“I feel the Spheres tremble, old friend. We are getting close. We are getting very close.”
After driving for twenty minutes, Dylan hadn’t passed a single car. Not many people use Deep Ocean Road these days. The highway is a lot quicker if you’re travelling down to the city, and if you’re headed to the ocean you’re better off taking the road to Williamstown. There’s nothing at Jacob’s End but a broken jetty, empty shacks, poisoned water, rotting seaweed and dead fish.
Passing through the Six Hills, Dylan kept a lookout for any road that might lead to Wilfred Waite’s house. The old man had said something about living on a farm. Trouble was, there was any number of turnoffs and trails between here and the ocean that could lead to a farm.
He squeezed the steering wheel till his knuckles went white. What was he doing out here on this wild goose chase? Chasing a delusion? Waite wasn’t about to give him any money. They didn’t even know each other until a few days ago; there was sixty years between them and there wasn’t anything they had in common that would entice Waite to hand over a suitcase full of cash. Apart from his delusional interest in me, Dylan thought. He felt a pang of discomfort. Was he driving out here to take advantage of a senile senior citizen? “Yep,” he said out loud, then thought: He wants something from me, he should be prepared to pay. Nothing wrong with an honest trade, a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor.
Looking at it that way made him feel better. Kane had told him that because of the size of the mortgage and the way real estate prices were right now, their equity in the house was next to nothing. So on top of everything else, they were broke. If he had something to sell, and there was a motivated buyer, now was the time to act. In less than a day, his focus had switched from grief and fear to the burning question of how to make money. He knew Wilfred Waite was the answer; he just had to work out exactly what it was he was selling.
Before embarking on his drive, Dylan had visited the old man’s store. It was closed. The woman in the flower shop next door told him she hadn’t seen Mr Waite all week. His hours were sporadic at the best of times, she said, and suggested Dylan call the number on the window. He did, but there was no answer. His calls didn’t even go to voicemail.
For the rest of the morning he tried to immerse himself in a game of Zombie Uprising. But his mind was distracted by the thought of real zombies – and monsters and gods, and a weirdo who believed in them. He rang twice more. Still no pickup. Maybe I’m wrong, he thought as he threw down the phone after the second time: maybe Wilfred Waite was a dud and had no money to lend. Or maybe he died. Dylan imagined the police turning up to Waite’s farmhouse and finding a corpse rotting on the floor. But then he remembered the old man saying something about having a driver. If he was dead, and that was the reason he hadn’t been to his shop and wasn’t answering his phone, his driver would surely know by now. He desperately wanted to believe Waite was still alive. He was his only solution.
Eventually he couldn’t wait any longer and decided to take a drive down Deep Ocean Road and try his luck. He was just wasting time anyway, sitting in a house that was about to be pulled out from under him. Kane had gone for a ride and was due back any time, and he felt ill at the thought of one moment more of his brother’s forced cheerfulness and complete incompetence.
At last a car appeared, travelling towards him. As it came closer, Dylan saw there were four teenagers inside, singing their heads off. God knows where they’d been; probably at Jacob’s End smashing whatever windows were left in the old buildings or spraying graffiti on the warped and crumbling walls. They all stared at him as the cars passed, as if challenging him to criticise whatever illegal or immoral things they’d been doing out there.
He checked his phone. He didn’t expect Waite to see his missed calls and ring, but still, his inability to reach the old man made his head throb.
Resting the phone on the steering wheel, he switched to a new song: White Room; Bert’s favourite song; a song to smoke pot to, Bert always said. (For medicinal purposes only, of course.) Dylan smiled. What was his poor grandfather doing right now? he wondered. He didn’t want to dwell too much on the answer. At the funeral, Bert hardly recognised him. Yet for the past five years they’d been inseparable. They’d tinkered with old car engines and listened to sixties’ prog rock and scoured car boot sales and gone walking and fishing, and Bert told him endless stories about his time in the army and how he’d won his medals for gallantry and distinguished conduct. Those were the times Dylan wanted to remember.
Halfway through the song, he reached the peak of the sixth hill and the country fell away like a landslide. From here to the distant water lay a wasteland. Patches of vegetation clung desperately to the rocky terrain. The trees and bushes, remnants of an ancient forest, dead for two centuries, were gnarled and ugly, and dotted across the landscape were old stone farmhouses and barns and the occasional cow or sheep. Deep Ocean Road scratched a line to the ocean, which shimmered with sickly light in the early afternoon sun.
Dylan pulled over and sat contemplating the view. Gazing out at the vast expanse, he felt his heart sink. To find Wilfred Waite he would have to do one of his least favourite things: he would have to talk to people.
He squinted at Jacob’s End, which marked the end of Deep Ocean Road. From this distance it looked almost picturesque: a jumble of shacks and beige stone cottages clustered around a small bay. A long jetty jutted into the ocean, the water white and frothy where it ran up against the posts. At the beginning of last century, Jacob’s End was a thriving fishing community, self-sufficient and growing into the regional commercial centre everyone expected it to be. And then something disastrous happened. One night, an invisible poison stole through the village, killing everyone. The water was poisoned too. Dead fish rose from the depths of the bay and wiped out the birds that came to feed on them. Even today, dead fish and birds unlucky enough to have ventured too close to Jacob’s End washed up on the beach, where they rotted and stank, ensuring all but the brave and the wilfully destructive stayed well away from the cursed village.
The poison crept into the land too. The grasslands and fields surrounding Jacob’s End appeared frostbitten, even though there’d been no frost for three months, and the cows, goats, horses and sheep that fed on the grass grew gaunt and grey. In time everything died. Over a period of two decades the creeping death continued spreading inland: slow, steady and unstoppable. And then the spread slowed year on year, until today its advance was hardly noticeable.
Gazing out over the plain, it was clear to Dylan something was wrong. The water shimmered with a hue that didn’t seem natural: a greasy non-colour that made him queasy if he stared at it for too long. The same hue continued across the land, where it covered the ground like a sickly varnish. And then, a few hundred metres into the plain, the land made an abrupt recovery. The grass came back to life, livestock grazed, and everything was normal.
Bert claimed to know what happened at Jacob’s End. He’d been stationed at army bases around the world and told Dylan stories he’d heard of coastal communities that did trade with amphibious beings that lived in vast cities under the sea. In prehistoric times (so the legends went), these beings roamed freely over the land, but after the rise and spread of homo sapiens they retreated to the safety of the water and built their cities and grew their civilisation far away from the savagery and wars and destruction of the humans. Bert believed the people of Jacob’s End made a pact with such beings. And then something went wrong. Something pissed them off, and in retaliation they sent a creeping death from the sea to poison the bay and destroy the village and the surrounding land.
Dylan always took his grandfather’s stories with a huge grain of salt. While in the army, Bert was given LSD as part of a covert research program and so it wasn’t surprising he had colourful stories to tell. He was a great storyteller; you had to give him that. (At least he was, before dementia crept into him like the poison through Jacob’s End and made his mind as grey and barren as this landscape.)
Thinking about Bert made Dylan wonder whether Wilfred Waite might be suffering from dementia too. That might explain his mania for other-worldly gods and his fixation on Dylan as some kind of saviour of mankind. Would dementia be a help or a hindrance? he wondered. It was hard to know.
Sighing, he released the brake and began his descent.
He almost missed the turnoff. The entry was hidden by a tangle of bushes and it was only at the last minute he saw the broken letterbox and the chipped and faded sign that identified the property as White House Farm. White; Waite – was there something in that? Realising he was clutching at straws, he spun the wheel and turned the car down the dirt road.
Not far along was a metal gate, hung with signs announcing, ‘Private Property’ and ‘Enter at Own Risk’. Dylan stopped the car. Seeing the gate wasn’t locked, he got out and dragged it open.
Getting back into the car, he drove through and kept on driving towards the farmhouse, which lay at some distance. The fields on either side of the track were rocky and barren. It was hard to imagine any livestock ever grazing there. Leafless trees clawed at the sky; others less fortunate were lying dead on the ground, having succumbed to the ravages of time and the elements. The bones of long-dead animals showed as white mounds against the grey-brown ground.
Dylan had already visited three houses along Deep Ocean Road. The first two were deserted, the properties falling apart and clearly uninhabited. The third looked not much better, but as he knocked on the door, he thought he heard a small whimper inside. He tried the handle. The door was locked. Peering through a window, he caught a glimpse through a tear in the curtain of ancient furniture, a Turkish rug, framed pictures on the walls. A rat stared back at him from the sofa top, fat and belligerent, not the least bit afraid of him. Surely no one lives here, he told himself. Certainly not a business owner like Wilfred Waite. Guessing at most it was a den for drug dealers or crims on the lam, he went back to his car and pressed on in the direction of Jacob’s Creek.
He expected this muddy road would lead to similar disappointment. Maybe he’d misunderstood what Waite had said. Deep Ocean Road led through barren land to fetid water. Why would anyone live out here? There were no amenities and nothing to do. There was only death and decay, overlaid with the stink the sea breeze carried across the land from the rotten bay. Waite had a business to maintain, which meant if he lived out here, he’d have to make the half-hour trek to town every time he opened the shop. To top it all off, he was extremely old and decrepit. It made no sense.
The dirt road wound through the flat land. At last another gate appeared, this one secured by a huge padlock. Dylan parked the car and got out. Beyond the gate stood an old stone farmhouse, rising to two storeys and looking like it might crumble to rubble the next time someone knocked on the door. Near the house was a barn and further down the road stood half a dozen huts, huddled together like a small village. From there the dirt track continued through the fields, until it became indistinguishable from the rest of the land.
Jumping the gate, Dylan strode towards the house. His shoes squelched in the mud, the suction attempting to pull his shoes off his feet. As he walked past the barn, he could see at some point in its history it had been turned into a makeshift chapel. The wooden slats were black with age. The tiles on the roof were dropping one by one to the ground. A tower rose high into the sky, topped by an empty bell tower.
Further along lay a mangled tractor that looked like it had been melted in a furnace. After that was a stone well. Dylan stopped and peered into the abyss. A strong odour rose from the depths, along with a soft whining. At first Dylan thought it was the wind whistling through the well, like the sound air makes when it’s blown through a flute, but then he realised there wasn’t a breath of wind. Nothing stirred in the yard: not a bird, not an insect, not a fallen leaf. The sky overhead reminded him of Mrs Kimmerle’s wet sheets that hung perpetually on her clothes line.
He stared at the farmhouse. The ancient grey-stone building was fronted by a portico, a rotting wooden frame that leaned at a dangerous angle. The upstairs windows were all boarded up and there was a gaping hole in the thatched roof. All Dylan could think was that at some point a meteorite must have fallen from the sky and crashed through the house and no one had bothered to fix it. Behind the farmhouse rose a small hill, thickly populated by pine trees that provided a backdrop to the property, making it look almost theatrical. The rest of the garden was dead or dormant, no trace remaining of what it must have looked like when the farm was a going concern.
Dylan turned back to the gate. No one lives here, he thought as he trudged through the mud, fists clenched. Trying to find Wilfred Waite’s farmhouse was a fool’s errand, a complete waste of time. Now he faced the long drive home, where nothing awaited him except a ticking timer and more awkward conversations with his useless brother. Frustrated by failure, he kicked a rock with all his might, and it shot forward and clanged against the twisted metal of the tractor.
That’s when he heard the dogs.
The drawing room was a place of perpetual twilight. Nothing much about it had changed in the past hundred years. Above a central stone fireplace hung an oil painting of a severe-looking middle-aged man in black religious robes, sitting in a high-backed chair inside a room not dissimilar to this one. He was the first thing you saw when you entered the room, and you couldn’t escape his gaze. His black eyes bored into you as if judging whether you were worthy or wicked enough to enter. On either side of the fireplace stood mahogany shelves, stretching all the way to the ceiling, filled with cloth- and leather-bound books, giving the room the impression of an old library, complete with a crust of dust and the fusty smell of mildew. Near the window was an overstuffed velvet green armchair and tapestried foot stool. A threadbare Victorian-style red-and-black rug, two small oak tables and a floor-standing lamp with burgundy fabric shade and yellow tassels completed the room’s furniture.
This afternoon a shaft of milky light, swirling with dust motes and carpet moths, descended from the ratty curtains to a pair of white sneakers. As the dogs commenced their barking, one of the shoes began tapping on the rug.
“Damned hounds,” muttered Wilfred. “Arlene!”
Wilfred was seated in the armchair, an ornate ivory telephone handset pressed against his ear. “Hold on,” he said into the mouthpiece. “Arlene!”
A hag with greenish skin and an onion-shaped head shuffled into the room. She was wearing a shapeless green housecoat and purple slippers, which made her feet look enormous. Her hair was grey and patchy, cropped close to her scalp, and she had no eyebrows and an abnormally small nose and ears. She glanced around with bulging eyes, her beakish mouth opening and closing, and her gaze eventually fixed on Wilfred.
“Feed the hounds,” Wilfred ordered without looking at her.
The woman stared at him a few seconds more, then turned in a circle and left the room.
Picking up an oxygen mask, Wilfred held it against his mouth. He sucked in the gas greedily, then laid his head back and let the mask fall over the arm of the chair.
Lifting the phone to his ear, he purred, “So yes, Gideon, after an eon of searching, success.” He raised his head and frowned. “Gideon, Gideon. Ye of little faith. Of course he was telling the truth. No man can resist these practised hands. You know that. It pains me how you doubt me after all these many years.” He nodded. “Yes, back in ‘twenty-eight. In Dunwich.”
Listening again, he flicked his black tongue across his purple lips.
“En route as we speak, and making all possible haste. I have authorised him to use whatever force is necessary. Or pleasurable,” he added with a smile. He squirmed in his seat. “I feel the Spheres tremble, old friend. We are getting close. We are getting very close.”
He was interrupted by a knock at the farmhouse door.
“Who the deuce can that be?” Into the phone: “Would you please hold a moment?”
Straining his neck towards the door, Wilfred listened intently. When the knock sounded again, a smile stretched across his face.
“My guest has arrived, Gideon. Better late than never. I will call you back once I know more.”
He replaced the phone in its cradle. Reaching over the arm of the chair, feeling along the table, he found and picked up a miniature oval portrait of a young man with long black hair, white skin and rouged cheeks, dressed in a heavy black coat and white silk cravat. The man looked like Dylan.
He held the pendant close to his face. “You were such a handsome devil,” he said to the picture.