IN A STRANGE NEW WORLD HE FINDS FRIENDSHIP, TREASURE… AND DANGER.
Life has not been easy for "Fitz" Fitzgilbert. He has survived the battlefield, personal tragedy, and economic hardship; now all he wants is peace. He moves into and isolated, ramshackle house built--oddly--on an earthen mound. Then he uncovers a hidden stone passageway beneath the house--and falls through an invisible doorway into another world!
Except for the bizarre beasts that crawl its shoreline, the "sand world" seems deserted. Yet Fitz is not alone. First he is visited b y an old friend, who reveals that Fitz has a mission in this strange new world. Then he is supplied with traveling companions: a Norman knight, transported from the 11th century via unexplainable magic; and a 1950s jazz musician trapped in a most unusual new body. Together they will surmount incredible dangers--and reap incredible rewards!
Robert Adams (1932-1990) was a career soldier whose Horseclans series drew on his military background to lend verisimilitude to the exploits of 26th Century of immortal mutant warriors in a balkanized North America. The Coming of the Horseclans (1975) was the first of 18 novels in the sequence, which ended, with The Clan of the Cats (1988), only on account of the author’s death.
His non-Horseclans work included two other series. Castaways in Time (1980) and its five sequels were a mix of alternate history and time travel. The Stairway to Forever and Monsters and Magicians (both 1988) were the only volumes to appear of a projected fantasy series.
He also co-edited several anthologies, among them Barbarians (1985, with Martin H. Greenberg and Charles H. Waugh), four Magic in Ithkar volumes (1985-87, with Andre Norton), Robert Adams' Book of Alternate Worlds (1987, with Pamela Crippen Adams and Martin H. Greenberg) and Robert Adams' Book of Soldiers (1988, same co-editors).
This book captured my imagination, from the facial expressions of his cat, to exploring deeper in to this new world right in his back yard. I wanted to be his sidekick and help make decisions. I felt the adrenaline when the beast was discovered. I vividly imagined the fence and the characters strong will developing. This book is a fantastic read, I will always remember where I was in place and time when I think about this book.Chris on Amazon
One of the Best. Leaves you on the edge of your seat at end
I really loved this book. It makes you think about all of the conections and possibilities out there. The author is a master.
Robert Adams has opened a universe that a lot of people are going to want to explore.Gordon R. Dickson
This is a very nice fantasy/adventure book, about a guy who discovers a stairway to an alternate world. I especially enjoyed all the detailed preparations for the journey, the description of all the various supplies and the realistic consequences and repercussions in the real world. That, plus the scenes about the initial discovery of the ancient shipwreck was actually much more fun than the adventure that followed, which is the more typical monsters/swords/talking animals stuff.Big Beat
Charity Mathews thought from the very beginning that it was a big mistake to give her eldest son, Calvin, a rifle for his twelfth birthday, but as usual her wishes were ridden over roughshod by her rude, crude, coarse and often brutal husband, Yancy. At her hesitant words, the tall, lanky, rawboned man only snorted in derision and popped open yet another beer, half of which he guzzled, prominent Adam’s apple working, before he deigned to give her an answer.
“Shitfire, woman, you ain’t got you the brains God give a piss ant, you know that? I was out a-huntin’ with my own gun when Is eight, ten year old, not just no fuckin’ BB gun, neither, like these dumbass city fuckers give they kids. Calvin, he gettin’ on towards being a man soon, and it’s high time he had him a real gun for to hunt varmints and all with.
“Now I don’ wanta hear no more about it. You want suthin to do, you git me another beer. You hear me, Char’ty?”
Justly fearing her husband’s ill-controlled temper and his big, bony fists, Charity sped to the kitchen to fetch him back another cold beer. Yancy just didn’t know but the one side of his sons, she thought. Both Calvin and Bubba behaved themselves around the father they feared, but otherwise they were about as well-behaved as wild Indians, constantly in trouble at school, with the neighbors in the decaying suburb, and now and again with the sheriff and his deputies.
On the morning after his birthday—the afternoon of which, Calvin and Bubba and their father had spent at the county dump shooting at rats, bottles, cans and anything else that seemed a good target—Calvin waited until the rural mail carrier came along in his rusty car. The lanky boy, trailed by his chubby brother, stepped from behind a stretch of overgrown privet hedge and leveled the pump rifle at old Mister Bartlett, saying in his nasal twang, “Thishere’s a stickup, Grandpa. Gimme all yore money... an’ all yore whiskey, too.” Then, both boys sniggered.
But their plan worked only that far. Bartlett did not cower and beg for his life; instead, he rolled out of the car much faster than they would have thought the old drunk could move. His hand clamped the barrel of the rifle and jerked it away from Calvin so hard and so fast that his grubby trigger finger was both strained and barked.
While he worked the action repeatedly, ejecting all fifteen of the long-rifle cartridges into the mud and water of the roadside ditch, the letter carrier just shook his head and muttered.
“Never did think your pa’s long suit was brains and this here just goes for to prove it. Any damn fool would give a damn proved JD like you a damn .22 rifle to raise hell with is got to be God’s gift to all morons. Ain’t you two nitwits ever heard tell what the FedVal Gov’mint does to bastards as robs the Yew-Ess Mails... or tries to, leastways? Wont for your poor, long-sufring ma, Id stuff you two in the trunk and drive you over and turn you in to Sher ff Vaughan. It ain’t bad enough she’s got her a husband like Yancy, but she winds up with a couple brats who’s jailhouse bound if ever any two kids was.”
“You gimme my gun back, you old drunk!” demanded Calvin. “Is just a-joshin’ you and you know it, too. And I’m gonna tell my pa what-all you just said about him and he’s gonna stomp the shit outen you.”
“Oh, I’m scared,” sneered Bartlett. “Can’t you see me shakin’ all over? You tell Yancy any damn thing you wants to, kid, he knows better’n to mess with me. I think, though, that maybe I should oughta phone him up tonight and tell him how you’re running around pointing loaded guns at folks and saying you holding ‘em up.”
“You gawdamn old fart, you,” snapped the fat-faced Bubba, “you do that and Calvin and me’ll slash the fuckin’ tires on yore old rattletrap car like we done las’ year, too!”
Without a word, the man began to field-strip the rifle, dropping the smaller parts into the puddly ditch and heaving most of the larger as far as he could into the weedy, roadside tangles of brush. When only the barrel remained in his hands, he jammed it, muzzle-down, with all his strength into the soft mud.
And he squeezed back under the wheel, he admonished, “I’m gonna tell the sher’ff about all this here. I’m also gonna have the Postmaster to send a letter to your pa, ‘cause if he don’t rein you two hellions in a mite, he can just start comin’ and picking up his mail at the post office, is all. We don’t gotta put up with vicious dogs or with vicious little brats like of you two, neither.
“Oh, and you better git the mud outen that barr’l fore you tries to shoot it again, elst it’ll backfire and blow your damn head off, you li’l snotnose, and good riddance, I’d say.”
He did not look his age, the man called Fitz, despite the dark circles under his eyes, the soul-deep sadness in those eyes and his careworn appearance. But just now he felt the full weight of every one of his fifty-five years.
In the last few years, fate had dealt blow after stunning blow to Fitz, and a weaker man would never have retained his sanity under such buffets, so much pain. But black-haired, blue-eyed Alfred Fitzgilbert had been noted since boyhood for both physical strength and strength of character. He was not a big man—only some five feet nine and lacking the massive bone structure that had characterized both parents and all his siblings—and his were not the rolling muscles of the iron-pumping body-builders, but his compact body and flat musculature held power unsuspected by any who had not personally experienced that power or at least witnessed the prodigies it could accomplish.
It had taken both varieties of strength to keep him alive during nearly three and a half years of Pacific Theater combat during World War Two. Although appalled and soul-sickened by the incredible amounts and degrees of slaughter and bloodshed attendant to the seemingly endless campaigns of one amphibious assault after another, Fitz had so proven himself and impressed his superiors with his leadership abilities and survival traits that he had several times over been offered the plum of a regular commission in the United States Marine Corps. And on each occasion, he had courteously but firmly declined, finally leading said superiors to settle by retaining him in a reserve commission when that war ended and Fitz went to college under the GI Bill, married and commenced building a family and a secure, peaceful existence for him and them.
But then, with his son only three years old and the ink still wet on his baccalaureate degree, he and his Marine Corps Reserve unit had found themselves activated, recalled to fight yet another war, this one on a stinking, God-cursed peninsula of the Asian landmass, called Chosen or Korea. By then, Fitz was looking back at his thirtieth birthday and went back across the vast Pacific wearing gold oak leaves, but again his strengths served him well and he survived that war also. At the stalemated conclusion of that one, however, he resigned his reserve commission and plunged into the world of business, not caring to take the chance of staying in the reserves and being force-fed yet a third helping of war in a few more years.
Bearing the cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm and the rusty spade in his hand, Fitz carefully negotiated the loose, warped boards of the rotting porch, then tightly gripped the flaking iron banister with his free hand as he gingerly descended the crumbling, concrete steps down to the backyard. Once, long, long ago, it surely had been a green, tended lawn; now, there was but a weedy, trash-littered tangle through which the ground squirrels scurried...and how Tom had loved to stalk and chase the tiny, striped-brown creatures, although Fitz could never recall that the aged cat had ever actually caught one.
Tom, good old, gentle old Tom. He unconsciously hugged to his side the cold, stiff body enwrapped in the damp, threadbare towel. Tom had not deserved the hard, agonized death of a bullet in the lower belly that had been his lot. Somehow, despite his obscene pain, the cat had made it home, made it as far as the lowest step of the front stoop and, when Fitz found him, had been still warm, his green eyes only starting to glaze over.
But, warm body or not, Fitz knew death when he saw it, knew full well that there by then was nothing that the vet five miles away could do for the cat. He had backtracked the trail of blood and bloody feces, then searched in ever-widening circles around the beginning of that trail until he had found two shiny brass rimfire cases, caliber .22 long rifle.
He then had known almost for certain fact just who had murdered the inoffensive cat. The same cruel, bloodthirsty young brat who had to date shot at least three pet dogs, an inflatable wading pool, a succession of automobile and truck tires and the windshield of a rusty Volkswagen bug. Why any parent would give such a child a firearm to begin with was beyond Fitz’s comprehension, and why said child had been left in possession of so lethal a weapon after all his misdeeds was beyond any semblance of rationality.
Pocketing the two cases, he had considered bearding the perpetrator and his parents in their nearby home, but had instead remembered Tom and his duty to the husk of the animal that had for so long been pet, friend and sole companion. Back in the decaying, rented bungalow, he had first laved off the mess of blood and serum and dung and urine from the furry body, then arranged and bound it so that it would stiffen in the feline posture of sleep, with feet tucked under and tail curled around. Weeping copious and completely unashamed tears, he had sought out the very best of his bath towels and carefully wrapped the body in it, then searched the spider-infested crawl space under the bungalow until he had found the spade he recalled seeing there.
But then, he had had to stop everything long enough for a drink, a half-water glass of the smooth, brownish-amber John Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. His father had died of complications resulting from near-lifelong alcoholism, and two of his younger brothers and one younger sister were clearly headed toward that same end, so Fitz normally strictly limited his intake of the “creature,” which was what his mother had called spirits of any kind. But he felt this drink and the one that quickly followed it to be, if ever a drink was such a thing, medicinal.
For poor Tom had constituted his last remaining tie with all the joy that once had been—with Janet and Kath and young Fitz, with success and fulfillment and a happy, comfortable life—all gone now, gone forever, irrevocably. And here, thanks to a savage, sadistic boy, Tom was gone, too.
Beyond the initial ten or fifteen yards of weeds and rubbish, the backyard sloped abruptly upward to level off again some two feet higher than the rest of the property. The miniature plateau thus formed was roughly circular and sported not just weeds but a few scraggly bushes. It was beneath the centermost of these neglected shrubs that Tom had most often been found snoozing and that was where Fitz had decided to bury his dead companion, last member of his death-sundered family.
As he walked slowly up the slope to the site of the unpleasant task that he must perform, Fitz wondered for the umpteenth time just when and why and how the low mound had originated. The agent who had first shown, then rented him the ill-kempt, twenty-five-year-old tract house had scratched at the sparse growth of hair under his straw planter’s hat, shrugged and grunted, “Hell, Mister Fitzgilbert, I dunno. Prob’ly it was a layout for crowket or suthin’, one time.”
But Fitz had even then doubted the verity of that sad excuse for an answer and he thought even less of it, now, after having lived on the place for two-plus years. For one thing, the flat, circular top was too small for such a purpose. Besides, considering the amount of labor involved in raising such a mound, a man would have had to have been absolutely ‘round the bend to do so much simply for the occasional game of croquet.
Jefferson Bartlett, the letter carrier, had lived in the general area all his life, save for twenty years in the Army, since long before the former Dineen estate—of which this had been a part—was sold and subdivided and built upon in the late nineteen-forties. While sharing a tall iced tea and several short John Jamesons during the course of his rounds in Fitz’s first summer of renting the decrepit house, the wiry little man had waxed most voluble with the latest in a long succession of tenants of the property.
“Thet or Mistuh Dineen, he won’t from ‘round here, you know. He’s from England, I think. Leastways, he talked that funny, stilty kinda English what them folks all talks. He showed up away Tore I’s borned, o’course, musta been back in the ‘eighties or ‘nineties, but my paw, he tol’ me all ‘bout it.
“But it won’t Mistuh Dineen what built thet mound, it’s on some the ol’ county maps from clear back to the sixteen hunnerds. I recollec’, some fellers come down here from the University, during the Depression, that was, back in the thirties. They aimed to dig inta it, but ol’ Mistuh Dineen he sent ‘em both packin’. Dint give no reasons or nuthin’, just tolt ‘em to git off of his land or he’d have the sher’ff put ‘em off
“I heered them two fellers a-talkin’ down to Bates’s Store Tore they got set for to drive their Model A back to the University. In between a cussin’ ol’ Mistuh Dineen and all, they allowed as how the mound had to be a Injun mound and the onliest one ever heered tell of in this part the country, too. Anybody could of told both them fellers was just a-itchin’ for to get inta that mound and mebbe make a name for theyselfs and their university, too. But they fin’ly drove off and they never come back, neither.”
“What became of Mister Dineen?” asked Fitz. “Did he die here?”
With an experienced flick of the wrist, the carrier threw down the two fingers of straight whiskey, then shook his head. “Nossir, don’t nobody I ever talked to know just what did happen to the ol’ genulman. I won’t here, see; I jined up in thirty-seven, see. But seems like he was just gone one day when his servants went to wake him for his breakfast. The Sher’ff and all, they looked all over the place for Mistuh Dineen, but they never found hide nor hair of him. Not only that, but they never could find no relatives as could prove they was, so after ‘bout ten years, the state just auctshunned the place off for taxes and all and some bunch of damn yankees bought it and started puttin’ up these here crummy little half-asted houses on it.
“Why, yessuh, Mistuh Fitzgilbert, thank you kindly.” Bartlett had swabbed at his sweat-running face with a faded, already-soggy bandana, while Fitz refilled his whiskey glass. “Y’know, lotsa folks thinks whiskey’s no good in hot weathuh, but really ain’t nuthin’ better, cause whiskey makes a body to sweat, y’know, and the more you sweats, the cooler you gets from the Vaporation. Eny sawbones’ll tell you that.”
Of course, the argument that Bartlett used for non-abstinence in winter was that whiskey possessed sovereign warming properties. Fitz had discovered over a period of time that the letter carrier never commenced his route but that a full half-gallon bottle of bourbon reposed within easy reach on the floorboards of his asthmatic, rusty ranch wagon. And Deputy Hagen attested that many was the time he had chanced across that ranch wagon, engine still running, at the end of the mail run, with Bartlett “resting his eyes” in the driver’s seat, the empty glass jug tenderly cradled in his arms.
But Fitz would not, could not, force himself behind the wheel of a car otherwise than stone cold sober. That was because of Janet...and Kath. Indeed, he still frequently awoke from sleep in a cold sweat, tears streaming down his cheeks, gasping out wrenching sobs, at the terrible, unbearable memories of what he had seen that horrible night.
Choosing his spot for the feline’s grave, he laid the cloth bundle to one side, spat on his hands and began to ply the spade, portions of it flaking away with each shovelful of dirt, while the warped, crooked handle wobbled loose in the socket.
It had not any of it been poor Janet’s fault, not really, he mused darkly while deepening and widening the hole in the rich black soil of the mound. She just had never been a truly strong woman—a sweet and a loving wife, a faithful and a devoted mother, yes, but never really strong. The tragic loss of their only son, young Fitz, had started it, begun the disintegration of Janet, Kath, his life and everything he had once held dear.
“...regrets to inform you that your son, Lance Corporal Alfred O’Brien Fitzgilbert III...died this day of wounds sustained through enemy action, while in the service of his country...the Commandant deeply and sincerely...”
That, alone, would have been bad enough. But even more shattering to poor Janet had been that her son’s bright, cheery letters had kept trickling in—one or two at a time—for long weeks after she had known that he was dead, that none of the plans he detailed in those letters could ever now come to fruition. The drinking had started during those torturous weeks.
At first, it was only Fitz and Kath who noticed the sharp increase in the wife and mother’s consumption of alcohol, and that only because of her genetic predilection to alcoholism—not only was she of pure Irish stock, but both of her parents had died young of drink and her older brother was already become a sodden, divorced wreck of a man.
But both her husband and their surviving child had deluded themselves into the belief that the situation was only a temporary one, engendered entirely by the grief that they all shared, and that Janet would snap out of it when once she had finally adjusted to the facts and learned to live with them, soberly.
Such as the father and daughter fantasized just possibly might have occurred in fact, but ever-capricious and cruel fate had deemed otherwise, in this sad case. The agony had dragged on and on, rather than ending quickly and decently. It had been more than six weeks before the metal casket had arrived from Southeast Asia, accompanied by a young-old gunnery sergeant, bearing a manila file folder.
Sergeant Heilbrunn had been polite, but formal and taciturn, until Fitz had given him a brief rendition of his own service with the Corps. Then the young man had unwound a bit and accepted the proffered drink. No, he had not known the deceased, they had not even served in the same regiment. Heilbrunn had just been a warm body snagged on his way through headquarters after having been discharged to duty from a hospital. As he began to steel himself for the coming ordeals of wake, funeral mass and interment, Fitz thought that such impersonality was not a hallmark of the Corps in which he had served so long ago.
He had just about psyched himself up sufficiently to take it all, himself, and to provide strength for his wife and daughter, as well...then the mortician, Alexander Flodden, telephoned.
“Fitz? Fitz, I know you were coming down here this afternoon...don’t.”
Through clenched teeth, Fitz had replied, “Look,
Alex, I served in the Fifth Marines for the best part of three years in the Pacific, then served two more years in Korea, and Tve seen...seen...Well, anyway, I’m not going to throw up or faint or anything on you is what I mean.
“Okay, he was my son, my only son, and it’ll be rough, but hell, Alex, somebody has to... to identify the...him. And God knows, poor Janet and little Kath aren’t either of them up to it, not now, not yet.”
Flodden sighed deeply. “That’s just it, Fitz, this body here is not your son’s body. Somebody has fouled up, somewhere along the line.”
“Well...well, of course it’s my Fitz!” Fitz Senior had expostulated. “It’s got to be! That Gunny, Heilbrunn, has the files and all.”
“Yes, yes, Fitz,” Flodden quickly interjected. “I’ve seen the paperwork, it’s accurate, complete, but it’s just that they sent the wrong body with those papers, Fitz.”
Fitz had screwed his eyes tightly shut, shaking from head to foot, cold sweat oozing from his pores. If Flodden was right...? If this damned, bloody, torturous business was to drag on still longer, could Janet take it without cracking completely and/or crawling so far into the bottle that she could never get out of it alive? Kath, too, was beginning to crumble a bit around the edges. And he, himself...?
“But, Alex, you never saw that much of Fitz as he was growing up, so do you think you remember his face well enough to...?”
Once more, the mortician interrupted in his calm, sad voice. “Ah, Fitz, ah...this body has very little, ah, face left to it. I, for one, would hate to have the task before me of having to restore it for an open casket...”
“Then, damn it,” Fitz had shouted into the telephone mouthpiece, his eyes still tight-closed, but now with tears compounded of grief and frustration and fear for his wife and daughter oozing from beneath the lids to trickle down his cheeks, “just how in hell can you assume it’s not my boy?”
Sensing the undertones of incipient hysteria, Flodden’s voice became instantly, professionally soothing. “Fitz, my friend, it disturbs me deeply to have to add to your grief this way, please believe me. But this body is clearly not that of your brave, departed son, and there is no question about it. Fitz, this body is that of a negro—a very dark-skinned negro.”
More than three months after the initial notification of his demise, the remains of Lance Corporal Fitzgilbert, Alfred O’B. Ill, USMC, really came home. But by that time, his father’s worst fears for his mother’s emotional balance had been realized in full.
Fitz had just lived with Janet and the endless problem she was become. Kath did too...for a while; but when the girl had had enough, she left home and, try as he might and felt he should, Fitz could in no way fault her decision, for Janet, when she was not comatose, was becoming more and more disgusting and unbearable with each passing day.
The Janet he had married after World War Two had kept an immaculate house, had been an accomplished and innovative cook and had been possessed of high standards of personal cleanliness and appearance. This new Janet, however, went long periods without bothering to either bathe or change her clothing, and the house about which she staggered in her filthy, slept-in clothes was become as unkempt and slovenly as was she, herself, acrawl with flies and roaches. Now, those few meals that Fitz took at his home were of his own preparation—mostly TV dinners, cold sandwiches or canned beans or soups.
Cursing himself for a coward, the time, he actually sought the out-of-town travels that once had been something he had accepted only when there had been no one else of his qualifications to send. But he always made arrangements before such trips for one of the sympathetic neighbors to place food outside for Tom—that and keep the back door water dish filled.
At last, when matters had progressed far beyond the beyonds, he closed Janet’s checking account and signed the necessary papers to deny her any access to his own. He took every one of her credit cards from her wallet, then paid off and closed every account. When next he came into the one-time home, she railed long and obscenely at him, spat out profane crudities that he had never in all their twenty-odd years of marriage suspected she knew.
Then, a piece at a time, the sterling silver began to disappear. When he had cleared out or locked up everything of intrinsic value in the house, Janet began to steal.
It was only after he had had to leave in the midst of a very important conference to fetch Janet—a sober, very shaky and sobbingly sorry Janet—from the city police lockup, wherein she had been immured for some hours after being apprehended and booked, caught in the act of shoplifting table wine from a supermarket, that he and Father Dan Padway had been able to convince her to enter a “rest home.” He had had to dip deeply into their savings to finance the steep costs of her care and treatment, but he had felt the money well-spent when she had at length emerged so very much the old, much-loved Janet.
The matted grass, weeds and woody roots of the hushes had made the digging slow with nothing but the dull, rusty spade, but nonetheless, Fitz felt that the grave was almost wide and deep enough when he struck a much harder obstruction—stone, from the way the spade rang upon it. Sighing, he tried gently pushing the edge of the tool down in first one place, then another, endeavoring to get under the rock and lever it up, out of his way.
Janet had stayed dry for almost a year, faithfully attending her AA meetings, being counselled by Father Dan, as well as by a psychiatrist recommended by the priest and by the staff of the rest home that had done the job of drying her out. They had given her back her lost dignity, too: the house was once more become a well-tended home for her and Fitz and Tom. Fitz had begun to breathe almost easily once more and was considering the best ways of finding his absent daughter.
But then, of a day, Kath appeared on the doorstep. Painfully thin she was, with sallow skin and permanently dark circles under her unnaturally bright eyes. Her once-golden hair now hung dull and matted and lifeless over the shoulders of her too-big man’s shirt. The shirt and her torn jeans were crusted with layers of filth and her cheap, ankle-high boots lacked more than a trace of what had been heels and soles. There were open sores on her face and neck, her hands were broken-nailed and grubby and a nauseating stench hung about her. The girl was—although it would be a while before they were confronted with all the unpalatable facts—suffering from the combined effects of malnutrition, drug addiction, two venereal diseases and enteritis. She also was by then three months pregnant and had not even the foggiest notion as to who might have fathered her bastard.
At some time during those first weeks of discovery atop painful discovery—none of them helped by the fact that Kath had allowed her health insurance to lapse and so every one of the multitudinous medical expenses had had to come out of Fitz’s shrinking financial cushion—concerning the returned wreck of their only surviving child, Janet had crawled back into the bottle for good and all. And Kath, when once she had ingested everything in the house that even looked as if it might have been a drug, joined her mother in the bottle.
Fitz had then tried to lose himself in his job, coming to the house that had once been his home as little as possible, and then only to collect the mail and feed Tom. Otherwise, he lived out of his car, staying out of town as much as he could and, when unavoidably in town, sleeping on the couch in his office and washing in the small sink of his half-bath there.
Each and every necessary visit to the house left him sadder and more haggard. None of the neighbors any longer even spoke to him as he made his way through the knee-high grass from the driveway to the front door. Unless one or both lay comatose, Janet and Kath would be screaming filth at each other, usually ignoring him except to demand money.
Upon entering, he had to gulp and breathe as shallowly as possible. The house stank, the air thick with a miasma of dirt, stale booze, rotting food, long-unwashed female flesh, excrement, urine and vomitus. The mail was always strewn the length and width of the tiles foyer, lying just as it had fallen through the door slot and been then scattered by heedless, stumbling feet. When he had stuffed it all into his briefcase, he went directly to the kitchen, now become roach paradise, where bowls and plates of unidentifiable food substances sat on the floor and on every other surface, covered with mold or alive with white, writhing maggots.
In the beginning, he had at least tried. He had scraped and bagged and canned the garbage and trash, washed the dishes enough to run them through the dishwasher, mopped the floor and scrubbed the counter tops. But in the end he gave up, just as he had given up on Janet and Kath and trying to live any sort of life in close proximity to the two of them.
From his briefcase, he would take two large cans of cat food and a one-pound box of cat kibble. He had given over leaving canned cat food at the house after he had come back to find the opened cans here and there throughout the place, the spoons still in them, like as not, clearly eaten by one of the two women after the food money had all been spent for drugs or alcohol.
Then he would go through the screened porch and down the back steps to heap the contents of both cans into Tom’s licked-clean plate. He would rinse out and refill the feline’s water dish, then empty the box of kibble into the weatherproof gravity feeder. After sitting for a while beneath the trees and giving the loving cat the human affection that he craved, Fitz would steel himself for another pass through the fetid house, retrieve his briefcase, get back in his car and go back to work, hating himself for having given up on his wife and daughter, but fearing for his own emotional equilibrium should he try to do other.
“Maybe,” Fitz mused as he dug, widening the hole in the mound top, vainly trying to find an edge to the flat-topped stone, which looked to have the smooth regularity of worked stone, “maybe Janet’s death was not really accidental. Maybe, deep down inside her, she really wanted to die. But maybe not, too. At least the Janet I knew and loved and lived with for all those years, the good years, would have never—no matter how personally suicidal she’d become—have taken her own daughter and unborn grandchild with her into death.”
At last, the entire slab of stone was cleared of its covering of earth and roots and smaller pebbles and Fitz softly whistled to himself at the size of the thing. No wonder his prying spade had accomplished nothing on the first couple of stretches of edge he had found. The flat, rectangular stone was a good five feet long, nearly three feet in width and just how thick was anybody’s guess. Yes, it was most definitely made work, not natural, though the master craftsman who had cut and shaped it had done it with such expertise that the fading afternoon light showed not even a single faint tool-mark on it—on it or on the stone-block framing around it.
He felt, after so much expended effort, that he had to give one more try to moving the stone before he dug a grave for Tom in another location. He jammed the jagged point of the spade straight down into the interstice between one of the shorter edges and the framing and gingerly levered, not wishing to snap either the oxidized metal or the loose handle.
Slowly...ever so slowly, and with a grating of stone upon stone that set his teeth edge to edge, bristled his nape hairs and raised gooseflesh on his arms and legs, the closest edge of the slab rose an inch or two, while the farther end sank an equal distance. When he had raised it still more and so wedged the spade that, hopefully, the weighty slab of stone could not slam back down on his hands, he worked his fingers down beneath the stone and crouched to put his back and his leg muscles behind the imminent effort.
But, when open it did, the massive slab came up so easily and so suddenly that Fitz almost lost his balance and pitched, face-foremost, down the flight of steep stone stairs that led down into earthy-smelling blackness.
“Now, what in God’s name...?”
Although apparently never mortared, the stonework that he could easily see was all so smoothly and finely finished and set that he doubted he could have inserted the blade of a penknife between any of them. Seventeenth century or not, surely this construction was not, could not be the work of American Indians.
Colonial, maybe? A root cellar? Or could it be some long-lost and always secret fabrication of that enigmatic, missing Englishman, Mister Dineen? Was this why he had so promptly chased those anthropological or archaeological types off his land? Well, only one way to find out what lay down there in the darkness, and that was to go look.
Upon his return from the house, Fitz had fortified himself with some two ounces of John Jameson and he came equipped with flashlight, the old, well-worn revolver from his tackle box—thinking that such a subterranean haunt would be perfect for snakes—a length of rope, a hatchet and a piece of lumber he had quickly and roughly pointed with the dull, rusted tool. When he had driven the stake into the ground with the back of the spade, he tied one end of the rope to it, looped the rope around the now-upright slab of stone tightly, then tied it off. It would not do to have the thing suddenly close, trapping him underground, possibly.
After clipping the angle-head flashlight to his belt, Fitz cautiously commenced his descent, bracing himself with a hand on each of the cold, slimy stone walls. He quickly became glad that he had thought to don his sure-grip, canvas-and-rubber tennis shoes, for the steps not only were damp and slippery as the walls, but the treads of them were far too shallow for even his size-nine feet, appearing to have been wrought for feet no larger than those of children...and small children, at that.
When the bright beam of light shining from his midriff showed a flat, wetly glistening wall just ahead, he at first thought that he had come to the bottom of the underground structure, but when he reached that point, he realized that he stood on a tiny landing, with the stairs continuing downward to his right.
Fitz now doubted even Colonial construction, for no hard-working Colonial farmer would have exerted the stupendous amount of labor that had gone into making so deep an excavation—all by hand, too, in those days—plus the quarrying of the stones, transporting them here from wherever, and building this...whatever it was or had been.
After yet another landing and right-angle turn that sent him in the opposite direction from that at which he had set out, above, Fitz at last reached bottom. Bottom, he quickly discovered, was but a bare, stonewalled, -floored, and -ceilinged chamber. It was rectangular, some six feet high throughout and eight or nine feet long, by perhaps four feet or less in width, with the stairs debouching at the end of one of the longer sides.
The chamber was fashioned of the same fine, smooth, unmortared stonework as the rest of the edifice and it lay completely empty of anything. Recalling how the entry slab, aboveground, had pivoted, Fitz inched along the walls of the chamber, exerting pressure here and there along the edges of the stones, to no slightest avail. Finally, he gave it up. After all, it was getting on toward dark, above-ground, and he still had to bury poor old Tom.
He had ascended but three of the steps, however, when some impulse impelled him to half turn and once more sweep the light over the length of the patently empty stone chamber. At least, that had been what he meant to do. But balanced with one too-large foot on each of two of the shallow, steep and slimy steps, he lost his precarious balance as he turned about and, his arms flailing, pitched face-first toward the hard, granite stones before him!
His body tensed against the pain that was sure to be imminently inflicted upon his flesh and bone, his eyes tight-shut to hopefully protect them, Fitz instead felt his body land jarringly enough, but on a flat, warm and relatively soft surface. Gasping, he opened his eyes to see, bare millimeters from his face, what looked like nothing so much as sand—sand that his nostrils told him strongly emitted the clean, salt tang of the sea.
“Oh, Christ!” He relaxed his arms and sank back down to lie supine, certain now that he was hallucinating as a result of a head injury and that his broken body actually still lay crumpled against the wall of that empty stone room at the foot of those treacherous stairs. He wondered if anyone would find him before he died of exposure or thirst or shock.
“Damn, my legs are cold,” he groaned to himself.
“Oh, my God, don’t tell me Tve broken my back? If I have, I hope I do die before anybody finds me!”
He would much prefer to die here, like this, alone, unseen and unheard, unshriven, even, than to be seriously injured, as little Kath had been in the terrible automobile accident that had claimed her mother’s life. For all that the medical people had at last admitted to him that the girl’s brain was irrevocably dead, still had they kept her mindless, wasted body there for long months, kept alive—if such could be dignified by that term—only by bottles and tubes and machines. And all the while, the horrendous costs of these doctors and bottles and tubes and machines had been taking away from Fitz every cent and possession he had acquired in thirty years. He thought as he lay there that a relatively quick, so-far painless death would be far preferable than to be subjected to such a perverse atrocity of medical science.
When the greedy doctors and the even greedier hospital had taken and absorbed the last of Fitz’s medical insurance and Janet’s life insurance, the house, the furniture and every valuable personal possession, the savings account in toto, the cash value of Fitz’s own life insurance policies and the last sums he could borrow from the company credit union, he had gone to visit Kath, late one night and very drunk. After sitting for he never knew just how long, listening and watching while the liquids dripped from the bottles into the tubes and the hellish machines rhythmically did their unnatural tasks of giving a semblance of life to a corpse, he had arisen, wedged the door shut and given his daughter the last gift he could give her—a quick and decent death, letting her long-tortured body join her brain.
Because his personal car had been almost new and an appropriately expensive model, sale of it had brought him just about enough money to pay the lawyer whose expertise had gotten him free of all the many charges that had been filed against him. He had been adjudged not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. But that same judgment had also cost him his job, his twenty-four years of long and faithful work for the firm notwithstanding. Not fired, of course; just retired on medical disability, complete with testimonial dinner, gold watch and pension.
However, with the credit union deducting a hefty chunk of the pension each month, it had been necessary for Fitz to find another job, not an easy task for a fifty-three-y ear-old sales executive, he quickly discovered, especially for one just publicly tried for the highly publicized murder of his own daughter.
Employment in his old line was completely out of the question. None of his former competitors—some of whom had been endeavoring to lure him into their operations for years—would now even consider him for any position and they were quite blunt about refusing. Even the mercenary, bloodsucking placement agencies had been most cool toward him, when once they had found out just who he was. At last, in his financial desperation, he had applied to and been accepted by a door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales outfit, but on a straight-commission basis, of course.
Once he had secured a job of sorts, he had borrowed enough at an exorbitant rate of interest from a small loan company to pay two months’ rent and a security deposit on the bungalow and to make a down payment on an aged coupe. He had now been selling vacuum cleaners for above two years. It was hard work and not a very dignified form of selling, but then Fitz had always been a superlative salesman, possessed of an intuitive ability to sense just the proper approaches and closes in a given situation, so he was earning a fair income. But a cripple would be unable to do the job, he knew, no matter how good a salesman, yet another good reason to wish for quick death now.
Something warm and wet plopped down upon his raised cheek. His exploring fingers encountered a thick, viscous substance and brought it to where his eyes could see it.
“Gaaagh!” Hastily, he drew his fouled fingers through the warm sand, then fumbled his bandanna from around his neck to clean his face of what looked like and distinctly smelled like fishy-stinking bird lime. He looked up when his ears registered an avian scream. There, wheeling in a blue and cloudless sky, was the probable source of the pale-greenish dung—a large white seagull. That bird and the stinking mess now clotting his old, faded bandanna were, if truly hallucinatory, the most thoroughly vivid hallucinations of which he had ever heard.
Deciding, finally, to get it over with, face facts and see if he could determine just how serious were his injuries, Fitz first examined his face and head, finding no single lump, bump, broken skin or even mild pain...except in his hands. Scrutiny of them revealed blisters on each palm, apparently broken by contact with the abrasive sand and now stinging with the salty sweat from his face.
But his feet and legs still felt cold. Without yet trying to roll over and thus possibly compound any spinal injury, he gingerly moved his legs and feet. They felt to be moving normally, with no dearth of sensation, though they still felt cold. So he rolled over very slowly and...
His legs and feet were gonel They ended cleanly at
mid-thigh, as if they had both been thrust through roundish holes in a sheet of plywood. Beyond, where his reeling senses told him that his legs and feet should be, lay only undisturbed sand and a bleached, almost-buried log.
Suddenly, his entire body was gone cold—cold and clammy and bathed in icy sweat, while his nape hairs prickled erect. His wide, incredulous gaze fixed upon that space, that preternaturally empty space, which should have contained the feet and legs of Alfred O’Brien Fitzgilbert II, he brought up his shaking right hand to solemnly sign himself, mumbling the while half-forgotten childhood prayers.
“Oh, Holy Mother of God,” he at last stuttered, “Wh...what’s hap...happened to m...me?”