Book excerpt

Necroscope: Invaders

Necroscope: E-Branch Trilogy

Brian Lumley

Tor/Forge

1
 
See the Creechur
  
IT WAS HOT AS HELL, AND FLIES THE SIZE OF Jake Cutter’s little fingernails had been committing suicide on the vehicle’s windscreen for more than a hundred and fifty miles now, ever since they’d left Wiluna and “civilization” behind.
Phew!” Jake said, sluicing sweat from his brow and out of the open window of their specially adapted Land Rover. The top was back and the windows wound down, yet the hot wind of passage that pushed their wide-brimmed Aussie hats back from their foreheads, tightened their chinstraps around their throats and ruffled their shirts still made if feel like they were driving headlong into a bonfire. And the “road” ahead—which in fact was scarcely better than a track—wavered like a smoke-ghost in the heat haze of what appeared to be an empty, ever-expanding distance.
Behind the vehicle, a mile-long plume of dust and blue-grey exhaust fumes drifted low over the scrub and the wilderness.
“That’s your fifth ‘phew,’” Liz Merrick told him. “Feeling talkative today?”
“So what am I supposed to say?” He didn’t even glance at her, though most men wouldn’t have been able to resist it “Oh dear, isn’t it hot? Christ, it must be ninety! ‘Phew’ is about all I’m up to, because if I do more man open my mouth a crack—ugh!” And he spat out yet another wet fly.
Liz squirmed and grimaced. “What the hell do they live on, I wonder? Way out here, I mean?” She swatted and missed as something small, black, and nasty went zipping by.
“Things die out here,” Jake answered grimly. “Maybe that’s what they live on.” And just when she thought that was it, that he was all done for now: “Anyway, the sun’s going down over the hills there. Another half hour or so, it’ll be cooler. It won’t get cold—not in this freaky weather—but at least you’ll be able to breathe without frying your lungs.” Then he was done.
She turned her head to look at him more fully: his angular face in profile, his hard hands on the wheel, his lean outline. But if Jake noticed her frowning, curiously intent glance, it scarcely registered. That was how he was: hands off. And she thought: We make a damned odd couple!
She was right, they did. Jake hard yet supple, like whipcord, and Liz soft and curvy. Him with his dark background and current…condition, and Liz with her—
—Which was when they hit a pothole, which simultaneously brought Liz’s mind back to earth while lifting her backside eight inches off her seat “Jake, take it easy!” she gasped.
He nodded, in no way apologetically, almost absentmindedly. He had turned his head to look at her—no, Liz corrected herself—to look beyond her, westward where the rounded domes of gaunt, yellow- and red-ochre hills marched parallel with the road. They were pitted, those hills, pockmarked even from here. The same could be said of the desert all around, including the so-called road. “These old mine workings,” Jake growled. “Gold mines. That was subsidence back there, where the road is sinking into some old mine. I didn’t see it because of this bloody heat haze.”
“Gold?” Squirming down into her seat, Liz tried to get comfortable again. Hah! she thought. As if I’d been comfortable in the first place!
“They found a few nuggets here,” he told her. “There was a bit of a gold rush that didn’t pan out. There may be gold here—there probably is—but first you have to survive to bring it up out of the ground. It just wasn’t worth it.…”
“Because even without this awful El Niño weather, this was one hell of an inhospitable place to survive in.” She nodded.
“Right.” Finally Jake glanced at her—at her this time. And while he was still looking she grinned nervously and said:
“What a place to spend your honeymoon! I should never have let you talk me into it” A witticism, of course.
Huh!” was his reply. Shielding his eyes, he switched his attention back to the rounded hills with the sun’s rim sitting on them like a golden, pus-filled blister on the slumping hip of some gigantic, reclining, decomposing woman.
“Fuel gauge is low.” Liz tapped on the gauge with a fingernail. “Are we sure there’s a gas station out here?” In fact she knew there was; it was right there on the map. It was just the awful heat, the condition of the road, evening setting in, and a perfectly normal case of nerves. Liz’s tended to fray a little from time to time. As for Jake’s…well, she wasn’t entirely sure about his, didn’t even know if he had any.
“Gas station?” He glanced at her again. “Sure there is. To service the local ‘community.’ Heck, around these parts there’s point nine persons per hundred square miles!” While Jake’s sarcasm dripped, it wasn’t directed entirely at Liz but rather at their situation. Moreover, she thought she detected an unfamiliar edge to his voice. So perhaps he did have nerves after all. But still his completely humourless attitude irritated her.
That many people? Really?” For a moment she’d felt goaded into playing this insufferable man at his own game…but only for a moment. Then, shrugging, she let it go. “So what’s it doing here? The gas station, I mean.”
“It’s a relic of the gold rush,” he answered. “The Australian government keeps such places going with subsidies, or they simply couldn’t exist. They’re watering holes in the middle of nowhere, way stations for the occasional wanderer. Don’t expect too much, though. Maybe a bottle of warm beer—make sure you knock the cap off yourself…yes, I know you know that—no food, and if you need the loo you’d better do it before we get there.” Good advice, around these parts.
The road vanished about a mile ahead: an optical illusion, just like the heat haze. As the hills got higher, so the road began to climb, making everything seem on a level, horizontal. Only the throb of the motor told the truth: that the Land Rover was in fact labouring, however slightly. And in another minute they crested the rise.
Then Jake brought the vehicle to a halt and they both went off into the scrub fifty yards in different directions. He got back first, was leaning on his open door, peering through binoculars and checking the way ahead when Liz returned.
“See anything?” she asked, secretly admiring Jake where he stood unselfconsciously posed, with one booted foot on the door sill, his jeans outlining a small backside and narrow hips. But the rest of him wasn’t small. He was tall, maybe six-two, leggy and with long arms to match. His hair was a deep brown like his eyes, and his face was lean, hollow-cheeked. He looked as if a good meal wouldn’t hurt…but on the other hand extra weight would certainly slow him down. His lips were thin, even cruel. And when he smiled you could never be sure there was any humour in it. Jake’s hair was long as a lion’s; he kept it swept back, braided into a pigtail. His jaw was angular, thinly scarred on the left side, and his nose had been broken high on the bridge so that it hung like a sheer cliff (like a Native American’s nose, Liz thought) instead of projecting. But despite his leanness, Jake’s shoulders were broad, and the sun-bronzed flesh of his upper arms was corded with muscle. His thighs, too, she imagined.…
“The gas station,” he answered. “Sign at the roadside says ‘Old Mine Gas.’ There’s a track off to the right from the road to the pumps…or rather, the pump. What a dump! Another sign this side of the shack says…what?” He frowned.
“Well, what?” Liz asked.
“Says ‘See the Creature!’”Jake told her. “But it’s spelled C-r-e-e-c-h-u-r. Huh! Creechur…” He shook his head.
“Not much schooling around here,” she said. Then, putting a hand to the left side of her face to shut out the last spears of sunlight from the west, “That’s some kind of eyesight you’ve got. Even with binoculars the letters on those signs have to be tiny.”
“First requirement of a sniper,” he grunted. “That his eyesight is one hundred percent”
“But you’re not a sniper, or indeed any kind of killer, any longer,” she told him—then caught her breath as she realized how wrong she might be. Except it was different now, surely.
Jake passed the binoculars, looked at her but made no comment. Peering through the glasses, she focussed them to her own vision, picked up the gas station’s single forlorn pump and the shack standing—or leaning—behind it, apparently built right into the rocky base of a knoll, which itself bulged at the foot of a massive outcrop or butte. The road wound around the ridgy, shelved base of the outcrop and disappeared north.
And while she looked at the place, Jake looked at her. That was okay because she didn’t know he was looking.
She was a girl—no, a woman—and a sight for sore eyes. But Jake Cutter couldn’t look at her that way. There had been a woman, and after her there couldn’t be anything else. Not ever. But if there could have been…maybe it would have been someone like Liz Merrick. She was maybe five-seven, willow-waisted, and fully curved where it would matter to someone who mattered. And to whom she mattered. Well, and she did, but not like that. Her hair, black as night, cut in a boyish bob, wasn’t Natasha’s hair, and her long legs weren’t Natasha’s legs. But Liz’s smile…he had to admit there was something in her smile. Something like a ray of bright light, but one that Jake wished he’d never known—because he knew now how quickly a light can be switched off. Like Natasha’s light…
“Not very appetizing,” Liz commented, breathing with difficulty through her mouth.
“Eh?” He came back to earth.
“The dump, as you called it.”
“The name says it all.” Jake was equally adenoidal. “Probably the entrance to an old mine. Hence ‘Old Mine Gas.’”
A great talent for the obvious, she wanted to tell him but didn’t. Sarcasm again, covering for something else.
“So what do you think?” she finally said as they got into the Rover.
“Good time not to think,” he answered, and Liz could only agree. At least he’d remembered what little he’d been told. So they tried not to think, and continued not thinking as he started up the vehicle and let her coast the downhill quarter-mile to the Old Mine Gas station…
* * *
Lights of a sort came on as they turned off the road to climb a hard-packed ramp to the elevated shelf that fronted the shack. The illuminated sign flickered and buzzed, finally lit up in a desultory, half-hearted neon glare; grimy windows in the shack itself burned a dusty, uncertain electrical yellow. In an ancient river valley like this, dry since prehistory, it got dark very quickly, even suddenly, when the sun went down.
It also got cooler; not cold by any means—not in this freakish El Niño weather—but cooler. After they pulled up at the lone pump, Jake helped Liz shrug herself into a thin safari jacket, took his own from the back of the Rover and put it on. In the west, one shallow trough in the crest of the domed hills still held a golden glow. But the light was rapidly fading and the amethyst draining from the sky, squeezed out by the descending sepia of space. To the east, the first stars were already winking into being over blackly silhouetted mountains.
Maybe twenty-five paces to the right of the main shack, a lesser structure burrowed into the side of the steep knoll. The see the creechur sign pointed in that direction. Liz wondered out loud, “What sort of creature, do you reckon?”
But now there was a figure standing in the shadow of the shack’s suddenly open screen door. And it was that figure that answered her. “Well, it’s a bloody funny one, I guarantee that much, miss.” And then a chuckle as the owner of the deep, gravelly voice stepped out into full view. “It’s a bit late in the day, though, so if yer want ter see ’im, best take a torch with yer. Bloomin’ bulb’s blown again…or maybe did it ’imself. Don’t much care for the light, that creechur feller. Now then, what can I do fer you folks? Gas, is it?”
Jake nodded and tilted his hat back. “Gas. Fill her up.”
Ah!” The other’s gasp seemed genuine enough. “Eh? What’s this, then? Brits are yer? A pair of whingein’ pommies way out ’ere? Now I asks yer, what next!?” He grinned, shook his head. “Just kiddin’. Don’t yer be takin’ no note o’ me, folks.”
To all appearances he was just a friendly old lad and entirely unaccustomed to company. His rheumy little pinprick eyes, long since abandoned to the wrinkles of a weathered face, gazed at his customers over a bristly beard like that of some garrulous stagecoach driver in an ancient Western. As he took the cap off the Land Rover’s tank, his wobbly spindle legs seemed about ready to collapse under him. And as if to make doubly sure he’d said nothing out of turn: “Er, no offence meant,” he continued to mumble his apologies.
“No offence taken,” Liz gave a little laugh. And Jake had to admire her: her steady, give-away-nothing voice. She quickly went on, “Can we get a drink or something while you’re filling her up? It’s been a long and thirsty road, and a way to go yet. Maybe a beer? You do have beer, right?”
“Did yer ever meet up with an Australian” (but in fact he said Orstrylian) “who didn’t have a beer close ter hand?” The old man grinned again, started the pump and handed the nozzle to Jake, then hobbled back and held open the inner door to the shack for Liz. “Just you ’elp yerself, miss. They’re all lined up on die shelves back o’ the bar there. Not a lot ter choose from, though—Foster’s every one! It’s my favourite. And since I’m the one who drinks most of it, it’s my choice too.”
“Well, good,” said Liz. “It’s my favourite, too.”
Jake watched them go inside, frowned at the nozzle in his hand. Just like that, he’d accepted the bloody thing. Damn!
After that…but it seemed it was going to take forever to satisfy the Rover’s greedy guzzling. So Jake quit when the tank was only three-quarters full, slammed the nozzle into the pump’s housing, tried not to look too concerned as he followed Liz and the old boy into the shack. But he’d hated to lose contact with her, lose sight of her like that, even for a few seconds. And she’d looked back at him just before she passed from view, her green eyes a fraction too narrow, too anxious.
Inside, however, it wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it would be. Or as it might have been.
It was the grime, the blown dust of the desert, clinging to the outside of the windows, that had shut the light in and made the place seem so dim from outside. But within—this might be typical of any outback filling station a million miles from nowhere. That was Jake’s first impression. The bar was a plank on two barrels, with a bead curtain hanging from the plank to the floor in front and smaller barrels for seats. Liz was perched on one of them, and the old man had passed her a beer that she held unopened in her hand.
She must have asked him if he was all alone out here, and he was in the process of answering: “Alone? Me? Naw, not much. And anyway I enjoys bein’ on me ownsome. Oh, I got a couple o’ boys to ’elp out. They ’aint ’ere right now, is all. It ’aint so bad, actu’ly. ’Ad a truck through just a day or so ago.”
“A truck?” Liz said, all innocence and light. “Out here?”
And the old man nodded. “Gawd knows where they’d be goin‘! But for that matter, where be you goin’, eh? What’re yer doin’ out ’ere anyway?”
Having taken in much of the single room at a glance, Jake strode to the bar and asked for a beer. Without waiting for an answer from Liz, the old man reached for a bottle and turned to Jake. “Well now, you was a mite quick!” he said. “Yer just topped ’er up, am I right? I mean, yer’d never fill a big tank as quick as all that.”
“Right,” said Jake, accepting the beer. He gave the bottle a quick shake, forced the top off with a practiced thumb. Then, changing the subject as the warm beer foamed, “No cans?” he inquired. He passed the bottle to Liz, took hers, and repeated his trick with the same result. The beer wasn’t flat; these bottles were old stock, but they hadn’t been opened previously.
And meanwhile: “Cans? I don’t hold with ’em,” the oldster told him. “All this newfangled shite! But yer can trust a bottle.” And turning to Liz again, “You were sayin’?”
“No,” she answered, “you were saying. You asked what we’re doing out here.”
“Well, then?” he pressed.
She smiled. “Can you keep a secret?”
He shrugged his hunched shoulders, sat down on a barrel on his side of the plank and chuckled. “And who do yer reckon I’d be tellin‘?”
Liz nodded. “We were visiting kin in Wiluna, decided to get married sort of quick. So here we are, run off where no one can find us.”
“Eh? Honeymooners, yer say? Run off on yer ownsome and left no forwardin’ address? All out o’ touch, secret an’ private in the Gibson Desert? Huh! Hell o’ a place fer a honeymoon.…”
“I told him the very same thing.” Liz nodded her agreement, shaking an I-told-you-so finger at Jake.
And Jake said, “Anyway, we’re headed north. We thought we’d take a look at the lakes and—”
“Lakes?” the old fellow cut in, frowning. “Yer visitin’ the lakes?” Then, with a knowing nod of his head, he muttered, “Big disappointment, that.”
“Oh?” Jake lifted an eyebrow.
But the oldster only laughed out loud and slapped his thigh. “Lake Disappointment!” he guffawed. “Way up north o’ here. Damn me, they falls fer it every time!” He sobered up, said, “Lakes, eh? Somethin’ ter see, is it? Huh! Plenty o’ mud and salt, but that’s about all.”
And wildlife!” Liz protested.
“Oh, aye, that too,” he said. “Anyway, what would I know or care? I ’ave me own wildlife, after all.”
“The creature?” Jake swigged on his beer.
” ‘Im’s the one,” the old boy nodded. “Yer wanna see ’im?”
Jake had done with studying the oldster. But he would certainly like to take a closer look at this shack—or what lay behind it or maybe beneath it Liz could feel his curiosity no matter how hard he tried to keep it from the old boy. Moreover, she knew that between them they had to check this place out, and so decided to do her bit—create a diversion as best she could. And anyway (she told herself), the old man didn’t seem much of a threat.
“I’d like to see him,” she said. “I mean, what’s the mystery? What kind of creature is it, anyway? Or is it just a con—some mangy, diseased dingo crawled in out of the desert—to pull in a few more travellers?” And to her partner, though she knew he wouldn’t take her up on it: “What about you, Jake? You want to come and see this thing?”
 Jake shook his head, took another pull at his bottle. “Not me, Liz. I’ve a thirst to slake. But if you want to have a look at some mangy dog, well go right ahead.” Almost choking on the words, he got them out somehow. Damn it to hell—the idea was supposed to be that they didn’t get split up! He hoped she knew what she was doing. There again, she’d been in this game longer than he had. And that pissed Jake more than a little, too: the fact that Liz was in effect the boss here.
“Torch,” said the old boy, taking a heavy rubber-jacketed flashlight from the shelf and handing it to Liz. “Yer’ll need it. I keeps ’im in out o’ the sun, which would surely fry ’is eyes. But it’s dark in the back o’ the shack there. And this time o’ evenin’ even darker in ’is cage.” When she looked uncertain, didn’t move, he cocked his head on one side and said, “Er, yer just follers the signs, is all.”
Liz looked at him, hefted the torch, said, “You want me to go alone?”
“Can’t very well get lost!” he said. But then, grumblingly, he hobbled out from behind the makeshift bar. “It’s these old pins o’ mine,” he said. “See, they don’t much like ter go. But yer right—can’t let a little lady go wanderin’ about in the dark on ’er own. So just you foiler me, miss. Just you foller old Bruce.” And then they were gone.
Jake took a small pager out of his pocket and switched it on. Now if Liz got in trouble she only had to press the button on her own beeper and he would know it…and vice versa. For in this game it was just as likely that he would be the one to make a wrong move.
Those were his thoughts as he stepped silently behind the bar and passed through a second bead curtain hanging from the timbered ceiling to the floor. And as easily and as quickly as that he was into a horizontal mineshaft, and almost as quickly into something far less mundane.…
* * *
Liz had followed the old man (Bruce? Hell of a lot of Australians called Bruce, she thought. There have to be at least as many as there are Johns in London) along the foot of the knoll to the lesser shack that leaned into an almost sheer cliff face.
It was quite dark now, and the torch he’d given her wasn’t nearly working on full charge. The batteries must be just about dead. Of course, knowing the place as he did, that wouldn’t much concern the old boy, but it concerned Liz. And despite following slowly and carefully in old Bruce’s footsteps—mainly to give Jake the time he needed to look the place over—still she stumbled once or twice over large rocks or into this, that, or the other pothole. But in truth much of her stumbling was a ploy, too, so that it was perhaps a good thing after all that the torch was almost spent. She thought so at the outset, anyway.
Until eventually: “He we are,” the old man said, turning a key in a squealing lock and opening an exterior screen door. Beyond that a second door stood ajar; and as old Bruce, if that really was his name, reached out an incredibly long arm to one side of Liz to push it fully open—at the same time managing to bundle her inside—so she recognized the smell of a lair.
It was a primal thing, something that lies deep in the ancestral memories of every human being: to be able to recognize the habitat of a dangerous animal or animals. The musty, feral smell of a cavern where something dwells—or perhaps an attic where bats have hibernated for untold years—or maybe the reptile house in a zoo.
But there are smells and smells, and this wasn’t like anything Liz had ever come across before; or perhaps it was simply the tainted, composite smell of all of them. Until suddenly she realized that it wasn’t just a smell—wasn’t simply a smell—but her talent coming into play, and that the stench wasn’t in her nostrils alone but also in her mind!
And then she had to wonder about its origin, the focus or point of emanation of this alien taint. Was it the shack—or the steel-barred, wall-to-wall cell it contained—or perhaps
the night-black tunnel beyond the bars, with its as yet unseen, unknown “creecnur”…or could it possibly be old “Bruce” himself?
There came a sound from the darker depths of the horizontal mine shaft. And just as there are smells and smells, so are there sounds and sounds. Liz gasped, aimed her torch-beam into the darkness back there, and saw movement. A flowing, gathering, approaching darkness in the lesser dark around; an inkblot of a figure, taking on shape as it came, bobbing, wafting on a draft of poisonous air from wherever and whatever lay beyond. And it had luminous yellow eyes—slanted as a beast’s, and yet intelligent, not-quite-feral—that held her fixed like a rabbit in a headlight’s beam!
But only for a moment. Then—
“You!” Liz transferred the torch to her left hand, dipped her right hand into a pocket and came out with a modified Baby Browning, used her thumb to release the safety and aimed it at the old man…or at the empty space where he had been. While from outside in the night, she heard the grating of his booted feet, his now obscene chuckle, and the squeal of a key turning in the exterior screen-door’s lock as he shut her in.
Hell! But this could quite literally be hell! Along with her talent—held back far too long by her desire not to alert anyone or-thing to her real purpose here—Liz’s worst fears were now fully mobilized, realized. She knew what the creature in the mineshaft was, knew what it could do. But even now she wasn’t entirely helpless.
Tucking the torch under her arm, she found her beeper and pressed its alarm button…at me precise moment that it commenced transmitting Jake’s own cry for help.
The shock of hearing that rapid beep beep beeping from her pocket almost made Liz drop the torch; she somehow managed to hold on to it, held her hands together, pointed the gun and the torch both through the inch-thick bars of the cage. But as the weak beam swept the bars, it picked out something that she hadn’t previously noticed; there had been little enough time to notice anything. The cage had a door fastened with a chain and stout padlock—but the padlock hung on the inside, the other side, where it dangled from the hoop of its loose shackle!
She knew what she must do: reach through the bars, drive home the shackle to close the padlock. A two-handed job. Again she put the torch under her arm, fumbled the gun back into her pocket. Then, in the crawling, tingling, living semi-darkness, Liz thrust her trembling hands between the bars…and all of the time she was aware of the thing advancing towards her, its slanted, sulphurous eyes alive on her…and the beeper issuing its urgent, staccato Mayday like a small, terrified animal…and on top of all this the sudden, nightmarish notion: But what if this thing has the key to the padlock!?
At that moment it was Liz Merrick who felt like some small, terrified, trapped animal—but a human animal. While the thing striding silently, ever closer to her along the shaft was anything but human, though it might have been not so long ago.
It was almost upon her; she smelled the hot stench of its breath! Liz had squeezed her eyes shut in a desperate effort to locate the padlock. Now she opened them…
…And it was there, it was there! Its face, caught in the upward-slanting beam of yellow light from the torch in her armpit, looked down on her. And:
“Ahhh!” It-or he, the “creechur”-sighed. “A girl. No, a woooman. And a fresh one. How very good to meet you here! How very…provident Ahhh! ” And as simply as that his cold, cold hands took the padlock from hers, freed it from the chains, and let it fall with a clank to the dirt floor.…
 
Copyright © 1999 by Brian Lumley Brian Lumley is the author of the bestselling Necroscope series of vampire novels. The first Necroscope, Harry Keogh, also appears in a collection of Lumley's short fiction, Harry Keogh and Other Weird Heroes, along Titus Crow and Henri Laurent de Marigny, from Titus Crow, Volumes One, Two, and Three, and David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer, from the Dreamlands series.

An acknowledged master of Lovecraft-style horror, Brian Lumley has won the British Fantasy Award and been named a Grand Master of Horror. His works have been published in more than a dozen countries and have inspired comic books, role-playing games, and sculpture, and been adapted for television.

When not writing, Lumley can often be found spear-fishing in the Greek islands, gambling in Las Vegas, or attending a convention somewhere in the US. Lumley and his wife live in England.