Anthropologist Martine Murdoch theorizes the existence of an ancient cult of heart-eaters to explain the condition of human remains found hidden within a long-abandoned Mayan city. When the theory is published, her life changes forever. Shunned by the scientific community, Marty sets out to discover the meaning behind a series of recent murders committed using the very techniques she wrote about. But instead of unearthing a psychotic human, Marty stumbles into the final act of an ancient struggle that has gone unresolved for more than twenty-thousand years. The ancient cult is alive and functioning in the modern world. And now they are after her...
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Charlotte Dobson has won seven awards for fiction, including three for her suspense novel, Crystal Waterfall. She also writes an occasional article for the Novel Writer's Workshop Cyber-Journal. Incubus is her first venture into the horror genre.
When she isn't writing, Charolotte enjoys geneology, astronomy and travel.
A native of Virginia Beach, she has lived in Rhode Island, Florida, and Tennessee in addition to almost every major city in Pennsylvania. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and their three cats.
Visit Charlotte's web page at:http://hometown.aol.com/chardob/charlottedobson.htm
"A horror novel that had plot elements I've never seen before. I've been reading horror fiction since the age of nine so you can imagine that makes Incubus very unique. There are unusual beings to be found in the course of this story. They exist in mythology and may have been talked of in other horror novels but I cannot remember. There also exist unusual explanations for more common horror mythology. I truly enjoyed discovering this book right along with the lead character."Buzzy's eBook Reviews
"Here is a story which is soon careening along like a jeep on a mountain trail. There are all kinds of twists and turns, the truth is well buried in the jungle, and it is a terrific ride to the end. Ms. Dobson handles her characters carefully, keeping them from being simple cut outs. I enjoyed the book greatly and would recommend it to others. Incubus gets four croaks from this frog! Recommended!"Alex McGilvery -- Millenium SF/F Magazine
"If horror is your interest--and if snakes don't weird you out--then grab this eBook. It is thrills, chills, and action all tied up in a tidy plot. The protagonist is well developed--especially for a tale told in first person--and the background has been thoroughly researched. The research is used to enhance the book, not overpower it. All in all, it is an excellent read--one that still has me carefully checking my surroundings for wiggly creatures that want my heart. Shudder. Highly Recommended!"Millennium SF/F Magazine
"DAMN IT. How could I run out of coffee?"
I slammed the cupboard door and turned to stare at the paper-strewn kitchen table I used as a desk. I needed a heavy dose of caffeine to keep me awake through Kendrick's dry, unimaginative article on burial customs of the ancient Aztec. And get through it I must, if I wanted to reestablish my name in the academic community.
I glanced at the clock. Cabot's would still be open but I knew I'd have to hurry. I pulled on a heavy parka, paused just long enough to apply coral lip gloss and check my hair, and raced out the back door.
My face and hands started to sting from the cold. Fishing around in my pockets, I found a pair of lined leather gloves and slipped them on. Then, to counteract the cold, I took off at a brisk jog, carefully avoiding patches of snow and ice.
The old-fashioned Pennsylvania town I now called home looked like a Currier and Ives sketch. The houses perched on the side of a mountain, their rooftops coated with blankets of snow that glowed under the moonless sky. The spire of the church stood tall and serene against its backdrop of twinkling stars. Gigantic yew trees, their laden branches bending under the weight of icicles two feet long, flanked the church on either side. Chimney smoke scented the town with the pungent aromas of maple and pine.
Memories of another time struggled for recognition. Although I was only nine when my mother walked out of my life, I still recalled pleasant Christmases spent with her here, in this very town. She had grown up here, in the house I now occupied. Being there should have brought me closer to her, but it didn't. Every empty room reminded me this was the last place I wanted to be. It was also one of the last places that would have me since my exile from the scientific community four months before.
And what had I done, really? I published an innocent theory explaining Mayan religious rituals based on the physical evidence uncovered over the past hundred years. The book, intended for limited distribution among my fellow specialists in ancient South American cultures, caught the public imagination.
The resulting publicity spawned renewed interest in the long-forgotten civilizations of our neighbors to the south, and made my name a household word. Unfortunately, that also proved to be my downfall. Could I help it if the theory excited a small, somewhat eccentric segment of the population? The fact that I didn't endorse the many heart-eating cults and snake-worshipping sects that sprang into existence didn't help me at all. Weirdos of every description followed me mercilessly, invading my privacy and that of my neighbors.
Within two months of the book's publication, I was a scientific and a social outcast. The university withdrew my funding, claiming I had slanted the data to make a sensational point. They tarnished my name so thoroughly I couldn't get a job anywhere else. Worse, my neighbors banded together to request my immediate departure. Publicity made it impossible to find an apartment, hence my banishment to the backward town where my mother had been born.
I had to prove to everyone my theory wasn't wrong. But how in the world was I going to do that? I couldn't even call the university for information on the latest discoveries without some pit-bull of a receptionist recognizing my voice. By now, I expected to hear the click of a severed connection the minute I opened my mouth.
I pushed the depressing thoughts away.
I looked toward the center of town, hoping to find something to hold my attention. At that late hour, I had the street to myself. The 436 residents of Cabottown rested behind dark, plastic-sealed windows.
One block ahead, the business district came into view. Two tired streetlights -- the only two the town boasted -- stood like defeated soldiers at opposite ends of the tiny street. Smack in the center of the block, the welcoming lights from the drugstore spilled out onto the sidewalk, illuminating the facade like a beacon. I increased my pace, drawn to the warmth and light.
Whispered voices emanated from the dark, narrow alley beside the drugstore. I slowed, shocked to discover someone else outside.
Someone giggled. I paused for a minute and glanced at the mouth of the alley. Something compelled me to draw closer. My feet obeyed, taking the first steps inside. Then I caught a glimpse of shifting shadowy figures standing just within the streetlight's minimal influence. Two people, locked in intimate embrace. One male and one female.
I averted my gaze and retraced my steps, thankful the couple had not caught me watching. Back on the street, I smiled and hurried past the alley. There must be at least a dozen places more suited to an illicit rendezvous, I thought.
Inside the drugstore, I removed the gloves and opened the parka to let warmth surround my skin. I threw back my hood and looked around the store.
The place smelled of an odd combination of perfume testers and stale coffee. Paperback books, newspapers, and the latest editions of popular tabloids occupied the space to the left of the door. The lunch counter, bearing scratches and stains, monopolized half of the store. The space between held shelves containing a small mix of just about everything anyone could want.
Alan Wilson, the county Sheriff, sat at the lunch counter, sipping what appeared to be the dregs of the coffeepot. Blue eyes crinkled with amusement, he returned my nod of greeting and held up the newspaper he read. It was the latest edition of Trust Me, one of the more tenacious of the tabloids. I saw my picture on the cover and rolled my eyes.
The Sheriff winked and went back to his reading. He used to be a Philadelphia police lieutenant. I was certain his cozy, good-old-boy facade hid a keen, analytical mind.
"Evenin', Doc," Jason called from behind the counter. He flashed me a lopsided grin and continued to wipe the space in front of him.
Jason was the sixteen-year-old son of Irene Cabot, owner of the town's combination lunch counter, post office and drugstore. I had the feeling he worked there because his mother, Cabottown's leading citizen, told him he had to. He didn't seem interested in anything but video games and computers.
"Whatidya forget this time?"
He was used to my irregular shopping habits and expected me to visit the store at least three times every day.
"I'm out of coffee, and please, call me Martine, or Marty. Even Miss Murdoch would be better than Doc. It makes me sound like one of the fossils I studied in college."
"What ever ya say, Doc."
Gnashing my teeth, I made my way through the store until I found the coffee. Irene didn't stock my favorite brand, so I selected a gaudy red can and headed back to the counter.
"Anythin' else? It's almost closin' time."
"Not that I can think of." I handed him five dollars and waited for my change. "Oh, yes. I forgot to pick up my mail this afternoon. Is there anything for me?"
"I think so. Let me look."
He turned to the slatted wall behind the stamp machine and ran a hand over the polished wood.
"Yep. Looks like you got a letter from the University of Virginia. Another rejection?"
I flashed him a quelling look and held out my hand. "Anything else?"
"Bills. Telephone, electric. What's this? Telegram. Wow. Someone die?"
"A telegram? Let me see."
Jason held it up to the light, trying to peer through the flimsy envelope.
"Just hand it over."
I accepted the envelope with a nod of thanks.
"Ain't ya gonna open it? Might be important."
Of course I wanted to read the telegram, but Jason's love of gossip stopped me. I didn't want its contents spread all over town before I got home. I slipped it into my pocket and smiled.
"That's all right. I can wait."
He looked deflated when I turned away, purchase in hand.
A jolt of anticipation quickened my step when I walked out the door. I paused under the dim streetlight beside the alley to open my mail, too excited to feel the biting cold.
The letter from the university started out in a positive way, but quickly turned sour. They didn't have a position for me. I sighed. It was what I expected. I stuffed it into my pocket with the bills and tore into the telegram. It was from my father's old friend, Emil Larson. The message was brief and vague.
"I need you. Have arranged flight at 1:00 afternoon of Feb. 17. Philadelphia airport. Have arranged an escort. Bring book."
He wanted me to drop everything and meet him in Mexico. Like I had anything to drop in the first place. I read the telegram again, then shrugged and slipped it into my pocket. I stared at the sidewalk for several seconds, debating.
Why would Emil take the chance of tarnishing his sterling reputation by sending for me, the leper of the scientific community? I shrugged and re-zipped my parka.
After months of solitude it would be stimulating to speak with a fellow scientist, even if he was old enough to be my father. The last time I had seen Emil was three years before, at my father's funeral. Right after the ceremony he had hopped on a plane and gone back to his dig.
What could be happening down there? Shelley Peterson, the one friend I had left at the university, might be able to answer my questions. I'd give it a shot when I got home.
A muffled noise escaped from the alley behind me. I listened, trying to identify the sound. Before I had a chance to think about it, I heard it again. Scratching, and a subdued hiss of alarm.
I sighed and entered the alley, guessing that a cat or small dog was in distress. I swore under my breath, realizing the people I glimpsed on my way to the store must have been some of the local kids, out for a bit of fun with Mr. Manning's timid kitty. It would only take me a second to be sure.
I paused after a few paces to let my eyes grow accustomed to the deeper darkness between the rough stone buildings. The distinctive odor of day-old garbage hit me. I wrinkled my nose in distaste.
The street-lamp didn't penetrate this far. The meager light that did find a way through only served to highlight the shadows. Outside, a lone truck rumbled through the street, its headlights distorting the litter and debris. For an instant, the shadows seemed to lunge and close in.
I had the feeling that something moved closer. I took a quick glance over my shoulder, but the darkness was complete. I strained my ears, listening. Nothing moved across the frozen crust of snow.
Claws scratched metal. I remembered my errand and quickened my pace.
"I'm coming, I'm coming. Hold on for a second."
I placed the bag containing my coffee in the snow piled beside the dumpster, then pulled my gloves on. The last time I had tried to touch a frightened cat the resulting scratches had left my hands sore for more than a week. Lifting the lid, I bent to look inside. The smell of rotting food made me gag. I turned my face away, drew a deep breath of cleaner air, and tried again.
Green eyes, reflecting some hidden source of light, stared back at me from the darkness inside. I heard what sounded like a slithering rustle, followed by a deep hiss. I was about to reach in when my brain screamed a frantic warning.
Those luminous objects couldn't possibly belong to something as ordinary as a cat. I sprang away.
A long, thick, shadowy shape emerged from the dumpster before I could slam the lid. I took another step back. The step brought me up against something massive and hard.
Something clenched my right hand in a grip I couldn't break. I glanced behind me, too numb with shock to do more than whimper. The thing was large and warm and appeared to have the general shape of a bull. Although the creature could have chewed my hand off my arm, it seemed to wish only to restrain.
I choked back a sob of fear and turned toward the mouth of the alley. At that moment, I thought of nothing but the need to get away.
Something twined around my feet, preventing my escape. It was too big and thick to be a rope. Through the fabric of my jeans I felt muscles flex and relax. The thing wound its body tighter. The hissing noise increased, then subtly changed into a shattered whispering of my last name. The frigid air around me pulsated with the sound.
Fear gripped me. My heart pounded within my chest. My free hand, greasy and cold from sweat, beat ineffectually at the hard shape at my back. It refused to release me. My breath, coming out in ragged gasps, solidified as soon as it left my mouth, creating a cloud of vapor that clung to the moisture-laden air. Thick, green, iridescent fog rose up to surround my attackers and me.
The slithering shape at my ankles tightened and inched its way up my legs. It paralyzed me.
The coiling reached my knees and exerted pressure to force me to the ground. I sobbed. The sound bounced around inside the cloud of hazy vapor, then died away.
The thing around my legs contracted, forcing me down into the snow. I knelt. Through the fog, I saw blazing green eyes.
The glowing eyes staring up at me had a fringe of long brown lashes encircling lids that appeared almost human. A thick shock of dark brown hair grew from the crown of its head.
It was a snake, but unlike any snake I had ever seen.
I looked upon the plumed serpent of Mayan myth come to life and felt my heart constrict painfully.
I shook my head and screamed in fear.
Glistening scales contorted, squeezing, cutting off circulation. My legs tingled from lack of blood.
The massive head reared back and opened its jaws. Slavering teeth dripped venomous juices down the legs of my jeans. Terrified, I turned my face toward the street and screamed again.
To my right, near the open end of the alley, the street-lamp's golden glow outlined the shape of a human silhouette. The hard, muscled shape at my back vanished, freeing my hand. The serpent released me before the echoes of my last scream died away. Robbed of support, I fell face down in the snow and tried to catch my breath.
My unwitting rescuer moved an arm and turned on a flashlight. The powerful beam found me, then moved on to rake the alley. With the aid of its light, I turned to take a wary look around. There was nothing behind me but a few wildly shifting shadows. The rustling sounds died away, leaving me to wonder if the whole bizarre event had taken place at all.
And then I saw it, a shiny oblong lying on top of a churned pile of week-old snow. In the uncertain light, it looked like a sliver of polished glass. It was huge -- almost as large as the pad of my thumb.
It made me shudder to look at it. There was no time for closer scrutiny. The man drew nearer. I put out a gloved hand to take it, then froze.
My right hand still ached from the bull's grating teeth, but there wasn't a mark on the smooth leather glove covering it. I clenched my hand, searching for scratches, punctures -- anything. The glove looked as smooth and untouched as the day I bought it. Within seconds the soreness dissolved. Both my hand and my leg felt whole and uninjured.
Footsteps approached through the crusted snow. I grasped the object with a shaky hand and slipped it into my pocket.
A mobile transmitter hissed into life, scaring me. I jumped and covered my head with both hands. In the same instant, I heard the soft crackle of a leather bomber jacket and discerned the tall, muscular shape of the newcomer. Sheriff Wilson grabbed the instrument from his belt and asked the dispatcher to send two cars around. Then he replaced the transmitter and continued his approach.
"Doc Murdoch? That you?"
The Sheriff, closer now, called again. "Doc? You all right?"
"Yes. It's me."
All around me, the drifted peaks of snow appeared uniform in their coating of grime. Besides my own, there wasn't a single fresh footprint -- or paw-print or snake print -- to prove I had not been alone.
I bent over to retrieve my package, then stood to greet the Sheriff. I noticed then that he had his gun out of its holster. He pointed it straight at me.
"What the hell you doin' here?"
"On the way to the store, I thought I heard a noise in here. I saw two people, kissing. On the way back, I heard the noise again, but the people had gone. So I came in to investigate. Something attacked me."
"I heard you scream from inside the drugstore."
He moved around the alley, shining his light over every square inch of the place. Two doors lead to adjacent shops, but both were padlocked from the outside. Nothing could escape that way. The Sheriff stopped beside the dumpster, letting the light wash over its rusted exterior.
Before I could answer, he turned the flashlight inside. I gave an involuntary start of nerves and backed away a pace.
The Sheriff, after one careful look at the contents of the dumpster, holstered his weapon and turned to me.
"Tell me everything that happened, young lady," he said. "The people you said you saw. One was male, right?"
"Yes. I'm sure of that."
"Can you describe him?"
"No. I didn't get a very good look at him. Why?"
"I'm askin' the questions. Tell me the rest."
I told a censored tale, omitting any mention of the serpent's plume of hair or glowing eyes. When I finished the Sheriff turned his flash again, shining its glaring light on my face. I winced in sudden pain.
"Hey, have a little mercy with that thing, Sheriff. You're hurting my eyes."
"Did you see anyone the second time?"
"I think you should tell me the truth."
"I am telling you the truth. I didn't see anyone. I thought a few of the shadows moved, but it must have been my imagination."
"It wasn't your imagination."
The Sheriff pulled me over to look inside the dumpster. Nestled atop a pile of trash at the bottom of the container lay the twisted, tortured remains of a young woman. The body was fresh. Steam rose from the torn flesh of her stilled and lifeless chest.
In spite of a lifetime of studying such things, my stomach tightened reflexively. This was no ancient burial. The chances were good the body belonged to someone I knew. After the first nauseating glance, I found I could study it without emotion.
"Her chest has been ripped open," I said in awe. "By the look on her face, I would say it happened while she was still alive. Notice the flesh has been peeled from the long bones, yet there is no evidence of blood."
The inside of the dumpster should have been coated with the stuff. Instead, there wasn't a drop that I could see. I reached out a gloved hand, only to have it batted away.
"Don't touch her. Look at these marks on her ribs. You ever seen anything like that before?"
I swallowed hard. "I think I have. They look like ... teeth marks."
His steely eyes met mine. "Just like in that book of yours. Yes, Doc. Some of us do read, you know."
"You can't think I had anything to do with this."
He didn't answer. Instead, he looked the body over with a practiced eye. "She was around five-foot-five, chunky build, long wavy brown hair, brown eyes."
"How can you tell that?"
"I recognize her. She's one of Evans' girls. Sarah, I think."
My hands dropped to my sides. I shivered, suddenly cold. "You realize you just described me."
"Yeah. Makes you think, don't it?"
"I swear, I had nothing to do with this."
"Relax. I saw you leave Cabot's and stand under the light to read your mail. You weren't out of my sight for more than about thirty seconds, not long enough to commit this murder. I know you didn't do it on the way in, neither. She hasn't been here that long. In this temperature, the body would cool down fast. You're clean."
"Of course I am. I study burials, not make them. If you hadn't come along when you did I'd be the next victim."
"I think that's mor'n likely true."
He shrugged. "Publicity Some kid out to make a name for hisself by killin' Doc Murdoch usin' her own ancient MO."
"You can't be serious."
"I'm deadly serious. In a way, I been expectin' this since the day you moved into town."
I shivered again and looked away.
The Sheriff closed the dumpster and, taking my arm, led me to the mouth of the alley. Two white cars, each bearing the emblem of his department, were parked at the curb in answer to his summons. He led me to the first one and opened the passenger door.
"Get in. Drucker'll drive you down to the station and take your statement. Then he'll take you home. I don't want to hear about you spreading this all over town, neither. I want you to stay inside that house of your'n and keep your mouth shut. If you even think about talking to a reporter, I'll haul you to jail."
"The last thing I want is more publicity." Before stepping into the car, I spared one more horrified look for the gloomy alley. "What are you going to do about her?"
"None of your business," he said, his eyes flashing with anger. "This isn't one of your archaeological sites, damn it. This is murder."
"If I can be of any assistance in your investigation--"
"If you want to help me, get the hell out of my county," he said in a tight voice. "These copy-cat psychos will follow you and leave the rest of us alone."
"Are you telling me I'm free to go?"
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You plannin' to?"
I explained about the telegram.
"Let me see it."
The Sheriff studied it for some minutes before making up his mind. "I want to do some checkin' on this. Don't get on that plane unless you hear from me. You got that?"
"Are you ordering me to stay?"
"Call it a polite request."
There was nothing more I could say. I got into the car and let Drucker drive me home. No doubt the Sheriff was right. Add another black mark to the growing list of catastrophes the book and its publicity had caused. My presence in the town attracted every loony in the Northeast. The longer I stayed, the worse it would get.
Now, finally, I had a place to go. Emil's telegram couldn't have come at a better time.