Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have risked the shortcut through the wharf district at this hour. He was just anxious to get home. At nine months pregnant, he hated leaving Lydia alone for very long. He hadn’t been thrilled about going out in the first place, but apparently none the flavors of preserves they had in the cupboard would do. She needed raspberry. Seedless. He always had a hard time denying her anything.
Dale shivered, turning up the collar of his jacket to ward off the sea damp wind. There had been three muggings by the docks this week. He hoped the chill would keep the baser elements huddled around their fire barrels. So far, so good. The streets were deserted.
Waves sloshed rhythmically against the docked boats, rocking them in their moorings. Ropes creaked, hulls protesting their confinement. The streetlights hummed; those that still worked. The night silence was deafening.
Dale didn’t hear the stealthy footsteps until it was too late. Pain burst behind his eyes as the pipe cracked against his skull. He swayed, collapsed. The grocery bag slid from boneless fingers, scattering the contents. The grimy cobbles were frigid against his cheek, as the glass jam jar rolled into his field of vision. Damn. He bought strawberry. Lydia was going to kill him.
* * *
Dale stirred, groggily chasing scattered thoughts. Staggering to his feet he frantically searched his pockets. His wallet was missing. Make that four muggings this week. He gingerly reached up exploring the knot on his head. It didn’t really hurt, but his fingertips came away flecked with clotted blood.
Dale took a deep, calming breath. It made him gag. The port town always smelled a little salty, but suddenly the fetid stench of rotten fish clung in his nose. Fog was rolling in off the harbor, pea soup thick. It boiled, hungrily devouring everything in its path. It swirled around the base of a buzzing street lamp, lazily twisting up the post. Grey wisps reached towards the dim light. The glass exploded in a shower of sparks. Dale yelped, throwing up an arm to ward off the flying shards.
The curling tendrils whipped towards the sound, snake spotting prey. Dale spun on his heel, instinct warning him he didn’t want to be caught up in the questing mist. He sprinted through an alley, emerging on the open causeway beyond.
Heart pounding, Dale stopped short. An eerie figure stood across the street, looking out into the bay. Her dress was tattered, shredded rags. Hair matted; there were strands of seaweed caught up in the tangles. She stood, dripping wet, a puddle of sea water spreading unnoticed at her bare feet.
“Hello?” His voice wavered.
The unearthly woman didn’t turn. She slowly raised a pallid arm, pointing out beyond the breakwater. Dale peered into the darkness. There was nothing but shadow. He looked back to the woman. She had disappeared. An icy thrill of foreboding slithered up his spine.
He blinked. In that single heartbeat the woman reappeared, inches from his face. Dale was rooted to the spot, frozen in terror. Her blue lips were stretched in a silent scream, brackish water streaming from her mouth and nose. Blink. He was once again alone in the night.
Dale whirled, poised to flee. Behind him a wall of churning fog blocked the street. It was a thing alive, twisting and turning, a suggestion of a face here, the hint of a body there. It inched forward, herding him back towards the wharf.
He backed onto the uneven planks, slick with salt spray. Turning, Dale picked his way down the rough wooden dock. As he passed an abandoned fish hoist, a flicker of movement caught his eye. A man in dirty coveralls, feet dancing crazily, jerked from a noose. He vanished then reappeared, his visage flickering like a warped movie reel. Dale’s mouth went dry as he stumbled onward.
An antique clipper ship with threadbare sails was gliding silently into the last free mooring. The name Styx was stenciled crudely on the hull. An impossibly tall form cloaked in night perched on the bow. The wind had died, yet its robes rippled uncannily. Dale could feel hidden eyes boring into him from deep within the hooded cowl. The creature beckoned. Dale took an unconscious step forward, drawn by a sense of urgency he didn’t understand.
The spell shattered as the wail of a police siren pierced the night air. Dale fled, bracing himself as he burst through the wall of mist. .
* * *
He sped through the alley, the blush of predawn lighting the way. Dale stepped out into chaos – sirens, voices, yellow tape. A pregnant woman sobbing hysterically. “Lydia! Lydia!” She didn’t hear him as a uniformed officer, pity in his eyes, led her away. He chased desperately after her.
Dale stepped out of the alley as the paramedics loaded the stretcher into the waiting ambulance. A lifeless arm dangled from beneath the sheet. Golden afternoon sunlight glinted off a battered wrist watch. His watch. The ambulance doors slammed closed. Dale darted forward. “Wait!”
Lengthening shadows twisted into grotesque shapes as Dale leapt from the alley. The street was deserted. How many times had he done this? He paced, caught in an inescapable loop.
A rustling caught his attention. A young girl shuffled around the corner. She brushed futilely at the soot streaking her frilly dress. She caught his eye, dropping a blackened teddy bear in the dirt, momentarily forgotten. She turned frightened eyes upon him. One side of her face was charred, burned beyond recognition. She coughed.
“Have you seen my mommy?” Her voice was raspy. Dale rocked back on his heels. He knew that face. It had been plastered on the front page a few years back. Waterfront Home Catches Fire. Five Year Old Dies.
He couldn’t escape the truth. He was stuck here with them. The drowned woman. The hanged man. He should’ve gotten on the boat.