Tuesday, 9 March 2010
CHANGE OF FORTUNE By Keith Buckley
“Jesus, Doug,” I sighed as we bounced away from the blasted Federalist brick farmhouse at Brimstone Corners and up the gravel road that led into snapped-off trees, “I had no idea you got hit this bad last March.”
“Yeah, well, with half of Fayetteville blown away, tornadoes zeroing in on one farm in the middle of nowhere wasn’t exactly big news,” he said. “Just about destroyed Mom and Dad to lose the place.” He paused, downshifting as he rammed the faded blue Jeep Cherokee up to the foot of Spangler Hill where the gravel dead-ended. “Maybe the accident was a blessing in disguise.” Jack and Betty Driscoll had been killed 2 months after the storm when their LeSabre crossed the center line on State Road 135 directly into the path of a semi hauling timber up from Salem. “Hundred and fifty acres of the most productive land in the county, and I got squat to plant or harvest it with. Driscolls’ve owned this property outright since the first white man set foot here.” He shook his big shaggy head in disgust, “And, fuck me, Ed, I am going to lose the whole shootin’ match ‘cause I can’t pay the taxes.” Then he got that great sloppy grin on his moon face, and said “Less I figure out how to change my luck.”
“That’s why we’re up here?” I asked. Doug had been damn cagey when he called me weeks ago and begged me to come down, to “bring your dad’s tools with you.” I tried to explain that even though my late father had been a doctor and county coroner and I now wrote books an alcoholic forensic pathologist that nobody read, I wasn’t a professional. “If you’ve found something weird, Doug, call the cops now,” I’d warned him. But Doug said no, he wanted to let me in on this first, and that would open up opportunities all over the place.
Doug, my freshman roommate at Indiana University, had never been what you’d call grounded in reality, and I blamed a lot of his issues on the money his parents showered on him. For generations, everything the Driscolls touched turned to gold. First the mills they’d run on Twin and Clifty Creeks, then the land they accumulated through very smart marriages, and finally the car dealerships in Salem and Seymour. Then, last year, all of it went to hell. Driscoll’s brother-in-law embezzled the dealerships into the toilet. In February, Doug’s sister’s entire family had been shotgunned to death when they caught a break-in team by surprise when they came home from their dream vacation in Hawaii a day early. Next came the tornado, and then Jack and Betty got turned into dog food.
I followed Doug across a well-worn footpath that hugged the bottom of the hill. I noticed a power line running through the trees along beside us. “What do you need electricity up here for, Doug?” I said.
“Light up that place,” he replied, nodding towards a primitive stone and brick dome tucked into the side of Spangler’s Hill where the path terminated. The brick looked to be the same vintage as the shattered Driscoll homestead, and sat on the kind of sandstone sills you found on the oldest buildings in the county. In the more recent past someone had knocked out a curve in the dome and set in a steel-framed security door.
“Looks almost like an old root cellar, but a lot bigger,” I said. “Is this, like, the last still-house left? Because I know there were a lot of distilleries up along the ridges here by the river.”
“This is so cool it’s gonna hurt,” Doug chuckled like the doofus he was. He unlocked the door, reached inside the frame and hit a light switch. “Watch your footing, Eddie-- first step’s a killer.”
Holy shit, I thought as I slid inside and watched Doug work his way down a 15 foot extension ladder. The dome was perched on the rim of a shallow limestone sinkhole that dropped to a cave mouth. Much of Brown Township was riddled with caves; just a few miles east was Cavetown, where you could boat into the underground headwaters of Clifty Creek. For a fee, of course. Judging by the smell and feel of the air on my skin, this cave had been dry for a very long time.
It was no easy task working my way down the ladder after Doug one-handed as I carried Dad’s satchel in the other. With 60 watt bulbs strung along our left shoulders, we duck-walked down a twisting corridor something less than four feet high for about five minutes until we came to a larger cavern I was guessing must be about six hundred square feet or so. There’d definitely been water around here at some point, for the back reaches of the small rotunda were spiked with stalagmites and stalactites. “Oh my God, Doug,” I gasped. “This is fucking incredible! These formations-- they’re every bit as beautiful as the ones in Marengo Caves. You could sell admission. Wait, that’s your plan, right?” I said as he walked around me and over to a low ribbed dome rising up from the floor. “What do you need with me, or this gear?” I said, holding up the bag.
“Eddie, you haven’t seen the best part,” he told me in this weird, soft voice. “Come around here and check this out.” The concentration of lights on other side of the dome and the stalagmites behind it threw wild shadows across his face, and when I made my way around the dome his smile positively glowed insane.
I looked down at what was on the other side of the dome. I yanked out my cell phone. “Whatcha doin’, Eddie?” Doug giggled. “Who you calling?”
“The fucking police, Doug, you damn lunatic,” I said, waiting to as the cell searched for a signal. I nodded towards the four skeletons propped up against the calcium carbonate altar. “What the fuck, Doug? What the fuck!”
“You’re not gonna get any service down here, Eddie, and these guys have been dead for hundreds of years. Don’t you see? It’s some sort of Indian thing, Eddie. This entire county was crawling with Fox and Potawatomi up until the first Driscolls helped drive ‘em out in 1810.” He waved me over to the dome. “For fuck’s sake, Eddie, I’m giving you the chance of a lifetime. You get to see how they died, write about finding ‘em here, and then we call in some real firepower. Anthropologists or whatever, see?” When I hesitated, Doug said, “My family’s known about them for years and Pop said it would be a sin to disturb ‘em. Fuck, Eddie, they’re about all I have left, and I was just hoping you could give me an angle on making some dough off ‘em.”
Now that sounded like vintage shit-for-brains Doug. “Hundreds of years?” I asked.
“That’s the story, man. C’mon, Eddie, just take a look and tell me what happened to ‘em.”
Slowly shaking my head, I opened up Dad’s case. I’d need a magnifying glass, my own halogen flashlight, and maybe some forceps. For starters.
I knelt down beside the nearest skeleton, glancing along the row. Definitely bones, no tissue. All four individuals appeared to have had their outstretched legs bound at the ankles and their arms bound behind them. I’m no professional but I’d dug around through my father’s library of forensic path textbooks enough to know within a few minutes that all four had been gruesomely butchered.
“This is human sacrifice, Doug,” I muttered. “Pretty sick shit, too.”
“So tell me.”
“All four skulls are cracked, and the second guy got his head bashed in so bad I’m betting that alone killed him. All of the mandibles, the lower jaws, have spiral fractures and notches where the tongue muscle would connect.”
“Oh, man,” Doug said in disgust, “they cut their fucking tongues out? Were those poor assholes alive or dead when that happened?”
“No way to tell,” I said. “Hope it was post mortem. There’s also a lot of cut marks along muscle attachments and skull close to the skin, so flaying was part of the program as well.”
“No, I can’t handle that,” Doug said. “Dad told me something horrible happened down here, but I never would’ve guessed-- ”
“Whatever else these maniacs did, I’m seeing fractures along either side of the cervical vertebrae that usually means strangulation.”
“Hoo boy,” Doug wheezed. “That’s gotta be all, doesn’t it? Sounds like a lot of work.”
I gave him a frown. “Doug, we’re just talking the head and neck. I haven’t even started on the long bones.” I got down on my hands and knees, double-checking the pelvises to determine sex.
A block of ice slid down my spine and settled in my guts like a chunk of bad meat. I took a few deep breaths, biting down on the inside of my lower lip to keep my voice from shaking. “Okay, Doug, now I am pretty sure the Fox and Potawatomi didn’t have access to the galvanized barbed wire used to bind Number 3’s wrists or the nylon rope used on Number 4,” I said. “Which means Number 4 couldn’t have been any earlier than World War II.”
“God damn, Eddie, I always did say you was the smartest guy I knew,” Doug guffawed, slapping a nice little Davis P-380 against his thigh. Where the hell had that come from? And why? “Last one was Dad’s sacrifice to the Ancients,” Doug said. “1959, three years after we were born, buddy. Told me it was supposed to seal our fortunes for at least another 50 years. He got that right, but then the motherfucking logging truck killed him before he could do the next one or teach me how.”
“The Ancients?” I heard myself ask from way far outside of anything.
“That’s the way Nathaniel Driscoll figured it when he found a whole bunch of skeletons and a freshly killed ‘un up here after he filed his land patent. He hauled them back into a side cavern back aways, and started up on his own when he married a Fox squaw who told him the whys and wherefores. Number 1 there’s the fresh ‘un old Nate found.”
My bladder twitched and for a moment I was afraid I might piss myself. “Your family ...”
“You gotta make your breaks in this world, Eddie,” he said. Then he squatted down by the snaggle-toothed row of stalagmites and came up with a baseball bat. “Which is what I gotta do now, Eddie. I’m real sorry it has to be you, but you were the only person who could give me any idea of how Daddy and his grandpa and his grandpa kept luck going our way. And, hell, Eddie, I don’t have anything going my way right now, and I refuse to die poor and stupid and alone.”
For a man of his size and oafishness, Doug rushed me much faster than I expected, which barely gave me a chance to rip his throat with Dad’s scalpel before he smashed the top of his skull in on the dome and collapsed on the scattered bones of his ancestors’ victims.
His body jerked a couple of times while his bowels gurgled and malodorously discharged.
“Well, at least you didn’t go out alone, you poor, dumb son of a bitch,” I told him. I bent down to check if anyone was home. Left carotid pulse was non-existent, right was faint and irregular. I weighed the odds of me getting medical personnel out here in time to do anything for a guy who’d planned on murdering me against the equally astronomical possibility either the Driscolls or the Potawatomi had been feeding things that could reshape reality.
“Scalpel still has a hell of an edge,” I murmured to myself.
Three days later, Brian De Palma calls me and says he picked up a copy of Resonant Corpse on Abebooks. Thanks, Doug. Now I need a damn lawyer to tell me how to sign a seven figure deal.
Keith Buckley lives in a dimly-lit money pit in Bloomington, Indiana, surrounded by mountains of golden retriever fur, unpulishable pornoviolence, and unlistenable music. He also studies early 19th century gravestone carvers and is a contributor to Air In The Paragraph Line, to name but a few.