The custard guy, the cadavers, Liliana, Terrence now, and some other guy with dreadlocks appeared one-by-one down the long hall.
“I believe you already know Liliana’s brother? Allow me to introduce our guest of honor. Beau Black, Ross Kingston. Ross Kingston, Beau Black.”
Still quite dazed and increasingly confused, Beau hadn’t paid attention to the new guy’s face. All he saw were the dreadlocks. But now he noticed something odd. Ross wore white slacks and a black long-sleeved shirt. This was the opposite of Beau. Stranger still, they both stood the same height, and apparently shared the exact same build. But the weirdest part was that, except for the color of their skin, both of their faces looked almost exactly the same, especially around the eyes.
“Absolutely incredible, mon. Never would’ve believed it.”
“All right then,” said Omar, “everybody ready? Let’s head on down now, and I’ll tell you as we walk here, Beau, how Shreveport Stevie got the title of that song. It’s because he stole it from me. He always hangs out in front of LowCost with a hat out and a guitar that he got me to play for him a few minutes one time. That’s where he heard me playing ‘8-Track Mind.’ But how do you know him?”
“I don’t. I only heard about him from another guy. He said he was missing.”
“Who? Who said that?”
“A friend I met hanging around in the redwoods.”
“Down by Madrani, right? Okay.” The hall terminated at a full-length mirror, in which Beau saw Ross standing next to Liliana. Pressing against the frame on the right hand side produced a soft click and the door swung open, revealing a musty coolness yawning darkly. Omar looked back at the crowd with palpable excitement, then turned a knob that flared the flambeaux set in sconces along the walls of a stone staircase spiraling down. “Everybody stay close now, and watch your step.” Omar led the way, and the others followed suit.
“Terrence and I roomed in college, Beau. It’s so great to get together with old friends. Terrence got into the real estate game. That’s how he met Mr. Kingston here.”
“Looking for a house, mon,” Ross called from the back of the line. It looked to Beau like he stayed back there to hang out with Liliana.
Omar went on. “It wasn’t too long after that that Terrence introduced Ross to me. And you know, it all comes down to what those visitors left so long ago, Beau. They exude an incredible energy, absolutely off the charts, and they don’t all hang out in meteorites. Some of them are in the redwoods. Literally part of the tree. I think it’s an absolute crime to hurt them. They’re far too valuable to waste. Honestly, for me to find one, it was like finding the world’s biggest oil field right in my own backyard.”
They had reached the bottom of the steps. In the cold bare confines they stood before a heavy wooden door on long iron hinges set in a low stone archway. Where an ordinary door would have held a handle, a black ring hung.
“Before I open this last door, I want to thank you all for your patience, and for the wonderful pleasure of your company, and Beau, considering all you’ve suffered, well, I think you should be the first to see.” Omar grabbed the ring and pulled the door open on protesting hinges, flattening himself against the stone wall for Beau.
Beau looked in. All he saw was darkness. He started to take a step, but stopped, an involuntary desperate sound escaping as he caught himself from falling in. Beau’s racing heart hammered in his chest. “I don’t see any stairs.”
Terrence, standing behind, stepped forward, and with both hands held out exploded a shove into the small of Beau’s back, plunging him over the edge.
Beau’s scream as he fell into darkness stabbed out and stopped with a sickening crunch. Moments later, the powerful beam of a small flashlight which Omar produced showed Beau below some twenty-five feet down. Over the doorway above, the tower rose an equal distance still higher. Twenty feet long, fifteen feet wide, strange growths like ten-foot toadstools cascaded down the dungeon walls.
Beau was alive, but his groans of pain and fear increased with his discernment of his surroundings. He had fallen onto some terrible rank muck, the moistness of which cushioned his impact, and he saw by what mere chance he had avoided being impaled on any number of white sticks poking up, like branches on the forest floor. Then he realized what the white sticks were, and an involuntary scream again tore from his lips.
High above, Ross Kingston stood in the doorway, voice echoing in the chamber as he intoned, “Dearly beloved, oh, what a relief it is, to have and to hold, to protect and to serve, and many more, mon. We say him don’t delay! And the party of the departed, all him stars come out to shine. Can’t him battle no network, mon. Act now! Him pledge allegiance, mon! All at the low, low price. Him country, ‘tis of thee. Praise be, Leiana! Make our dreams come true now, mon! And at the bottom line, they signed the dotted line, and with him this sacrifice, mon, this conclude the deal, and the deal come true, mon, delivered now this night, six to eight weeks later was him deal, and now this pay in full the debt! Praise Leiana! Highest praise and blessed be!”
Everybody wanted to peer over the edge. The faces crowded as everyone wanted a peek. Just a glimpse of the awful machine in action, a flashing shot of slaves in the kitchen preparing the feast. In the case of the custard guy and the cadavers, it was the look they felt entitled to. After all, they had paid so well to see.
“Well, well, well,” said Omar. “Don’t let it get you down, Beau.”
“Help me.” He hadn’t quite gotten his breath now from the fall, and his voice was weak. Beau tried again. “Help me!”
Laughter from above.
“I don’t think so, Beau. Nobody’s left the Swamp yet.”
“Oh Omar, I wish you’d call it the Garden of the Genii. Or at least Cavern of the Jinn.”
“No way, those are too long.” Hysterical laughter from Terrence. “Hey Beau, I warned you! I warned you! Remember? I warned you not to come here—I warned you!”
“Liliana,” Beau’s voice meekly reached. “Help me. Please.”
“Oh my fucking god he’s asking me to help him!”
“I think she’s a little ticked off at you, Beau, making it so hard for her when you ran away.”
“And that’s the only thing you made hard for her, mon! But don’t you worry ‘bout that now, mon.”
“Why? Why? What’s going on? What is this? What are you doing? Why are you doing this to me? Let me out of here! I want out!”
“I told you, Beau, you’re not getting out. You’re fresh meat. You’re the banquet. You’re the sacrifice. See that big mushroom?” A grayish lump, the size of an upholstered chair, squatted on the meaty muck. “It grew around the meteorite. All of that swamp you’re in down there is the decaying matter on which the being feeds. You’re the mulch, Beau. Right in here is where I grow my dreams. And sometimes provide them to my friends in trade.”
“Him take none of the risk and get all of the benefits. Like the Military Industrial Complex, mon!”
“Whereas,” Omar resumed, “you, Beau, stood nothing to gain and paid all the cost.”
“Oh, Omar! He had a lot to gain—and you know it!—but oh my god I’m glad he didn’t!”
“What’s the matter, Liliana?” the custard guy’s voice chimed in. “Doesn’t his balding head turn you on?”
“And that nice gut! You’re the one with the crappy hair you fucking bum!”
“Did you see those elbows? They looked just like dried apricots!”
“I had to call up his parents looking for him. His mother made sure to remind me he was married now. She said he would be coming down today, and I had to say, ‘Please, don’t tell Beau, I want it to be a big surprise. Ugh! Can you imagine?”
“I thought Ross looked like Beau the second I saw him,” Terrence sneered, “but it wasn’t until Lili showed up that I got the idea of actually using him as a sacrifice.”
“I got the car, baby, and I got the youth, and I goddam earned it!”
“Forrevver youunng!” Terrence croaked, in a terrible Bob Dylan that sent sneers of approval all around. “Forever young!”
“Demonoscopy, mon! Blessed be Leiana!”
Light chit-chat ensued. As Ross revealed to Omar that the new house was ready, and he and Liliana were all set to move in, Terrence explained to the custard guy and the cadavers that in payment for his end of the bargain—“Contract after contact,” Ross was wont to say—he received a rival real estate agent’s wife for one month, to do with as he pleased with no repercussions to himself, guaranteed.
“I always make it a provision to each request in a contract that any involvement by me go undetected,” said Omar. “That’s standard practice.”
More chit-chat, this time on the surprising lack of stench to which those attending stood exposed. Omar gave the breakdown on the processes ordinarily involved, how gases and putrefaction would typically result, colder conditions decreasing decay, as well as the contained environment cut off from sunlight. What exact process occurred did so beyond the understanding even of the shaman, whose practices “open the receptors of the brain that pick up what the aliens put out, mon.”
“I want to go home. I want my family. I want my wife. Help. Help me please.”
“It won’t be long now, Beau. I know, I know. You’ll probably say that those who benefit from this private enterprise do so at the expense of others. Aw, what a shame. But you see, it’s all a matter of perspective. And you are obviously in no position to understand there’s a difference between those kind of people down there with you, and those of us here up top. By the way, my comments earlier might have been somewhat misleading regarding your little Hippie friend. Shreveport Stevie’s down there somewhere.” Tie-dye shirts mixed in the muck hung from meaty mushroom folds. “Him and all the rest. I should get paid by the public for the service I’ve done. Who knows, Beau? Maybe they’ll sing you a song.”
A greasy gray mist seeped from the decay. Omar turned off his flashlight. “Quiet now. Look closely.”
Beau’s bellows below slowed down to heavy breathing as a thin blue preternatural glow developed over the mushroom lump, and its color no longer looked gray, but rather took on a quality like gasoline—shimmering, iridescent, chimerical—and tracing the weird, warped edges of the cascading toadstools, veins of green and purple also slowly glowed. With the luminous, numinous display could not help but be felt an emanating flood of energy. Now it sank in. There was something in the pit with him.
But as unexpectedly as the lights had occurred, they suddenly began to fade, like a giant sea anemone retracting its colorful tendrils. The huddled audience above, half-hushed with awe, lightly clapped and began to file toward the stairs.
“Goodbye, Beau,” Omar said, pushing shut the heavy door. “No one will be coming for you. No one knows you’re here, now do they? No, of course they don’t. That’s a standard provision in every contract. Well, have fun, guy.” Omar closed the door, plunging the dungeon in darkness.
The layered, lasagna-like surface of the meaty battlefield made clammy smacks as Beau shifted his weight taking stock of his wounds. Trying to stand, he found, was impossible. Both legs were broken. That was certain. He could feel his right femur protruding out the back of his leg. He was bleeding badly there, and by his labored breathing feared a broken rib had punctured a lung.
Images appeared of how it must have gone down for all of the others. Lured in with lies, milked for talent, taken down to the pit and pushed.
But now once again the pale blue light throbbed softly to life, tracing the edges of the toadstools, like fireflies lighting up when the people have passed. In the seeping mist’s return, Beau could feel his mind dissolve. Big bugs and weird worms tilled the porous portions of the loam. Beau was being broken down. He could feel it.
Murky and mercurial, a strange display of light grew into view over the gray fungoid growth, shimmering the spectrum once again like gasoline. Rippling bands of color spectacular as the aurora borealis tore upward without sound. Beau inched his way over the surface of the battlefield, hitching across the wet leathery slabs.
Insubstantial, indistinct, there, yet not, not quite standing, nor exactly hovering, the gossamer form in the rippling bands, a woman beautiful beyond description, regarded him with kindly eyes and smiled. With excruciating effort, Beau extended a hand toward her, pulling himself midway up the meaty side and exposing himself to the full force of the blast of the incalculable, before finally falling backward, broken on the muck, dead with wide eyes, one hand still reaching toward the wavering light.