Mason walked up and down the living room of his house on East Street. He was a fat man, with heavy, dark eyes and two generous chins. The plump fingers of one hand, his right, were splayed around a glass of Chianti, from which at frequent intervals he took quick, sibilant draughts. His left hand was hidden in his pocket, and his face bore a worried expression.
The winter night wind keened in the street outside and shook the windows in a sort of brusque, sharp fury. East Street is a dark street. Windy, too. That’s because one end of it disembogues into River Street, where the Miskatonic flows parallel. Once upon a time East Street was aristocratic. Then it became middle-class and democratic. Then proletariat. Other streets around it went in for stores and warehouses and shipping offices. But East Street clung to its brownstone fronts and its three-step stoops. It was rated a decent street.
Mason stopped short as his five-year-old daughter bowled into the room wearing pajamas emblazoned with teddy bears.
Mason put down the glass of Chianti, but he did not pick up the child and bounce her up and down on his fat palms, as he usually did. His left hand remained in his pocket.
“Good-night, Angel,” he said.
His wife, taller and heavier than he, came in and smiled and picked up the baby.
“I’ll take her, Tony,” she said.
“Yes, Mama,” Mason said. “Put her to bed and close the door. Captain MacDonald will be here any minute.”
“You want to be alone, Tony, don’t you?”
She looked at his left arm, at his pocket. “It’s about….”
“Yes, Mama. Please take Angel to bed and then you, too, leave me alone.”
“All right, Tony.” She looked a little sad.
He laughed, and his ragtag mustache fanned over his mouth. With his right hand he pinched the girl’s cheeks, then his wife’s, then marched with her to the stairs. They went up, and he sighed as first one door closed, then another.
He went over to the table, picked up the glass of Chianti and marched up and down the room. His broad, heavy shoes thumped on the carpet. He wore a henna-colored shirt, a green tie, red suspenders, and tobacco-brown pants. His shoes creaked.
When the bell rang, he almost leaped into the hallway. He snapped back the lock and opened the door.
“Ah, Cap! Good you come!”
MacDonald strolled in, hands in the pockets of his neat, gray overcoat, a cigar protruding from his lips.
“Slow at Headquarters, so I thought I’d come down.”
Mason closed the front door, snapped the lock. He bustled into the living room, eyed an old recliner, then took a couple of pillows from the couch, placed them in the recliner, and patted hollows into them. He did this all with his right hand, and then spread said hand towards the chair.
“Have a nice seat, Cap.”
“Give me the overcoat.”
“That’s all right, Tony.”
MacDonald unbuttoned his coat and sat down. He was freshly shaven and combed, and his long, lean face had the hard, ruddy glint of one that knows the weather. He leaned back, crossing one leg over the other. The pants had a fine crease, the shoes were well polished with laces neatly tied.
“A shot of Scotch’d go better.”
Mason brought a bottle from the sideboard, followed by a bottle of Canada Dry.
“Straight,” MacDonald said.
Mason took one with him, taking forever to bring the first to MacDonald before going back for his own.
“Here’s how,” he said and they drank.
MacDonald looked at the end of his cigar.
“Well, Tony, what’s the trouble?”
The wind clutched at the windows. Mason went over and tightened a latch. Then he pulled up a rocker to face MacDonald, sat down on the edge of it, awkwardly lit a twisted cheroot and took a couple of quick, nervous puffs. He stared at MacDonald’s polished shoe.
“About my—curse,” he said, finally.
“Go on, Tony.”
“Yes—yes. Look, Cap, I’m a good guy. I’m a good man. I got a wife and kids and a chemical waste business and I been elected alderman and—well, I’m a pretty good guy. I don’t want to be on no racket, and I don’t want any kind of help from any rough guys in the neighborhood. I been pestered a lot, Cap, but I ain’t gonna give in. I got a wife and kids and a good reputation and I want to keep the slate what you call pretty damn clean. Cap, I ask you to come along here tonight after I been thinking a lotta things over in my head. I need help, Cap. What’s a man gonna do when he needs help? I dunno. But I know you do things for the aldermen sometimes. So I ask you, and maybe you be my friend.”
“Sure,” MacDonald said. “Get it off your chest.”
“This woman—uh—Cave, you know her?”
“What about her?”
Mason took a long breath. It was coming hard, and he wiped his face with his fat right hand. He cleared his throat, took a drink of Chianti and cleared his throat again.
“Her. It’s about her. Her and my—uh—curse. You know she’s only twenty-one. And—and—”
“Going around with Cave, were you?”
“Yes—yes,” Mason’s voice was a harsh whisper as he shot a worried glance over his shoulder. “Look. This is it, and Holy Mother, if Dominique knows—” He exhaled a vast breath and shook his head. “Look. I have lotsa needs, Cap, being what I am, a complicated man. I have lotsa needs, some big, some not that big. Sammy—uh—Cave, she met my needs a few times, as recently as last night.”
MacDonald uncrossed his legs and put both heels on the floor. He leaned forward and, putting the elbow of one arm on his knee, jackknifed the other arm against his side. His windy, blue eyes stared point-blank at Mason.
“Well—” Mason sat back and spread his right hand palm-up, eyes wide—“she cursed me, I say!”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Maybe a month.”
“And this curse?”
Mason fell back in his chair like a deflated balloon. “That’s what you call it, Cap. We were very good friends. I thought Sammy was a great girl. She must think I’m an old fool.”
MacDonald looked at the floor, and his eyelids came down. The ghost of a sardonic curl came to his wide mouth.
Mason hurried on—“Look, Cap. My Dominique is a good wife, but if she finds out I slept with that—that whore—it’s gonna be no good. I can’t stand for it, Cap. And what can I do with Sammy? She’s laughing at me. Has the greasy dreadlocks and tattoos and wears the metal through her nose and those little tits of hers and goes around like a witchdoctor or something. Dominique has done nothing bad, but Sammy—”
“Where does the curse come in?” MacDonald asked.
Mason looked at the ceiling, withdrew his left hand from its hiding-place with a sudden jerk.
But it wasn’t a hand. Protruding from Tony Mason’s left sleeve was a muscular, mucous-covered tentacle. Gray-green and shiny, it seemed to flex and move almost automatically, and was covered with what looked like rudimentary suction disks on one side. MacDonald stared at it for a long time in perfect silence, his cigar hanging from his mouth.
“Every night I went out with Sammy, she ain’t got the money, so I pay all the bills. And where do we go? Ah—the Club Nowlan, and places like that, and that woman—Holy Mother, it ain’t good, Cap! Last night we were at the Nowlan and she gave me something.”
“Gave you something? Like scabies?”
“Little square of white paper, less than half the size of a postage stamp. No taste. Said it was acid, but it didn’t do anything. Should’ve known it was a trick when she didn’t charge me for it. Anyway, when I woke up….”
He held the tentacle forward. It probed the air as if sensing for something. As if it had a will of its own.
“Jesus,” MacDonald said. “Have you seen a doctor?”
“No,” Mason said. “I haven’t been out of the house all day. And what could a doctor do, anyway? Besides, I’ve got my reputation to think of.” He paused, and when he spoke again he was on the verge of tears. “Look, Cap. Whatcha think I’m gonna do?”
MacDonald’s gaze had not left the tentacle since Mason had revealed it. Now he looked the fat man in the eye.
“I think you’re going to have me kill this woman.”
Mason made a nervous, uncomfortable face.
“No, no,” he said. “I need her to fix this. I need you to find her and make her fix this.”
“What if she can’t?”
Mason grimaced again. “Then…you know.”
“Know what? You need to be clear.”
The fat man was sweating. “Do what you thought I was gonna have you do.”
MacDonald nodded and sat back. He was silent for a long time, staring at the tentacle.
“Hell, Tony,” he said at last. “I’ve had a lot of tough jobs in my day, but you hand me a lulu. It’s too bad. You’ve got my sympathy, and that’s no bullshit. I’ll think it over. I’ll do the best I can.”
“Please, Cap, please. My wife and my baby—I ask you, Cap, for my sake.”
MacDonald stood. Mason stood with him, breath whistling in his throat.
“But if Dominique finds out—”
“She won’t,” MacDonald said. “Not from my end.”
He buttoned his coat and shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ll be going.”
“Have another drink.”
Mason let him out into the street and hung in the doorway.
MacDonald was already swinging away, his cigar a red eye in the wind.
From behind the bedroom door Dominique Mason heard the front door close and the lock snap, heard her husband’s creaky footsteps, heard the soft whump of his bulk settling on the couch.
Things were turning out even better than she’d hoped. Now not only did she know the identity of her husband’s mistress, but Sammy Cave was going to be punished as well—and this time Dominique wouldn’t even have to collect hair clippings from the trash, or light that stinky incense in the attic, or chant any more of those awful things from that horrible black book she’d ordered.
As for Tony, that lying monster—his transformation had only begun.
The sound of her husband’s screams woke Dominique with a start. He’d fallen asleep on the couch and never come up to bed, which was just fine as far as she was concerned. She’d been dreaming about a candlelit dinner date with Jeff Goldblum. But now the dream was over, and her husband was awake.
Tony stood in the living room, shirt and tie discarded on the floor, clutching with his right hand at his left shoulder, which was now the base of a very long, very muscular gray-green appendage that hung down past his knee. The tentacle writhed on its own, suction disks now fully formed, strings of mucous connecting it to Tony’s pants and naked torso where it made contact.
He was still screaming.
“Tony!” Dominique said. She wanted to tell him to shut up, that it wasn’t even four a.m. and the sun hadn’t even begun to rise, that he’d wake the baby. But then she remembered the role she was playing, and forced a sob. “Oh, it’s terrible!”
He seemed unaware of her presence. Typical.
She ran to him, careful not to get too close—not to get within reach of it—and sank down crying. It wasn’t all an act—she was upset, just at Tony, not for him. But this was getting a little more drastic than even she’d expected. She’d thought the transformation would stop just after his elbow—sort of a semi-blasphemous take on that “if thy hand offend thee” verse from the book she hadn’t had to order. Just what Tony deserved.
But the tentacle was already quite a bit longer than his whole arm had ever been, and, looking at him, she saw the folds of skin around the base of his neck had already taken on that shiny gray-green color. His screams had subsided, but his hair and moustache were moist with sweat, and his rapid breathing had taken on a strange sucking quality. He remained standing in place, still clutching at his shoulder, the tentacle still twisting against him, but his eyes looked vacant. His legs trembled.
This was too much.
Dominique waited a little while, looking at her husband, watching him with mounting unease, and finally ran back upstairs to the bedroom telephone.
It rang only once before someone picked up.
“Thanks for calling MU Press’s twenty-four-hour customer service line,” a young woman’s voice answered. “This is Sammy, how can I help you?”
“Yes, hello,” Dominique said. “I ordered a book from there not long ago. Necron-something by, uh…oh, I don’t know, some Arab. It’s a black textbook.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know what book you mean.” The young woman remained professionally polite, though her tone became a bit more clipped. “We get a lot of calls about that one. It’s actually why we had to extend our business hours.”
Tony’s sucking breaths were still audible from below. Still holding the receiver, Dominique went over and closed the bedroom door as softly as possible.
“I used it to…um…cast a spell,” she said, almost whispering. “On my…husband.”
“Yes, ma’am?” the young woman let a hint of bored incredulity slip into her pro-friendly voice.
“Well, I tore up the page when I was done, just in case he found the book—but now I think I want to undo the spell.”
“Counter spells, where applicable, are located on the opposite side of each page for easy access—”
“I just told you, I tore the page up!”
“Yes, ma’am.” A slight annoyed edge this time. The silence that followed seemed to say, what do you want me to do about it?
“Well, is there something else I can do? Some other way to reverse it?”
“One moment, ma’am.” Not even hiding the contempt this time.
She heard movement outside. A gentle knock on the door.
“Go back to bed, baby,” Dominique said. “Go back to bed right now, please.”
Tiny footsteps receding. It occurred to Dominique to lock her in her room, but just then the young woman’s voice came back.
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“I happen to have another copy of the book here in the office with me. Can you tell me which spell you used?”
Dominique thought about it. Once the spell had been cast, she’d tried to put the weird syllables as far out of her mind as possible. They’d made her feel unclean.
She heard movement outside. The creak of Tony’s weight mounting the stairs.
“Um…not the exact name, no.”
“How about the page number?”
“I can find that—” Dominique began, then swore under her breath. She’d hidden the book in the attic with the intent of burning it after Tony learned his lesson. He was nearing the top of the stairs. “Uh, can you hang on just a moment?”
“Of course, ma—” the young woman was interrupted by a voice from her end of the line.
“Sammy?” it said. “You have a visitor.”
Dominique stifled a gasp. The woman’s name hadn’t registered with her before, but now—
She heard Tony’s footsteps stop just outside the bedroom door, his rhythmic, sucking breath louder than ever. Then he moved on.
Where is he going?
“I’m with a customer,” Sammy said, not bothering to mute or muffle the phone.
“I think he’s some kind of cop,” the other voice said. “Says it’s urgent.”
Down the hall, Angelica screamed.
Dominique jumped and ran into the hall, dropping the phone. Spots of mucous on the left side of the carpet and wall left a trail to the little girl’s bedroom, where door stood open into darkness. The child’s cries had already given way to a horrible gurgling noise.
She approached the room more slowly than she’d intended. Just go, she thought. Your daughter’s in there! But the sickening noises gave her pause. Try as she might, she couldn’t force her feet to move faster.
Reaching the threshold at last, she could just make out the shape of her husband’s bulk—no, not her husband’s, not anymore—standing over Angelica’s bed, his back to the door. Was he making those awful sounds?
With a trembling hand, she turned on the light.
And took her turn to scream.
David Busboom is a writer from Central Illinois with work published in such venues as SHOCK TOTEM, THE NORWEGIAN AMERICAN, and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. His 2018 debut novella, NIGHTBIRD, is available from Unnerving. Follow him on his website (davidbusboom.com) or on Twitter (@DavidBusboom).