Mavis Grimshaw expected her preoccupations in retirement to include catching up on her reading, visiting with her nieces and the odd spot of gardening, but of what account are zucchini crops, afternoon teas and cosy mysteries when chthonian horrors are abroad?
It all began innocently enough. One spring afternoon, when her niece Pheme – she of the frizzy hair and circuit diagram tattoos – dropped in on a break from her driving job with the ride-sharing service, Shotgun. “It’s been one lousy week, Auntie,” she confided over coffee and white chocolate cherries. “I’ve lost one passenger after another.”
“You mean you dropped them off in the wrong place? Is your GPS on the blink, dear? Let me order you a new one.” Mavis did her best to let her late sister’s girls get on with their lives. They were grown women, after all, and scarcely needed her interference. But she just couldn’t help but to worry sometimes.
“No, Auntie, I mean I took them all to the same place. They asked me to pick them up again later, but when I came back they were gone.”
“Oh, well that’s different,” said Mavis, as she rinsed off her cup and put it in the dishwasher. “Where did you say you dropped them off?”
New Salisbury was commonly called the Sawl by its residents, though Mavis didn’t care for the contraction. A lifelong librarian, she was firmly of the view that things ought to be called by their proper name.
The proper name for the mountainous mullock hills on the town’s south side was Macnair’s Extraction Disposals, but to everyone else it was “the dump from the tin mines”.
It was hardly the town’s most scenic attraction, for its ten metre stacks of crushed rock and sun-baked mine slurry smelled of chemical waste and rotten timber, and were separated by several stagnant ponds thick with iridescent blue algae.
“This stinks, Auntie Mavis,” said Pheme, after they’d parked in the shadow of one large waste hill.
“Oh I think you’re right, dear, but not in the way you mean. Look at this.” Mavis pointed out several deep, dark holes in the mullock mounds. They were a uniform forty centimeters in diameter. Each was rimmed with a dark grey crust.
“Wombat burrows?” guessed Pheme. “They’re good diggers.”
“Not this good.” Mavis Grimshaw smacked her lips. “Tell me about your passengers, dear. And don’t touch that blue stuff. I suspect it won’t agree with you.”
Pheme counted them off. “Monday. I brought Tim Broome from the deli at the farmer’s market out. He had a big camera. Said he wanted to take photos of hawks, and wouldn’t hear a word of it when I told him there no birdlife out this way. Tuesday were that young couple who do the palm reading after midnight on Channel 29. Erica and Martin, do you watch them? They didn’t tell me why they wanted to come out here. They just kept watching this one Youtube video over and over, with a guy talking about the Bedrock Gods and chanting this weird song. I was going to ask them to turn it off but then their phone signal dropped out.”
Mavis nodded. “I see. What about the third one?”
“Yeah, she was a bit of a weirdo. Short, bald, had a bit of a skin condition.”
“Yeah, she was grey all over. Looked almost blue in shadows.”
“And did she chant anything?”
“Auntie Mavis, how did you guess that? As a matter of fact, she spent the whole ride humming that same song as the couple.” Pheme crossed her arms. “I suppose you know what the song is as well?”
Mavis shook her head. “Not the specifics, thankfully.” She pointed back towards Pheme’s car. “We should probably get a wriggle on, before they come back.”
“Who, my passengers? They’ll have to take turns. I can’t fit that many-”
She never got to finish the sentence. At that moment a roar like a collapsing cave tunnel split the tailings yard. The ground shuddered. Cracks in the hard ground radiated out from beneath Pheme’s car, which shook as if it had been started in first gear.
The ground exploded in a cloud of dirt clumps and mildly toxic dust. A cluster of worms boiled out from beneath the car, enveloping it completely. From somewhere behind the writhing mass came the sound of breaking glass and crumpling metal.
“Do you have insurance, dear?” Mavis’ athletic peak was well behind her, but she was pleased to discover she still possessed the power to run for her life.
“I can see a claims assessor asking some hard-to-answer questions,” replied Pheme as they fled towards an abandoned office shed. “Besides I doubt I’m covered for acts of God.”
“Probably not the one in question, no,” agreed Mavis. The shed walls were decorated with unpleasant symbols and diagrams painted in blood.
“Auntie, what’s going on?”
“I’m afraid we’ve stumbled on a spot of cultist shenanigans, dear.” Forty years managing the New Salisbury Library’s reserved collection had lent Mavis a regrettable familiarity with certain eldritch topics. “These ones are a bit more successful than most.”
“Should we do something?”
Mavis rattled the shed door to make sure the deadbolt was firmly in place. Then she pulled a stool. “Nine times out of ten there’s nothing we can do, dear. There’s a very good chance the problem has taken care of itself. Occult enthusiasts who stumble on a summoning ritual that actually works tend not to get a second bite of the cherry.”
“They get to be the cherries?”
“Plump and juicy ones, dear.”
Pheme scowled at her phone. “I’m not getting any reception out here. I guess nobody will be coming for us.”
“Not to worry dear.”
“Not to worry?”
Mavis pointed to an electrical kettle on a table in the corner of the shed. “Where there’s tea, there’s hope. Be a dear and see if you can find us some cups.”
By the time you read this I’ll be in full panic mode because I definitely won’t be ready for my very full weekend at Conflux. If you’re in the area, I’d love for you to come down to the A Hand of Knaves book launch, where I’ll be reading a story passage I haven’t quite picked out or rehearsed yet.
I’ll also be selling print copies of Mnemo’s Memory at the CSFG table in the dealer’s room, but look, you probably don’t have to make a special trip just for that. But if you do, I’d appreciate it. Really I would.