton towering above them from a black stone altar, stern and forbidding like an Old Testament prophet. Obsidian shards drawing patterns on pale flesh. Blood dripping on black earth, a hint of movement under the revelers’ feet. A woman laughs as she stabs a bearded man in the throat, plunges her thumbs into the corners of her eyes. A man, face streaked with gore and mud, worming through fallen leaves on his belly.

Doors are there to be opened. Wharton laughs, a silent laugh. Ropes of saliva trail from his lips, patter on the floor. Galaxies roll through the eternal night. A ripple spreading across the firmament, a ragged, blacker fissure on a black satin background.

Light drips like molten metal. Vast, blind things crawl in the awful radiance. Hungry teeth gnash in the earth. Things are different in town now, Hobart says, and tears out his tongue by the root.

******

Fletcher woke up in sweat-soaked sheets, the scream -- his own -- ringing in his ears. Dawn light seeped through the dusty curtains. Rain leaned in the lamplight, the rooftops a dirty blur in the glass of the window.

He ate breakfast in the empty hotel cafe, staring at the scant traffic in the street, trying to sort through the chaos in his head. Then it dawned on him. Hallucinogens. The old barkeep had slipped something into his beer. Hobart had left the tavern to find him and finish him off. It all added up -- the strange episode in Hobart’s car, the nightmares. A wry grimace played on Fletcher’s face as he traced the outline of the Browning in its holster. Wharton thought he could turn the tables on him; he was in for a nasty surprise.

He crossed the wet parking lot and got into his car. The sky had cleared and a pale sun shone in the southeast. The dirt track had turned into a muddy morass, but he found a paved county road and trusted his sense of direction. Minutes later he glimpsed the farmhouse through the trees. A small outbuilding, like a barn, stood in its shadow; he hadn’t been able to see it from his previous vantage point. He parked on the overgrown shoulder and sat in the car for a while, staring at the long, many-legged shadows moving across the forest floor, the tapestry of fallen leaves flaming with autumn colors. The moist air was alive with expectation. Something was waiting for him in the woods, and Fletcher was no longer sure he wanted to know what it was.

He reached under the back seat and loaded the shotgun: no reason not to be cautious. He picked his way through the wooded maze, his shoes sinking into the soft black loam. At the edge of the treeline he stood very still, scanning the windows and the yard. The barn door was barred by a length of rusty chain. A terrible, rotten stink wafted through the boards. Fletcher raced across the clearing, listening for the shot. It didn’t come. He walked round to the back door of the house and peered through the window; shotgun heavy in his sweat-slick hands. The little kitchen was dark and silent. Dust and grit lay over everything, as if the place had been abandoned for years. Cobwebs trailed along the dirty walls in heavy yellow sheets. Fletcher opened the door and took a step in, old floorboards creaking under his weight, shotgun pointed into the darkness. It was possible that Wharton was hiding inside, but Fletcher didn’t think so.

There were footprints on the front porch, several sets of them. A path had been trod into the yellowing grass, leading deeper into the woods, away from the road. Fletcher hesitated for a moment, then followed the trail into the chill shadows of the trees.

The woods rose around him, dark and restless. He climbed over deadfall and moss-blanketed boulders, over the crumbling remnants of an old fieldstone wall. Above him hung a slice of sky leached of color, cracked with branches. The path vanished into thick undergrowth but Fletcher pushed on, briars tearing at his clothes and exposed skin. Ahead he could see a large clearing, movement under the tall elms. A low, droning sound filled his head, like the humming of a monstrous swarm.

The mounds reared from the center of the grove, low, dark humps strewn with crude ornaments of twigs and grass. Behind them rose an enormous slab of black stone, draped in moss and vines. Fletcher felt the trees spin around him, his skin crawl with revulsion. The smooth sides of the slab were etched with symbols and glyphs, similar to the patterns he’d seen carved into the skin of the corpses in New Hampshire. He traced his finger across the slab: the grooves were shallow, eroded with age. A dull stupor overcame him, a vague feeling of displacement, of reality worn thin.

“Gets under your skin, don’t it.”

Fletcher wheeled round; finger curled on the trigger. Hobart stood between the mounds, huge and naked as the day he was born. His eyes were pools of black. Blood crusted his smiling lips, trickled into the matted hair on his chest. He pointed at the stone and Fletcher could see the rust-colored smears on his hands, under his fingernails.

“He thought you’d want to see,” the swarthy man said. His gummed lips didn’t move; the voice rang in the depths of Fletcher’s skull. “It’s an honor, you know. To surrender your flesh to the swarm in the dark. To transcend death.”

Fletcher said nothing. The barrel of the shotgun rose until it pointed at the other’s broad chest. Light dimmed in the grove, as if a cloud had passed across the sun. The world melted away, nothing left but the cool, smooth metal of the weapon.

“You got his mark on you now.” Hobart’s mouth opened, a gaping, festering wound. The black stub of his tongue wagged in the caked gore.

Fletcher shot him twice, the sound tremendous in the silence. Hobart toppled into a pile of dead leaves and lay motionless. Fletcher prodded the dead man with the tip of his shoe, half expecting the body to disappear. Madness fluttered over his mind like a black shroud. Someone laughed in the trees, a muffled, gurgling noise. The trunks of the elms groaned, branches twining about one another like blind worms, forming a wall of russet leaves. A face bulged from the foliage, gaunt and skeletal, split in half by an idiot grin. Fletcher stumbled past the mounds and fled into the forest, crashing through the undergrowth. Insanity howled on his heels, the woods lashing at him with taloned arms.

******

He left the town behind him and drove east, stopping briefly at a roadside diner to swap license plates with a decrepit van. At dusk he pulled into a motor court and sat in the car, engine idling, cleaning and loading the pistol and the shotgun. His eyes were glassy; spittle flecked his lips. He could feel the emptiness growing inside him, deep and complete, a fundamental truth.

The night clerk paled at the sight of the shotgun, but held his tongue. Fletcher paid for the room and walked down the sidewalk to his door. A hideous caricature of his face peered at him from the glass of the window, bathed in the scarlet rays of the sinking sun. The trees across the road swayed together, as if in salute.

Fetid air rushed at him as he opened the door. He flicked on the light switch. Clumps of black dirt lay across the faded carpeting of the room. A pile of branches and brambles spilled from the seedy bathroom. A dark, throbbing mass of solid shadow crept up the wall like ivy. Fletcher's finger tightened on the trigger.

“Pleased to meet you,” said a voice from somewhere above his shoulder. Wharton was crawling across the stained ceiling; his face was the only part of him still recognizable. He grinned and unhinged his jaw with a wet cracking sound. Things squirmed in the depths of his cavernous throat, smooth and segmented, chittering in thin, reedy noises.

They moved in unison, the dripping, red-rimmed maw swooping down, Fletcher turning round to shoot.


THE END


© 2023 Damir Salkovic

Bio: "I am the author of two novels, Kill Zone (science fiction/thriller) and Always Beside You (occult horror). My short stories have appeared in the Lovecraft ezine, Strange Aeon, Scare Street's Night Terrors series, Gehenna&Hinnom Magazine, and in multiple horror, science and speculative fiction anthologies."

E-mail: Damir Salkovic

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