Fiction: Beneath The Cold Black Sea

By Martin Hayes

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It was halfway through the fierce winter of 1942 when the monsters came to Blackwater. They came silently. No one in the sleepy fishing town even noticed their presence until the first body washed up on the unforgiving beach. Even then, some people said that the fisherman’s death was probably just an accident, one of those things. You always get people like that. People who refuse to believe the evidence of their own eyes. People who dismissed the jagged, circular bite marks that covered the poor man’s body as the work of crabs, the missing limbs as the work of hungry Conger eels, the lack of a tongue as proof that cod really will eat anything.

But when a second body and then a third washed up, each of them with the same kinds of wounds, each of them found flopping, loose and lifeless in the freezing early morning surf, that’s when people really started to worry.

The sheriff of the town, a soft-spoken giant of a man named Jim Gilbert, had asked me if I’d lend him a hand trying to figure this thing out. Both his deputies were laid up with a bad bout of the flu and the only road out of town was snowed under, making it impossible for reinforcements to be drafted in from the next town up the coast. Jim knew that I’d worked on the force before moving here from my old stomping ground of Brooklyn. He’d heard the rumours about some of the weirder cases that I’d dealt with.

I left the city after my wife died. I just couldn’t walk those streets without Marjorie by my side. I offered to enlist, but even back then the Army wasn’t desperate enough to take on fifty-three-year-old men, so I upped sticks and moved to Blackwater.

It was quiet there, for a time.

I knocked on the door of Jim Gilbert’s house at just after two o’clock on that cold Thursday afternoon. His wife, Nancy, a peach of a woman if ever there was one, answered it. Before I’d even had a chance to say “Hello,” she had shoved a cup of coffee into my hand and was asking whether I wanted bearclaws or donuts. Jim and I sat and ate and discussed the case.

Three bodies, all found washed up on the beach. All missing various limbs and covered in the circular bite marks that I mentioned earlier, some with tongues missing, some with eyeballs missing, one without testicles. All had been eviscerated. Each of the three had been fishermen, working the icy waters surrounding the small harbour and the long pier that ran for several hundred yards into the cold black sea.

First thing Jim and me did was go down to Doc Clayton’s surgery. He brought us out back and showed us the bodies, which he’d been keeping on ice ’till the road was cleared. Christ! I hope that those poor bastards drowned before those things were done to them. The guy who’d had his tongue bitten out really tore me up. He couldn’t have been any more than twenty, still a kid, really. I’m glad you weren’t there to see the look of horror that was frozen on that young man’s face.

“What was the cause of death?” I asked as Doc Clayton slid the last body back into the cooler.

“Hard to say.” He walked over to the metal sink and began to wash his hands. “They all had seawater in their lungs, which would indicate drowning, but the loss of blood would indicate that at least some of their injuries were inflicted before death occurred.”

“You mean something took those bites out of them before they died?” asked Jim.

Doc Clayton dried his hands and said, “Look Jim, you know what it’s like: I don’t have the proper facilities here to do a thorough autopsy, but if you want my opinion, something tore those poor men apart before they drowned.”

As we left Doc Clayton’s place, we saw a young woman sitting in the lobby, crying. I think she was the youngest man’s wife.

Jim drove us down to the small harbour with its fleet of about a dozen fishing boats. The wind had picked up again and there was a light shower of snow falling. I could smell the sickly combination of salt air and diesel as we walked along the stone causeway down to the rickety Harbour Master’s office. Out past the meandering harbour wall, I could see the black swells of the sea, and above it, like a living cloud, a flock of gulls seemed to huddle together for warmth.

“Ever get any trouble down here?” I asked, as I tried to pick my way through a mess of what looked and smelled like fish guts that was smeared all over the ground.

“Not really,” Jim said. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Just thought you might get a little smuggling in a place like this.”

“Nahh. Smuggling in Blackwater, we don’t get anything that exciting.”

Jim rattled his knuckle against the sick-looking window of the Harbour Master’s office. A noise came through the flaking door, like someone had just kicked a sleeping bear. The glass was too dirty to see much of what was inside. I could make out a desk and what looked like a couple of filing cabinets but not much else. The door opened slowly and then Jim broke into a wide smile as he said, “Willy Mason, I heard you were dead.”

“Only from the waist up, Jim. Still got it down below,” said the old man as he ushered us in and closed the door behind us. He was small, maybe 5’4″, and his warm face was a crazy maze of wrinkles.

“Willy Mason, this is Jack O’Neill.”

We shook hands and he smiled at me. Then he turned and walked over to a battered filing cabinet and began to rummage in the top drawer.

“Jack’s new in town,” Jim said. “He used to be a cop back in Brooklyn; he’s helping me out while my Deputies are laid up.”

Willy turned and I saw that he was holding a bottle of Jameson Whiskey. “O’Neill…Irish huh?” he said. “Well then, you’ll be wanting a drop of this, won’t you?” We all smiled. I was beginning to like this guy.

He pulled a couple of chairs over to his desk, and we sat and sipped from rusty tin mugs.

“What do you think happened to them?” asked Willy.

“To be honest, I don’t know yet,” replied Jim. “Could all be coincidence, could be something more.”

“And what do you think?” He was talking to me this time.

“Jim’s right, could be anything. But those bite marks – there was something weird about them.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jim, turning towards me.

“I don’t know, they looked…they looked awfully human. I’ve seen a lot of cases involving bite marks over the years and to me, the marks we saw on those three guys looked human, only sharper, bigger, more carnivorous somehow.”

Jim took a swig from his rusty mug and grimaced as he swallowed it. “Jesus, Jack, are you trying to frighten everybody to death? If word got out that a cop thinks we’ve got some kind of monster roaming the town, then all hell would break loose.”

Old Willy said nothing, just polished off his whiskey and then got up and started rooting around under an old work bench at the rear of the office.

“I’m not trying to scare anybody Jim; I’m just telling you what I think. That’s the reason you asked me to tag along, isn’t it?”

“Well yeah, but I wasn’t expecting – ”

He was cut off in mid-sentence as Willy said, “Did the bite marks look like this?”

Our eyes widened when we saw what he was holding.

“Where in the hell did you get that?” asked Jim.

“You know where I got it,” he said. He was holding an old piece of timber, a two-by-four, about four feet long, holding it out at arm’s length as though the thing was somehow dangerous. “This belonged to Bryan Millar,” he said in a half-whisper that let me know that he didn’t want just anyone to know about it.

“Bryan Millar was a goddamn loon,” Jim said. “He’s still locked up over in Pentenville Psychiatric Hospital. Everyone knows he went crazy.”

“Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that I found this piece of timber on the beach two days after he had his…breakdown.”

“Who’s Bryan Millar?” I asked, taking the timber from the old man, who seemed glad to be rid of it.

Jim leaned in for a closer look and said, “Bryan Millar was an artist and a writer. He used to live in that big white house out on the other side of the pier, near the dunes. He moved here back in ’37 with his new wife and they seemed to be really nice people for a while. Now, this was all before my time, but apparently, a few months later, Norm Thomas, the guy I took over from, finds Millar out on the pier, covered in blood, his wife’s blood to be exact. He starts babbling about monsters and all sorts of crazy stuff, said that they came out of the sea and took his wife. Said that he tried to fight them off with an old piece of timber that he found, but they were too strong and quick for him. All that was ever found of his wife was two fingers off her right hand and a whole lot of blood that had been spilled all over the rocks.”

“That’s the piece of timber he was talking about,” said Willy, “Look at the bite marks; they’re clear as day.”

I examined the marks. As best I could make out, they were a pretty good match to the marks on the fresh victims.

“Why didn’t you report this?” I asked.

“Christ, I did,” said Willy, as he sat back down and poured himself another. “Norm Thomas was a good sheriff, but he had no imagination. He fobbed me off, told me if I believed in monsters then I was going to end up in Pentenville myself.”

I handed the piece of timber to Jim. “They match,” I said.

Jim’s face was white; the shock had leeched all the colour out of him. “Even if they do match, what are we going to do about it? Do you know what they’ll do to me if I call in a report about goddamn sea monsters?”

“Well, we know that the Millar incident took place on the pier. Is there any reason the latest victims might have had business there?”

“Sure,” said Willy. “A lot of the guys run a sideline with lobster pots. They bait them up and throw them in off the pier. There are plenty of spots where you can get right down to the water’s edge.”

“And is there any way that a man killed on the pier could wash up on the beach?”

“Absolutely. This time of year, the current’d take them right that way.”

Jim was still running his fingertips over the deep bite marks in the piece of timber. “But the Millar woman died over five years ago. What? They didn’t get hungry all that time? Not ’till last week?”

Willy said, “I’ve spent all my life on and around the sea, Jim. There’s strange things that go on. Things you wouldn’t believe. Maybe these monsters, whatever you want to call them, are migratory. Maybe they only come here to breed or something.”

“Jim,” I said. “I’ve seen some crazy things in my time, like Willy said, things you’d have trouble believing, hell, things I have trouble believing. I know that it can be hard to believe in things that don’t seem to make no sense, but look at the bite marks. Think about it as if it was just a piece of evidence. What does it tell you? What do you think?”

He turned slowly, placing the timber carefully onto Willy Mason’s chaotic desk. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t believe in monsters…but, well, I don’t believe much in coincidences either. And my eyes are telling me that the bite marks match.” He looked like a man whose beliefs have just been given a good hard kick in the groin.

Night wasn’t far off when we left Willy’s office and made our way down to the long, doglegging pier. It was well below freezing. The snow that had fallen earlier had stuck and frozen, making it a full time job to try not to fall on your ass. Old Willy Mason was sitting this one out; his arthritis prevented him from venturing out in weather this bad. He was huddled up by the phone, ready to call for help if we weren’t back in thirty-minutes’ time.

The pier was only about a hundred yards away. When we came to it, we both stopped walking; neither of us really knew why. We turned and gave each other the old here goes nothing look. Jim undid the button on his holster; he seemed comforted by the cold touch of his pistol’s wooden handle. I reached into my inside pocket and patted my .38, an old friend who had saved my life on too many occasions to remember.

The beams of our flashlights cut through the growing darkness, slashing through the mist and snow to reveal what lay beyond. From where I stood, I could see the pier stretching away from me, curving slightly to the left as it jutted out into the sea. The further we moved along its segmented granite spine, the more the wind picked up. The spray was all around us, engulfing us like some malevolent fog. Every fifty feet or so, we passed by a set of steps which led down into the water. Everything seemed quiet. I was turning to Jim, just about to tell him that we should head back and come again the next morning, when I heard something.

It was faint at first, barely audible over the gusting wind and the waves that crashed below us. And then it came again – a noise, a whimper, high-pitched, like the cry of an injured animal. Jim heard it, too. We were about forty feet from the end of the pier. We walked further on, urging the beams of our flashlights to penetrate the spray. As we walked, the noise grew louder until, there in the mist and darkness, Jim’s beam settled on the face of a large, white dog.

It was some kind of Husky. Jim moved forward, quicker now. “That’s Carrie Jenkins’s dog. She must have run off.”

Jim was only about fifteen feet away from the animal. He turned to me and shouted, “Here, hold my flashlight while I grab her collar!” But then there was a smear of green against the blackening sky. It moved so fast, I barely registered it. Jim turned just in time to see the spray of blood gush from the dog as its body was torn in two. The bloody spray settled on the lens of Jim’s flashlight. The unconscious twitching of his hand began to paint the hellish scene in great swathes of red as he backed away from the sight before him.

Even now, I find it hard to describe the creature that squatted, low, above the still-twitching corpse of the Husky. It was humanoid in shape. Its feet were webbed with almost-transparent skin and housed vicious-looking claws. The torso was entirely smooth and almost white. Its sallow, flaccid breasts looked sickly in the flashlight’s dim glow. The creature’s face had something feminine about it. I think it was the eyes that gave that impression; it could not have been the awful white lips which housed the two-inch-long, razor-like teeth. It paid us no mind as it gulped down guts and kidneys and the poor dog’s right-front paw.

Jim was almost beside me when he slipped on the ice and landed heavily on his rear-end. As he fell, his flashlight slipped from his grasp. The glass lens smashed on impact.

The noise alerted the thing to our presence. It looked up, still squatting on its haunches. I could see the blood dripping from its mouth, and there, holding fast to its pale underbelly, was a smaller version of itself. It was the creature’s child.

The thing reached out and picked up the dog’s hindquarters. It held the carcass up to the mewling mouth of the infant which began to gulp and feast on the still-warm canine blood. It was then that my flashlight picked out the creature’s right hand. There were two fingers missing. Just like the Millar woman who had disappeared almost five years before.

There was a flash of motion, too quick to be registered fully by the human eye, and then the thing was on top of Jim. I could hear his screams over the angry wind, screams of terror as the creature sank its evil teeth into the firm flesh of his shoulder.

A good cop, even a good ex-cop, runs on autopilot in times of emergency. I do not recall the moment when I drew my .38 from my jacket pocket. I have only the faintest memory of taking aim and loosing off three rounds into the creature’s slime-covered back.

I do remember the awful, shrill cries and the thick, viscous blood that spilled onto the granite as it crawled towards the edge of the pier, still clutching its solitary brood to its chest. It disappeared over the edge, and I heard a splash and a kind of cry.

Jim sat up, grimacing as he clutched his lacerated shoulder. Blood ran through his fingers and down his arm as he clamped his huge hand across the wound. I rushed to the edge and peered down into the black water that churned and swelled beneath me, but there was nothing there to see, no trace, no sign, only the ceaseless waves and the thickening mist.

After a short stay in the hospital, Jim recovered quickly from his injuries; he always said that the sea air had rejuvenative powers. Maybe he was right. Last I heard, he was still Sheriff of Blackwater. Old Willy Mason died a short time after the events of that night. Jim said that he went peacefully in the night, wrapped up nice and warm and full of whiskey, just the way he would have wanted.

We never told anyone about what happened on the pier that cold winter night. Who would have believed us? What scientific theory could explain what had happened to the Millar woman? Who could have postulated on what those things must have done to her to turn her into such a creature? When the doctors asked how Jim had gotten his wounds, we said that Carrie Jenkins’s Husky had attacked us on the pier, that we’d had to shoot it and its body had fallen into the sea. It was a lie, but not one that I feel bad about.

Officially, the deaths of the three fishermen remain unsolved. I did not stay in Blackwater for long after those events. I’m finished with all that, sick and tired of it. All I want is a quiet life, peaceful…and monster free.